Michael Gorra and Peter Brooks: More About Henry James

Henry James Goes to Paris
BY Peter Brooks
(Princeton University Press, 2008)

From the Publisher:

“Henry James’s reputation as The Master is so familiar that it’s hard to imagine he was ever someone on whom some things really were lost. This is the story of the year — 1875 to 1876 — when the young novelist moved to Paris, drawn by his literary idols living at the center of the early modern movement in art. As Peter Brooks skillfully recounts, James largely failed to appreciate or even understand the new artistic developments teeming around him during his Paris sojourn. But living in England twenty years later, he would recall the aesthetic lessons of Paris, and his memories of the radical perspectives opened up by French novelists and painters would help transform James into the writer of his adventurous later fiction… ”

Gorra, who has published four other titles including The English Novel at Mid-Century: From the Leaning Tower, has organized his book into five parts: “A Preparation for Culture,” “The Marriage Plot,” “Italian Journeys,” “Sex and Serials,” “The Continent and The Critics,” and “Putting Out the Lights,” each with four to six chapters. The structure works well and the image of James that emerges is of an artist who continued to develop as a modernist writer — one who became increasingly complex and more confident during the last decades of his life; James’ view of sexuality that was stunted in his earlier works became more genuine in later works. Gorra provides valuable commentary not only on James but also on dynamic cultural milieu in which he lived and participated; James contributed to and was influenced by the values, vitality and creativity of the late Victorian and Edwardian literary environment which was similar to the modernist scene in Paris during the 1870s and 1880s.

Gorra and Brooks have succeeded in filling gaps and in opening new avenues for the study of Henry James — both are highly recommended.

While Henry James had visited Paris previously, he planned a prolonged stay thinking that Parisian culture may serve as a hospitable and stimulating environment for him, an American émigré who sought acceptance and recognition. James arrived on November 11, 1875, and remained in Paris until December 10, 1876 when he departed for London. In Henry James Goes to Paris, Peter Brooks argues that while James “missed” the significance of what he witnessed during this year in Paris, it influenced much of his later, more substantive, writing and ideas on art.

James’ first months in Paris were lonely while he labored on The American, though he met members of the American expatriate community. He also met one of his literary heroes, the Russian writer Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev, during his first month in Paris. In December 1875 he visited Gustave Flaubert; James was both disappointed and confused by Flaubert’s novels — thinking that Madame Bovary was his only notable book — but enjoyed Flaubert personally. James clearly did not understand or appreciate “impressionism” or “modernism” in any form during the 1870s. Yet, in his works that appeared after the mid-1890s, the influence of the Parisian experience was quite evident — James was ahead of Joyce, Pound, and many others as he experimented with modernism.

Brooks’ study is based on a mastery of primary materials including James’ oeuvre, his letters and those of his brother, William, and the numerous writers who he met during his year in Paris — Paul Bourget, Gustave Flaubert, Ivan Turgenev, Emile Zola and others. The book is organized into seven chapters that advance a convincing case to support his central thesis. This is both a psychological as well as literary study of the impact of this year in Paris on the cerebral Henry James whose memory and intellectual vitality were extraordinary and prodigious. His voracious reading and note taking were the fundamental habits of his life; they connected him with his Parisian experiences and contributed to his widening range of literary sophistication. The “Master” is better understood, but there is still much to uncover. Gorra and Brooks have succeeded in filling gaps and in opening new avenues for the study of Henry James — both are highly recommended.

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