The following entry presents criticism of James's novella Daisy Miller (1879). See also Daisy Miller Short Story Criticism.
Considered among his finest works of fiction, Daisy Miller was James's earliest "international novel" to achieve popular and critical success. Lacking much of the narrative complexity for which James would later become known, the story recounts the exploits of a young American girl in Europe and dramatizes the theme of innocence beset upon by modern society. Likewise, the novella traces many significant themes that James explored in his other early works, including the contrast between American and European culture and the constraints that society places on individual freedom.
Plot and Major Characters
The plot of Daisy Miller centers on two individuals, Daisy Miller, a pretty and headstrong young woman from Schenectady, New York, and Frederick Winterbourne, a young American expatriate residing in Europe. Winterbourne first encounters Daisy in the Swiss resort town of Vevey, where she is vacationing with her ineffectual mother and sickly nine-year-old brother Randolph. Charmed by Daisy, Winterbourne—who is prone to circumspection rather than action—categorizes her as a "pretty American flirt," and when he returns to Geneva looks to his aunt, Mrs. Costello, for advice in dealing with the situation. After a brief excursion with Daisy to the Castle of Chillon back in Vevey, Winterbourne again returns to Geneva, and while there receives some letters from his aunt, now in Rome where she has recently made the acquaintance of Daisy. In her letters, Mrs. Costello hints at some impropriety on Daisy's part, claiming that she has become "very intimate with some third-rate Italians." In reality Daisy's Italian acquaintance is Eugenio Giovanelli, who suffers more from poor judgement than low character. Winterbourne, nonetheless, travels to Rome to meet his aunt and to visit Daisy, who has been seen more and more with Giovanelli. About her behavior Daisy is confronted by Mrs. Walker, another American socialite residing in Europe like Winterbourne's aunt. Daisy refuses to listen to the older woman and agrees to go with Giovanelli to the Colosseum at night—an unseemly act in the eyes of Walker, Costello, and Winterbourne. In addition, all fear that Daisy might contract malaria from being out in the city at night. When Winterbourne goes to retrieve Daisy, he finds her and Giovanelli at the Colosseum, where Daisy—angered by the assumptions made about her character and by Winterbourne's easy acceptance of the gossip—defiantly claims that she does not care if she falls ill. Shortly afterward Daisy shows signs of exposure to the disease and soon dies. Later Winterbourne goes to Daisy's grave in the Protestant cemetery in Rome where he meets Giovanelli, who proclaims Daisy's innocence.
According to most critics Daisy Miller is a work primarily concerned with the nuances of character and the effects that social values and manners have on individual actions. James himself declared the novella to be about innocence, specifically Daisy's innocence in conflict with the sophistication of the modern world. Yet critics have observed that he portrays her character with a tone of irony that highlights her willful and reckless behavior. These ambiguities of character were also commented on by James, who claimed to have produced a poetic, rather than a strictly critical, portrait of Daisy. General consensus has since aligned Daisy with the natural world, and made her a personification of spontaneity and freedom. Contrasted with this is the character of Winterbourne. Overly deliberate and superficial, he has come to represent the stultifying and deceptive qualities of Victorian society. And, while Winterbourne appears to be forthright and honorable, James reveals that he is having an affair with "a very clever foreign lady"—a gender-related hypocrisy that forms another theme in Daisy Miller. Commentators also have speculated as to who is the real protagonist of the novella. Many have argued that Daisy is merely the object of other people's perceptions and that the work is really about Winterbourne. As a result, much of the recent criticism on Daisy Miller has focused on Winterbourne's self-deceptive enslavement to Puritanical standards of behavior, his misogyny, and his complicity in destroying Daisy.
While James initially had great difficulty finding a publisher for Daisy Miller, when the novella made its appearance in The Cornhill Magazine in 1879, it created a huge uproar among the American reading public. William Dean Howells observed that the country was split between "Daisy Millerites and anti-Daisy Millerites." The latter were scandalized by Daisy's behavior, which was thought to flout Victorian standards of womanly conduct. Nevertheless, the ensuing publicity brought James to the forefront of the American literary scene. And, while contemporary critical appraisals of the work were generally positive, twentieth-century critics have since elevated it to the status of a minor masterpiece. Such praise has focused on James's incisive portrayal of character and his compelling investigation of the cultural differences between the Old and New Worlds, a theme that he was to more fully dramatize later in The Portrait of A Lady.
