Henry James Goes to Paris

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Henry James (1843-1916) is often described as the father of the modernist novel, paving the way for such early twentieth century writers as James Joyce, Marcel Proust, and Virginia Woolf. Though James began publishing novels and short stories in the 1870’s, it was not until the 1890’s that he began breaking away from the tenets of the realism that dominated American fiction in the second half of the nineteenth century and formulated a more distinctive style. James’s later method offers a more internalized, psychological, and impressionistic look at the lives of his characters. In Henry James Goes to Paris, a combination of biography, literary history, and criticism, Peter Brooks argues that James’s mature style owes an indelible debt to such French writers as Gustave Flaubert, whom James liked more as a man than as a writer, and to the French Impressionist painters. James was not initially receptive to these influences but slowly absorbed techniques of perspective and representation that he applied to such novels as The Golden Bowl (1904).

At thirty-two, with his first novel, Roderick Random (1875), just published, James decided to polish his burgeoning talent by living in Paris and make what Brooks terms a “radical break” with his family and native country. Doing so was not that easy, with the young writer receiving a series of nagging letters from his mother about how wasteful he was being. James sent all his earnings back home to Cambridge, Massachusetts, not only to repay his father’s investment but also to establish his independence. Henry James Goes to Paris is a portrait of the evolution of a great writer and the development of a personality as well, as James progressed from a slightly naïve loner who writes to a man at ease in society and acclaimed as the Master. This journey, as Brooks painstakingly recounts, was not smooth. Brooks’s analysis is built around the irony of the young James rejecting works by Flaubert, Claude Monet, and others that contributed to the development of modernism only to become the embodiment of modernism himself. “James’s year in Paris,” Brooks writes, “seems to be all about missing things on the spotbut somehow storing them away for later retrieval and reinterpretation”a concise statement of the purpose of Henry James Goes to Paris.

In examining how James’s use of point of view changed during his career, the key words in Brooks’s study are “perspective” and “representation,” which he defines as “the use of signs, written or pictorial, that stand for and give a picture of the world.” In 1875, James was committed to the detailed representation of society practiced by Honoré de Balzac, his friend Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev, who endlessly discussed novelistic theory with the young writer and introduced him to Flaubert, and George Eliot, seen by James as the greatest novelist of the time and an example the French were foolish not to emulate. James considered these writers more concerned with humanity than were Flaubert and his circle. He was also perplexed by their cultural insularity, particularly their refusal to read the English novelists.

James expected his time in Paris to be nurturing to him as a young writer but found the French surprisingly lacking in what he needed. He complained to his friend and editor William Dean Howells that Turgenev “is worth the whole heap of them, and yet he himself swallows them down in a manner that excites my extreme wonder.” By 1884, James had modified this view, telling Howells of his respect for the French: “In spite of their ferocious pessimism and their handling of unclean things, they are at least serious and honest.” Through Flaubert, James met Guy de Maupassant and Émile Zola and exchanged visits with them over the years, yet Brooks finds no evidence that these French writers ever read James’s fiction.

Such a snub did not deter James from writing about the French. The collection French Poets and Novelists (1878) was followed by many more essays over the years as he came to recognize a maturity missing from many English and most American writers. Typical is “The Lesson of Balzac,” from 1905, in which James pits his favorite against Flaubert and finds in favor of Balzac, despite acknowledging his frequent artistic lapses. James saw Flaubert as dealing only with the surface of...

(The entire section is 1799 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

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