The Bostonians is the longest of Henry James’s novels in an American setting, and in spite of his later dissatisfaction with its middle section or the high promise given to the unfinished The Ivory Tower (1917), it is his most important fictive statement on America. The name and setting of the novel are significant; two other American novels, Washington Square (1880) and The Europeans (1878), are set in New York City and Boston respectively, and though The Bostonians begins in Charles Street and ends in the Music Hall in Boston, its second half begins in New York, which James always claimed as his native city. James had difficulty selecting a title for the work, but when he had settled on The Bostonians, he knew it precisely suited the contents and his meaning.
The best commentary on the work is found in James’s preface to the New York edition. James had several times tried to clarify a passage he had written in his life of Nathaniel Hawthorne, on what he believed that America offered and lacked with respect to writers. The Bostonians was James’s attempt to write on a subject that was at once local and typical, a local manifestation of a national trait. James chose that distinguishing feature of American life, the American woman, whom he had earlier encapsulated in Isabel Archer and other heroines. The settings he chose were the Boston of the early 1870’s and postabolitionist New York,...
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