SOURCE: A preface to Daisy Miller, Pandora, The Patagonia and Other Tales, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1909, pp. v-viii.
[In the following excerpt, James discusses the inspiration for his novella Daisy Miller, and the difference between his original, real-life observations of character and the final product of his art.]
It was in Rome during the autumn of 1877; a friend then living there but settled now in a South less weighted with appeals and memories happened to mention—which she might perfectly not have done—some simple and uninformed American lady of the previous winter, whose young daughter, a child of nature and of freedom, accompanying her from hotel to hotel, had "picked up" by the wayside, with the best conscience in the world, a good-looking Roman, of vague identity, astonished at his luck, yet (so far as might be, by the pair) all innocently, all serenely exhibited and introduced: this at least till the occurrence of some small social check, some interrupting incident, of no great gravity or dignity, and which I forget. I had never heard, save on this showing, of the amiable but not otherwise eminent ladies, who weren't in fact named, I think, and whose case had merely served to point a familiar moral; and it must have been just their want of salience that left a margin for the small pencil-mark inveterately signifying, in such connexions, "Dramatise, dramatise!" The result of my...
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SOURCE: "The 'Shy Incongruous Charm' of 'Daisy Miller'," in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 10, No. 2, September, 1955, pp. 162-65.
[McElderry was an American educator and critic whose studies focus predominantly on the works of such American realists as Mark Twain, Henry James, and Thomas Wolfe. In the following essay, McElderry reveals James' intention of portraying Daisy as innocent by quoting a letter he wrote on the subject soon after the publication of his novella]
The best-known comment by Henry James on his story Daisy Miller is found in two long paragraphs at the beginning of his "Preface" to volume XVIII of the New York Edition. Written nearly thirty years after the original publication, the account is not very illuminating. James tells the anecdote on which he based him story, and explains that it was published in Cornhill after being rejected by a Philadelphia magazine. "Flatness indeed," he continues, "one must have felt, was the very sum of her story.… Yet from it, "a sufficiently brooding tenderness might eventually extract a shy incongruous charm." Years later a lady reproached him for wasting his talents in falsifying the heroine. To this he replied that "my supposedly typical little figure was of course pure poetry, and had never been anything else.…"
There is, however, a little-known letter written not long after Daisy Miller was published,...
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SOURCE: "The Reception of Daisy Miller," in The Boston Public Library Quarterly, Vol. X, January, 1958, pp. 55-9.
[Volpe is an American author and educator. In the following essay, he refutes the tradition that Daisy Miller was poorly received by critics, citing instead the social uproar it created and its effect of perturbing readers, rather than critics, nationwide.]
At the time of its publication Henry James's Daisy Miller, according to literary tradition, was not well received by the American critics. The author is supposed to have been reviled by his countrymen for his unflattering portrait of the American girl. Modern scholars have wondered why there should have been such a reaction to what is really a sympathetic portrayal of Daisy, but no one, in print at least, has questioned the validity of the tradition. Richard Foley, in his study of the reception given to James's works in American periodicals, noted that though "the magazines reported … Daisy Miller had been objected to on the grounds that it maligned the American young lady, it was well received by those [magazines] examined." The discrepancy between the reports by the magazine writers and their own favorable comments has been generally ignored, probably because several months after the appearance of Daisy Miller a brief discussion of its reception (attributed to William Dean Howells) in the...
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SOURCE: "Daisy Miller: An Abortive Quest for Innocence," in South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 59, Winter, 1960, pp. 114-20.
[In the following essay, Gargano contends that Daisy Miller, considered as Winterbourne's and not Daisy's story, is "essentially the study of a young man's quest for innocence, a virtue for which his society has alienated itself ']
When John Foster Kirk rejected Daisy Miller as "an outrage on American girlhood," he unhappily misled critics of Henry James's novel into an obsessive preoccupation with its heroine. In his preface to the New York edition, James himself, perhaps still smarting from his rebuff, waives consideration of other aspects of the novel in his excessive concern with justifying his portrait of the maligned Daisy. Howells, too, because of the nature of his subject in Heroines of Fiction, focuses discussion of the novel on the appealing heroine.
