"Review of George Monteiro's Reading Henry James: A Critical Perspective on Selected Works" by Mirosława Buchholtz
Miroslawa Buchholtz is Professor of English and American Literature and Head of the English Department at Nicolaus Copernicus University in Torun, Poland, where she teaches American and Canadian literature. She has published books and articles on both Henry James and Alice Munro, including Henry James and the Art of Auto/biography (Peter Lang, 2014) and Alice Munro: Reminiscence, Interpretation, Adaptation and Comparison (Peter Lang, 2015). She is a member of the Polish quality assurance agency (PKA) – since 2012. An elected Officer of the Henry James Society, in 2017 she will serve as the Society’s President. Email:
Reading Henry James: A Critical Perspective on Selected Works
Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland
Despite the modest title which promises a “reading,” rather than a ground-breaking new approach, George Monteiro’s new book offers interpretations enlightened by decades of careful literary study. Monteiro, whose field of research stretches over American as well as Portuguese and Lusophone literature, has published not only on Henry James, Emily Dickinson, Henry Adams, Stephen Crane, or Robert Frost, but also on Luís de Camões, and Fernando Pessoa. Although focused on Henry James, Monteiro’s reading of the “Master” reveals a wide scope of comparative interests and methodologies.
Its twenty-two short chapters take the space of a little over 150 pages, which means that some chapters are very short indeed. The discussed works are for the most part arranged chronologically, but the structure of the whole volume is paratactic rather than hypotactic. In other words, the subsequent chapters do not build an argument, but instead offer glimpses that may or may not add up to a larger claim, depending on the reader’s ability to connect similar ideas recurring in different chapters. It is a “readerly” book in the sense that it leaves much to the intellectual initiative of the reader. A short introduction outlines the reception of Henry James, which – despite the contribution of some outstanding writers, such as T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, or Marianne Moore at the outset, remained rather meager until the 1940s. The remaining decades until today are condensed in Monteiro’s introduction to one paragraph in which he mentions Greg Zacharias’s work on the complete letters, on one hand, and countless film adaptations, on the other.
The reception of Henry James since the mid-twentieth century is a massive project, which has already been carried out – at least in part – by such Jamesians as Annick Duperray1 and Michael Anesko2. Instead of enlarging on the story of reception, Monteiro wisely offers his own memory – a tale of a young scholar who in the mid-twentieth century discovered Henry James’s letters to John Hay (secretary to Abraham Lincoln, and then Secretary of State under William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt). Other James scholars did not know about their existence at that time, but the news speard quickly back then as well. Monteiro recalls that one day while he was working on the letters, a librarian brought to his desk an elegant gentleman: “He was short, dapper, sported a small mustache, and was about fifty”3. Delighted to be able to draw the attention of a more experienced scholar, Monteiro offered what he knew about the letters he had been studying. The older colleague – Leon Edel himself, as it turns out – lectured him on ethical principles for scholarly work. “To me, that afternoon, Professor Edel was courteous, seemingly affable, pleasantly inquisitorial” (7), but when a few years later Monteiro sought to publish his work, Edel was no longer affable. Thus Monteiro joined the long list of scholars whom Edel sought to silence, while constructing his own monopoly over James studies.
Monteiro looks at Edel’s monopolistic practice from a larger perspective of biographical and archival studies, with wry humor rather than anger. In Chapter 9 he shows the limits of Edel’s monopoly. Commenting on the exchange of letters between James and the Atlantic Monthly Editor – Horace E. Scudder which, took place in 1890 and 1891 and concerned the rejection of “The Pupil,” Monteiro demonstrates the letters from Scudder, which Edel had not known when drawing conclusions only from the letters sent by James. Monteiro can show a larger picture and Edel’s omnipotence is exposed as a mere illusion. The question of rejection of a story at a time when James was already an acknowledged author is indeed fascinationg. Scudder does not spell out the genuine reasons, but it is to be assumed that the story was indeed suspect as, on one hand, an unfavorable picture of parasitic Americans abroad, and, on the other, a story touching upon the issue of paedophilia4.
The reader of Monteiro’s book knows that the author is always close to the sources: both published and unpublished, fiction and non-fiction, notes and letters by and to James. The selection of James’s fiction addressed in Monteiro’s book is wide and varied. It includes The American, Guy Domville, The Beast in the Jungle, The Portrait of a Lady, The Wings of the Dove, What Maisie Knew, The Ambassadors, The Liar, The Turn of the Screw, and Washington Square. The questions posed are indeed crucial. One of the recurrent motifs in Monteiro’s book is the search for the origins of James’s tales and novels. James used the word “germ,” but Monteiro actually seeks something else: the literary (arte)facts that James knew, such as Gustave Flaubert’s, Frank R. Stockton’s, H.W. Longfellow’s, Mark Twain’s, or especially Nathaniel Hawthorne’s fiction (Chapters 6, 19). Thus some of the essays in Monteiro’s book are excellent examples of comparative work.
