Riot Headline 10 Exciting Books to Read this Summer

I Have Feelings About Henry James

This content contains affiliate links. When you buy through these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Rachel Cordasco

Staff Writer

Rachel Cordasco has a Ph.D in literary studies and currently works as a developmental editor. When she's not at her day job or chasing three kids, she's writing reviews and translating Italian speculative fiction. She runs the website, and can be found on Facebook and Twitter.

In a little over a week, we’ll mark 99 years since Henry James died. And I’d like to say a few words.

Oh, Henry James, I have such complicated FEELINGS about you. I’m trying to remember which of your novels was my first…hmmm…I think it was The Portrait of a Lady. I must admit, I was impressed. This is the kind of long, encompassing novel that you could read while sitting in a comfy sofa chair and suddenly it’s three hours later and you’re really hungry and cramped and wow you still have 300 pages to go. But it was worth it.

I think I was 15 or 16 when I read that, and since I liked to read a bunch of novels by the same author in a row, I turned to The Golden Bowl. A little strange, a little less enjoyable, but still beautifully written and engrossing. A few years later came The American, Daisy Miller, and The Turn of the Screw, all of which I liked.

And when I say “liked,” I mean that I was glad I had read these novels, and appreciated James’s distinctively subtle and elegant style. But I didn’t love his novels like I love the novels of Edith Wharton, Thomas Mann, or Arthur C. Clarke. When I read James, I always had the nagging thought that I should be sitting with good posture in a really uncomfortable embroidered heirloom chair, stuffed into an ugly dress, and sipping tea.

henry_and_william_jamesAnd did I mention how cool I think his brother, William, was? Dude pioneered the discipline and study of psychology in the United States and wrote fascinating essays about science, art, religion, and superstition.

But I digress. I entered college, and from that point until the end of grad school, I was plunged into the Turn of the Screw pit, by which I mean I couldn’t take or teach a course on American literature that didn’t in some way discuss that slim, horrifying novella. That, and The Yellow Wallpaper. Both astonishing texts, but they need a break.

And yet, I somehow never tired of Turn of the Screw, and enjoyed teasing out all the hints and winks that James buried in it.

And then I read The Ambassadors.

I shudder, I grow pale, I feel my stomach twist in knots of dread and horror. I despised that book with every inch of my being while reading it and immediately after. Now, it’s just a dull anger.

Why did I feel so strongly about this unutterably obnoxious novel? Well, part of the problem was my own refusal to DNF ANYTHING. I forced myself to read almost every single book that I started, back in those days, because apparently I was a book-masochist. When I realized, about a quarter of the way through, that I was really hating this example of “late Henry James,” I decided to keep at it, and finish the story despite everything. I’d show that Henry.

Why did I hate it? James plunged me so deeply into the minds of his characters that I realized I was following their convoluted thought-patterns and neuroses as though they were in my own head. James raised this kind of intense omniscient focalization to a whole new level. I couldn’t take it. These characters just sat around ruminating and ruminating and thinking and contradicting themselves and second-guessing their every thought and move that it DROVE. ME. CRAY. ZEE.

Don’t get me wrong- I appreciated the virtuosity of James’s writing, and the evolution of his technique. But this kind of overly-intense examination of not-very-likeable characters turned me off.

I read The Ambassadors on my own during a college break, which means it was over a decade ago. Maybe if I read it again, I’ll feel differently. Maybe. After all, I have re-read novels I’ve hated years later and suddenly loved them.

So if The Ambassadors is one of your favorite novels, you have two choices: you can either take to the comments and rip my reading taste a new one, or you can convince me to give the book a second chance.

Thank you. *bows, leaves podium*


Follow us on Twitter for more bookish goodness!

twitter footer