Michael Gorra and Peter Brooks: More About Henry James

From the Publisher:

“Henry James (1843–1916) has had many biographers, but Michael Gorra has taken an original approach to this great American progenitor of the modern novel, combining elements of biography, criticism, and travelogue in re-creating the dramatic backstory of James’s masterpiece, Portrait of a Lady (1881). Gorra, an eminent literary critic, shows how this novel — the scandalous story of the expatriate American heiress Isabel Archer — came to be written in the first place. Traveling to Florence, Rome, Paris, and England, Gorra sheds new light on James’s family, the European literary circles—George Eliot, Flaubert, Turgenev — in which James made his name, and the psychological forces that enabled him to create this most memorable of female protagonists….”

In a letter to H. G. Wells on July 10, 1915, Henry James wrote: “It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance… and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and heart of its process.” This statement in James’ letter, that was written about six months prior to his death, reflects the maturity of James’ thoughts on his life’s work in writing. Novelist and essayist Henry James was born in New York in 1843 and enjoyed the benefits of a wealthy family, an inquisitive father, and a highly intelligent brother, William, who would become a renowned philosopher and psychologist. James’ formative years were spent traveling in Europe before he settled on a career in literature; he produced scores of novels, novellas, short stories, plays, and essays during fifty years of writing. As a writer he was influenced by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Honoré de Balzac, and George Eliot and grew to be the master of literary realism. For most of his adult life, he lived in England where much of his work was esteemed; he returned to the United States in 1905 and began to revise many of his works for the New York edition of his collective oeuvre that was published between 1906 and 1910. In 1915, in support of Britain’s war effort, the ailing Henry James became a British citizen; he died early in the following year.

Gorra’s knowledge on James is encyclopedic; he is never boring… the result is a marvelous book that is a joy to read.

Interest in the life and work of Henry James has been sustained and revitalized during the last several years. While Fred Kaplan’s Henry James: The Imagination of Genius, A Biography (1999) and Sheldon M. Novick’s two-volume biography Henry James: Young Master and Henry James: The Mature Master (2007) constituted significant scholarly contributions to our understanding of this complex author, two novels — both published in 2005 — by Colm Tóibin (The Master) and David Lodge (Author, Author) expanded our comprehension of James as a writer and deepened our appreciation of his humanity, self, and art. New meaningful and innovative studies by Michael Gorra and Peter Brooks have continued to extend Jamesian scholarship.

Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece is both biography and literary criticism focused on James’ Portrait of a Lady. Before reading Gorra’s book, read James’s introduction to the 1906 edition of Portrait of a Lady; it replaced the 1881 original edition and the alterations that James made reflect his changed views and style. Throughout Gorra’s study, not only are we introduced to the “history” of the novel, its contents, and James’ life, but we also learn about late nineteenth century publishing, the serialization of novels, payment schedules, and the critical importance of sales and networking. It is evident that Gorra has had an extended sympathetic interest in Portrait of a Lady; James may be the “Master” but Gorra, like Leon Edel — the author of the five-volume Henry James — is a “master” of James. Gorra’s knowledge on James is encyclopedic; he is never boring, he is very comfortable formulating and advancing personal thoughts and speculations on James — the result is a marvelous book that is a joy to read.

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