Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece

  • Michael Gorra
  • Liveright
  • 416 pp.

An analysis of Henry James, master novelist of the 19th century, as reflected through his greatest work of fiction.

Henry James published three books in the 1880s with the word “portrait” in their titles: The Portrait of a Lady (1881), Portraits of Places (1883), and Partial Portraits (1888). Their genres and the subjects of their portraiture differ: a work of fiction portrays a young woman, her marriage, and the satellites around her and it; a book of travel writings portrays cities and sites in Italy, France, England, and the U.S.; and a collection of critical essays portrays the lives and works of distinguished contemporary literary figures. Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel limns the first of these, The Portrait of a Lady, James’ most lengthy, lucrative and popular novel, and one of the truly great works of fiction in the English language.

Setting out to examine James’ Portrait in multiple contexts, Gorra interweaves analyses of the novel itself with discussions of ancillary cultural, social, political, and biographical topics that bear upon the novel’s production, themes, and reception. The sections on Portrait, in my opinion the strongest, range between “explication de texte” or close reading, and “thick description” or critical summary. Smart and subtle, they offer a solid overall reading studded with brilliant aperçus. The sections on ancillary topics vary in quality. Those on cultural contexts — the American colony in Rome, commercial lending libraries and publishing practices — are informative; those on biographical relations — James’ parents and siblings, Constance Fenimore Woolston — engaging; but those on several related (or relatable) works by James — Hawthorne, The American Scene, even the crucial essay “The Art of Fiction” — are thin.

That measured précis, however, neglects the signal virtue of Gorra’s book: it is beautifully written. Gorra’s prose is limpid throughout, and often epigrammatic to fine effect (that is, epigrams that can appear precious on a first glance reveal shrewd insights on a second). Highly readable, Portrait of a Novel shuns the jargon, tendentiousness, and pretentiousness of much current academic literary criticism. It instructs and it delights. It warrants the praise that other reviewers have been heaping on it.

Still, though, something in this fine book nags me as unsatisfying — something we perhaps can identify without violating James’ own edict for criticism: grant an author’s “données,” or “givens,” and consider only the execution of them.

Glossing the title Portrait of a Novel, Gorra tells us, in the space of a paragraph, that he “will tell that novel’s story” and will tell not only what happens in the book but also “the story” of the book’s circumstances. Though his book is “not a biography as such, and offers the tale not of a life but a work,” it is twice identified later, specifically though obliquely, with biography. These slippages — portrait, biography, tale, story — would be quibbles under most circumstances, but Gorra’s generic choices and strategies are what set his book apart, and his playing loose with key terms may have affected both conception and execution, leading to meandering and to adjacencies of literary analysis and historical context that often promise more explanatory punch than they deliver.

Gorra’s choices of form and content preclude the linear advancement of a thesis. This poses no problem, since they do admit development of an overarching theme: the distinction between what people know about sexuality and sexual life, and what they can or will admit to knowing … to themselves or to others, in thought, speech, or writing. This theme animates Gorra’s analyses, whether of Isabel Archer, other characters, James, or the reader. Though repetitious, it provides shape and point to an interpretation of Portrait that otherwise, and despite Gorra’s experimentation with form, remains conventional, albeit, again, solid and insightful. Like other great books, Portrait invites wide and highly imaginative interpretation, and has enjoyed a large body of such interpretation. Reading with the grain of the novel, Gorra does not seek to add to that body of work, and he has not done so.

A conventionality in interpretation, however, may follow from Gorra’s third donnée. Acknowledging that “the literature on Henry James is enormous and ever-changing,” Gorra allows only to having “kept my references to a minimum.” Fair enough. Literary criticism, however, whether academic or not, is an ongoing conversation, and making passing reference to a handful of well-known biographers and critics — Edel, Kaplan, Matthiessen, Sedgwick, Todorov, and perhaps a half-dozen others — suffices neither to join that conversation, to benefit from it, nor to accord it respect. More engagement with the critical literature could have enriched Gorra’s readings by pushing them further.

In the end, though, Gorra has taken on, courageously, not only the greatest of American writers, Henry James, but also James’ most critically scrutinized novel. The resulting Portrait of a Novel boasts a refined surface, an elegant structure, and a cohesive theme. Written for the populous if elusive “educated general reader,” and not the professional James scholar, it will reward the efforts of that reader handsomely.


Charles Caramello is Associate Provost for Academic Affairs, Dean of the Graduate School, and Professor of English at the University of Maryland. His books include Henry James, Gertrude Stein, and the Biographical Act.

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