Monteiro’s attempt to trace James’s ties with poetry makes his book truly exceptional. For example, in Chapter 3 – while commenting on The Portrait of a Lady – Monteiro argues that James is “the novelist whose work most resembles Stevens’s poetry” (21). What sounds like anachronism (James in fact preceded Stevens) is after all true. Stevens did not particularly appreciate James, and yet the processes of reaching truth enacted in his poetry are comparable with those in James’s fiction. Monteiro reads both works and lives of the authors, which leads him to conclude that Stevens and James differed widely in their attitudes to the world, Stevens resembling the self-centered aesthete Gilbert Osmond (26). In Chapter 5, Monteiro makes a similar claim about the “Jamesian” quality of Robert Browning’s poetry, though it was in fact James who reworked the motif from Browning’s 1855 poem “A Light Woman” in two of his tales “A Light Man” (1869) and “The Lesson of the Master” (1888).
Monteiro’s interest in Portuguese studies comes to the surface in Chapter 10, in which he poses the question of why Henry James was not interested in the Iberian Peninsula, even though such American authors as Washington Irving or H.W. Longfellow had visited, admired, and written about Spain. He points out that ignoring Portugal was a tradition even in their day. An average reader would have never guessed, but a specialized scholar always finds in James’s rich oeuvre something relevant to his/her specific pursuits. And so Monteiro unearths James’s 1875 review of a guidebook to Portugal, which explains his lack of interest in Portugal. Monteiro does not stop there, however, and with superb philological skill goes on to study James’s puzzling use of the word “Portugee” instead of the more common “Portugese” in The Ambassadors (82). He focuses then on the tale entitled “The Liar” and the exchange of letters between James and a certain Mr. Capadose, which is the name of the eponymous liar. The tale does not disclose the true identity of the liar, but the letters do, he is a Sephardic Jew from Portugal (89). It may or may not be a coincidence that “The Liar” of all tales was the second Jamesian piece, following The Turn of the Screw, translated into Portuguese in 1943 i 19445.
A similar example of philological research is to be found in Chapter 11, in which Monteiro discusses the use of the word “marbles,” and in Chapter 18, in which he expounds the less obvious meanings of the name Daisy Miller. Despite his interest in words on the page, Monteiro is not really a follower of New Critics. His readings of words are informed not only by philological knowledge, but also by a deep awareness of history and culture. He also refers to James’s biography and to his many friendships as a source of ideas. For example, in Chapter 4, he points to William Dean Howells as a possible model for the figure of Lambert Strether. Howells was indeed worried about his son’s fascination with Paris and confided his concern to James, who knew many of such sons and put them up for a night or two in his house in Rye on their Grand Tours of Europe.
The search for sources of inspiration is a recurrent motif in Monteiro’s book. For example, Chapter 7 offers a discussion of the ways in which James mixed kindness with satire while depicting in his fiction his friends and acquaintances, such as Henry and Marian Adams, the models for protagonists of such stores as “The Point of View,” “Pandora,” or “The Modern Warning.” The Adamses return in Chapters 16 and 17 in both biographical and literary contexts stretched over decades. Chapter 14 addresses the incident of identity theft during James’s visit to the United States at the beginning of the 20th century. In the last but one chapter, Monteiro seeks the origin of Washington Square in the James family history.
The final chapter is in fact a review of Ross Posnock’s book Henry James and the Problem of Robert Browning (1985). Monteiro considers both strengths and weaknesses of Posnock’s study, offering both praise and criticism, which are just as relevant to his own book. Reading Henry James: A Critical Perspective on Selected Works is also a “canny book.” Its usefulness to students of James is undeniable, though Monteiro, like Posnock, “could have enhanced his case by taking into account other available evidence” (151).
The book’s strength derives from the author’s erudition acquired in the course of a long academic career. Monteiro knows the ins and outs of literary history, including the complex relationships between Henry James and his contemporaries. What distinguishes Monteiro’s approach to James is the recurrent reference to poetry. Reading Henry James is a personal book, abounding in surprises, dramatic turns, and occasional comic relief. It is both highly informative and simply pleasant to read. The picture Monteiro offers is colorful and intriguing, but apart from certain recurrent motifs, such as references to poetry, biography, and possible origins, it has many loose ends. For example, the question of James’s sexuality is addressed briefly in the final chapter, without a real commitment or much explanation. What Monteiro undeniably does in (or with) his book, however, is to throw wide open the door to Henry James studies, giving future scholars plenty of food for thought.
1 Annick Duperray, ed. The Reception of Henry James in Europe. London: Continuum, 2006 (second edition in 2014). ↩
2 Michael Anesko, Monopolizing the Master: Henry James and the Politics of Modern Literary Scholarship. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012. ↩
3 George Monteiro, Reading Henry James: A Critical Perspective on Selected Works, pp. 6-7. All subsequent quotations in parentheses. ↩
4 The problem was known to James’s contemporaries, but stories savoring of it were either marginalized or thickly veiled in Victorian melodrama and “American dream.” The former is the case of Walt Whitman’s early narratives (including some of his temperance tales), which thematize boy love. The latter is the case of Horatio Alger, who published “boy stories” throughout his life and whose problem James knew. ↩
5 George Monteiro contributed a chapter on the reception of Henry James in Portugal to the book edited by Annick Duperray, op. cit., 2014, pp.190-200. ↩