Critical preoccupation with Daisy has fostered the view that the theme of the novel is the peril of a good but naive American girl in a stiffly conventional society. This simplification ignores the fact that Frederick Winterbourne, as the central intelligence, represents the consciousness upon which the events and characters of the novel have the greatest impact. Since he is always on the scene, observing, discriminating, and seeking to unravel the mystery of the enigmatic Daisy, the drama...
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SOURCE: "Daisy Miller: A Study of Changing Intentions," in American Literature, Vol. XXXVI, No. 1, March, 1964, pp. 1-11.
[Ohmann was an American author and educator. In the following essay, she argues that James' attitude toward Daisy shifts over the course of the novella, beginning as a comedy of manners critical of Daisy and ending as a poetical treatment of her innocence.]
Henry James's most popular nouvelle seems to have owed its initial prominence as much to the controversy it provoked as to the artistry it displayed. Daisy Miller caused a bitter dispute in the customarily urbane dining room of Mrs. Lynn Linton; it gave American writers of etiquette a satisfying opportunity to chastise native mothers and daughters (Daisy should have had a chaperone; dear reader, take heed); it brought Henry James himself, while he sat in the confines of a Venetian gondola, a round scolding from a highly articulate woman of the cosmopolitan world. The causes of argument, of course, were the character of James's heroine and the judgment her creator made of her. In late Victorian eyes, Daisy was likely to be either wholly innocent or guilty; James, either all for her or against her.
Today, Daisy's notoriety attends her only in her fictional world. We take her now as one of our familiars; we invoke her, in the assurance that she will come and be recognized, as an American figure both...
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SOURCE: "The Genteel Reader and Daisy Miller," in American Quarterly, Vol. XVII, No. 3, Fall, 1965, pp. 568-81.
[In the following essay, Randall maintains that Daisy Miller satirizes the mores and manners of late nineteenth-century American society.]
In an age in which one president is criticized for having a Boston-Harvard accent and another has it held against him that his speech is that of the Pedernales Valley, the concern with manners is far from dead. Manners may be an expression of nationality, or section, as well as morals; and many are content to judge the person by them alone. In a stable society such as once might have been presumed to exist, this may have been possible. But society has not been stable in America or Europe for quite some time. Whenever two people meet, there is apt to be a comedy of misunderstanding, and when people from different cultures meet, the chances are considerably multiplied. Below manners lies personality, which must be reached somehow; we ignore it at peril to our civilization. But the chances for misinterpretation are great, and the result is not always comic. So it might be instructive to look at a classic literary example of misjudging character through manners: the blunders of the ill-starred Winterbourne in trying to understand the elusive Daisy Miller.
In all fairness to Frederick Winterbourne, we must admit that the difficulty...
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SOURCE: "Daisy Miller, Tradition, and the European Heroine," in Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. VI, No. 1, March, 1969, pp. 45-59.
[Deakin is an American author and educator. In the following essay, he places Daisy Miller within the tradition of European literary heroines found in the works of Turgenev, Cherbuliez, George Sand, and Mme de Sta&7, and argues that, in these contexts, Daisy is symbolic of the ideal of dom.]
When William Dean Howells selected Daisy Miller as the one Jamesian character to emphasize in his Heroines of Fiction, he did her two great services. First, he, as the dean of American critics, certified her important position in both the Jamesian canon and in the literary world at large. Second, he affirmed by both precept and example that she would be understood best not as an isolated phenomenon but as a part of a literary tradition. The reasons for Daisy's significance have been examined often enough; one need only add that since Howells stated his preference, other Jamesian heroines—Isabel Archer most forcefully, and, not far behind her, Milly Theale and Maggie Verver—have challenged his prescriptive choice. In contrast, Daisy's relevance as a phenomenon within some particular literary tradition does need to be studied. We do not know enough about what influences conditioned her conception.
If we follow Howells' precedent, then we find that this...
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SOURCE: "Death of a Hero? Winterbourne & Daisy Miller," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 6, Fall, 1969, pp. 601-8.
