William H. PritchardNovember 11, 2012 - 9:42am0 comments
Portrait of a Novel
Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece
Norton, $29.95, 385 pp.
Anyone asked where to begin reading Henry James is likely to suggest, as I did recently, The Portrait of a Lady. Though he preceded it with two splendid short novels—The Europeans and Washington Square—it was with the six-hundred-page Portrait that James fully arrived and, as Michael Gorra puts it in his fine new study of this “American masterpiece,” became truly Jamesian. In 2004 Gorra, a professor of English at Smith College, gave us The Bells in Their Silence, his meditative consideration of a year spent in Europe; part travel book, part philosophic disquisition, part fiction, it didn’t easily fit literary categories. Now he has decided to treat James’s novel in a similar manner, approaching it with a leisurely, highly personal treatment that views Portrait and its author through varied perspectives. Taken together, they pay tribute to a novel large enough to deserve and sustain such a many-sided approach.
Gorra’s nicely proportioned book contains twenty-four chapters divided into five sections, each prefaced by a photograph or print appropriate to the subject considered. Assessing the early parts of James’s novel, which introduce the young American protagonist, Isabel Archer, along with many of the characters involved in her fate, Gorra mentions that some readers have lamented its slow pace; yet, he also notes, the chapters “allow us to learn our way around James...