[Draper is an English author and educator. In the following essay, he studies the character of Winterbourne, and demonstrates the ways in which he is the central figure in Daisy Miller.]
"She goes on from day to day, from hour to hour," says Mrs. Costello of the heroine of Daisy Miller, "as they did in the Golden Age. I can imagine nothing more vulgar." This unconscious echo (unconscious, that is, as far as Mrs. Costello is concerned) of As You Like It lends a comic absurdity to her notion of vulgarity. It is perhaps true that to lead the free, untrammelled life of the Forest of Arden in the formally moral, but, in reality, cynical atmosphere of Rome is a kind of sentimental indulgence possible only to the unsophisticated, "vulgar" mind. In such a context, however, the word has a boomerang effect. It damns the sophistication of those who gloss over the nastiness of their "fallen" world with the manners and taste of cultured society, making the ignorance and simplicity of the "vulgar" almost a positive value. This is a pastoral effect that makes the association with As You Like It an appropriate one, and it would be possible to argue that "a pastoral" would be a better qualification of the title than "a study." It would certainly have the merit of directing the...
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SOURCE: An introduction to Daisy Miller: A Study, The Heritage Press, 1969, pp. v-xvi.
[Holloway is an English author and educator. In the following essay, he discusses the evolution of theme in Daisy Miller, claiming that the novella dramatizes "the fate of innocence in a devious and sophisticated world," but agrees with James in the assessment that the story is more a poetic than a critical study of Daisy's character.]
It is nearly a century since Daisy Miller was published by Leslie Stephen in The Cornhill Magazine of 1878, and today it is strange to seek out, on the reserve shelves of some big library, the dusty Cornhill volumes for those years, and to find, on their yellowing pages and among their heavy black Victorian illustrations, James's spirited and incisive allegro. But his nouvelle caught the spirit of that time: its preoccupations were not James's alone. If Daisy Miller depicts a contrast between American and European manners, the Cornhill, not long before, had run an article precisely about the greater freedoms of youth in the New World. Its account of the 'bright, cheery, hearty, simple ways of the young people … straying on the sands of Newport' makes one think of James's 'An International Episode,' almost a companion piece to Daisy Miller; and the titles of other contemporary Cornhill pieces—The Tyranny...
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SOURCE: "Attitude and Illness in James' 'Daisy Miller'," in Literature and Psychology, Vol. XIX, No. 1,1969, pp. 51-60.
[In the following essay, Houghton examines the theme of illness as a manifestation of cultural difference in Daisy Miller.]
Oscar Cargill's definition of James' "international novel" [in his introduction to James' Washington Square and Daisy Miller, 1965] indicates how close James came in so many of his novels to presenting the psycho-physical experience we now refer to as culture shock. "If Turgenev had originated 'the international novel,' James was to perfect and more sharply define it. An 'international novel' is not simply a story of people living abroad, as in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, but it is a story of persons taken out of the familiar contexts of their own mores where their action is habitual and placed in an element, as in a biological experiment, where everything is unfamiliar, so that their individual responses can be examined." Cargill, of course, is using the term "biological experiment" metaphorically, but in fact the experience of encountering a foreign culture where "everything is unfamiliar" often does have "biological" implications which go far beyond the physiological consequences of a mere change of climate, food, and drinking water. In James' Daisy Miller the experience of Europe affects adversely the health of a...
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SOURCE: "Reconsideration," in The New Republic, Vol. 167, No. 24 & 25, December 23 & 30, 1972, pp. 31-3.
[In the following essay, Wood records her impressions of Daisy Miller, noting that Daisy, as an example of the typical American girl, is ultimately 'public property"—little more than an object to be acted upon.]
And there she was, Daisy Miller, the American Girl, pretty, vulgar, vulnerable, formally presented to the public in 1878 by the young Henry James. She charmed, angered, and amused Anglo-American readers in her own day, provided her author with his only commercial success, and lingers potently today with still provocative claims on the American imagination. I know that her story has long held a tenacious and personal if somewhat elusive fascination for me. I read it over a decade ago on my first trip to Europe, in the midst of my own complicated discovery that I too was the American Girl; I passed it on later as prescribed reading to a young man I knew—a not very subtle reminder of the privileges and perils of involvement with such a creature; I have taught it half a dozen times with undiminished interest. Yet I was never much like Daisy Miller. I wouldn't have liked to think of myself as being "pretty"; I have never dressed fashionably or even well; and I have always fancied myself as some sort of an intellectual. Why do I care about flat little Daisy in her fine...
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SOURCE: "Frederick Winterbourne: The Good Bad Boy in Daisy Miller," in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 29, No. 2, Summer, 1973, pp. 139-50.
[In the following essay, Kennedy characterizes Winterbourne as a "Puritan romantic" whose repression and hypocrisy lead to sexual predation.]
As James Gargano pointed out in his excellent article, "Daisy Miller: An Abortive Quest for Innocence," critical attention has concentrated obsessively on the heroine of James's most popular nouvelle and has consequently ignored the fact that its central character is, in fact, Frederick Winterbourne. From the time of John Foster Kirk's denunciation of Daisy Miller as "an outrage on American girlhood" the debate over the character of Daisy has rolled on inconclusively, but as soon as one recognizes that the only character in the story whom we see from the inside is Winterbourne, and that it is through him that we receive most of the evidence upon which any judgment of Daisy must be based, it becomes obvious that what one thinks of Daisy is to a large extent dependent on and in any case secondary to what one thinks of Winterbourne.
Gargano regards Daisy as a ficelle who "exists to test Winterbourne's ability to grow beyond his hitherto narrow and one-sided state into a fully realized human being," and the story as the drama of his attempt and ultimate failure to overcome the conditioning of...
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SOURCE: "Jamesian Feminism: Women in 'Daisy Miller'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 16, No. 4, Fall, 1979, pp. 281-87.
[In the following essay, Barnett compares the limitations society places on women with Winterbourne's self-imposed social and personal restrictions.]
Although Henry James satirizes the idea of a women's movement in The Bostonians, his constant exploration of the tension between individual self-realization and social restriction often focuses upon the way in which society particularly shapes the behavior of women. A number of James's heroines must give up some degree of personal fulfilment and freedom because of social realities. The fine spirit of Isabel Archer is "ground in the very mill of the conventional," just as Marie de Vionnet, another valued heroine, must be sacrificed to Chad Newsome's social obligations of marriage and career. Kate Croy and Charlotte Stant struggle against the limitations placed upon them by their social position as women without means. Resignedly or ruefully, all of these women accept the terms of society, try to achieve self-realization within its confines, and remain within the system after their defeat. Only in Daisy Miller does James portray a woman whose innocent devotion to her own natural behavior causes her to flout society wilfully and persistently. The contrast between what Daisy wants and what other women in the novella have, and between...
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SOURCE: "Daisy Miller, Backward into the Past," in Henry James Review, Vol. 1, No. 2, Winter, 1980, pp. 164-78.
[Hocks is an American author and educator who has written extensively on Henry James. In the following essay, he examines Daisy Miller from the perspective of one hundred years of criticism. Highlighting developments in critical perspective and revisions in James's thoughts on the novel, he explores the characters of Daisy and Winterbourne and the thematic issues that they raise.]
Here you have the work of a great psychologist, who has the imagination of a poet, the wit of a keen humorist, the conscience of an impeccable moralist, the temperament of a philosopher, and the wisdom of a rarely experienced witness of the world.
—W. D. Howells on Henry James
1. THE PRESENT
Although there is a lingering untrue truism that, with the publication in 1878 of Daisy Miler, James "invented the international novel," what is both enduring and true is that, with the character of Daisy Miller herself, James auspiciously identified as his special imaginative territory the plight of the international American girl. Well after he had transmuted her into Isabel Archer of The Portrait of a Lady and, much later, into Milly Theale of The Wings of the Dove—by which time he was...
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SOURCE: "'Daisy Miller': A Reader's Choice," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 17, No. 3, Summer, 1980, pp. 275-83.
[In the following essay, Kirk argues that James's narrative strategy in Daisy Miller is designed to promote alternate and even contradictory interpretations of characters and themes in the novel.]
Any overview of the past century's critical responses to Daisy Miller reveals a radical shift in readers' sympathies with its characters. The genteel American audience of James's day was outraged and insulted by Daisy's liberated behavior, but modern sensibilities identify Winterbourne as the principal offender against human decency. They accuse him of being everything from an emotional cripple to an unfeeling criminal, and now count Daisy as his almost innocent victim.
This change of allegiance can be explained, of course, by a shift in cultural attitudes towards women and manners in general, and by the increased perceptiveness of modern interpreters. But the present critical consensus should by no means be considered the final assessment of the characters' relative worth. In Daisy Miller James has designed a story that will continue to challenge readers' interpretive skills and cause their attitudes toward Daisy and Winterbourne to vacillate for a considerable time to come.
The author has constructed this study to promote his audience's...
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SOURCE: "Daisy Miller and the Metaphysician," in American Literary Realism 1870-1910, Vol. XIII, No. 2, Autumn, 1980, pp. 270-79.
[In the following essay, Wilson and Westbrook investigate the metaphysical aspects of Daisy Miller, as well as its resemblance to certain mythological stories.]
According to Henry James, "Experience is never limited, and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider-web of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness, and catching every air-borne particle in its tissue." James's fiction, consistently faithful to this thesis, seems to contain always one more nuance, one more complexity.
Critics writing on Daisy Miller, however, accept the judgments of characters who, by the Jamesian definition of experience, are not qualified to judge. Mrs. Costello has no desire to explore complications but the critical consensus accepts her simplistic analysis of Winterbourne: his problem is that he has been living "too long out of the country." Winterbourne seeks a formula to live by, but the consensus accepts his belated discovery of Daisy's innocence as if it were a tardy but meaningful revelation. Actually, Winterbourne has allowed himself only two possible views of Daisy, good or bad, which does not suggest that he has learned to make discriminations in the "immense sensibility" of human...
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SOURCE: "Winterbourne and the Doom of Manhood in Daisy Miller," in New Essays on Daisy Miller and the Turn of the Screw, edited by Vivian R. Pollak, Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 65-90.
[In the following essay, Weisbuch examines Winterbourne as a literary type—the bachelor—whose misogyny, obsessiveness, and self-absorption are his defining characteristics.]
Henry James is like the modern jazz masters in this: He begins with the simplest romantic themes, then builds intricacies upon them until the once-cliches speak to all the subtle richness of social existence. With Daisy Miller and her reluctant suitor Frederick Winterbourne, the theme is no more than "opposites attract," and the trick is that one pole of that opposition is so constructed as to make the attraction deadly. "Stiff" Winterbourne brings doom to Daisy and a different doom to himself; through him, James tallies the evils of a misconstructed masculinity.
It's a multifaceted opposition between the failed lovers, but at base simple as motion through the world. Daisy Miller moves. She "goes on," "goes round," "goes too far," well over a hundred times in the text. "She goes on," a particular persecutor remarks, "from day to day, from hour to hour, as they did in the Golden Age." No enthusiast of the dynamic, Mrs. Costello "can imagine nothing more vulgar." Too blithely...
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Ricks, Beatrice. Henry James: A Bibliography of Secondary Works. Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 461 p.
Contains a bibliography of criticism and early reviews of Daisy Miller.
Cargill, Oscar. An Introduction to Washington Square and Daisy Miller, by Henry James, pp. vii-xxv. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1956.
Outlines sources for Daisy Miller and compares the work to James's novel Washington Square.
Coffin, Tristram P. "Notes and Queries." Western Folklore XVII, No. 4 (October 1958): 273-75.
Claims that in her "independence of thought and action," "laudable innocence," and "straightforward distrust of subtlety" Daisy Miller is similar to the heroes of western cowboy novels.
"Daisy Miller; and The Laughing Mill." The Saturday Review (London) 47, No. 1,227 (3 May 1879): 561-62.
Generally positive review of Daisy Miller that nevertheless finds the story's conclusion dissatisfying.
Dunbar, Viola R. "The Revision of Daisy Miller." Modern Language Notes LXV, No. 5 (May 1950): 311-17.
Surveys revisions James made for the 1909 New York Edition of Daisy Miller.
Dupee, F. W. "The Tree of Knowledge." In Henry...
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