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Review: You Say You Want a Revolution

Michael Gorra, Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece (New York: Liveright, 2012). 385 pages.

When I was a junior in high school, my English teacher ruined my life. All I wanted was to be a novelist, but Mr. O’Connell didn’t think I had much feel for literature. So he sent me home one day with two books of criticism. I even remember what they were — Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination and R. P. Blackmur’s Form and Value in Modern Poetry, both of them in those distinctive Anchor editions that were the same size as cheap paperbacks but looked really serious. In those days, I was a dutiful student. I read the two books, and I was hooked. Like on drugs, I mean. Never again could I read a novel without scouring the criticism on it. I’d even prepare myself for a novel by reading the criticism on it first. When Mr. O’Connell asked for contributions to the school literary magazine at the end of the year, I turned over a review of Portnoy’s Complaint.

Michael Gorra has had an equally shameful codependency with criticism, I suspect. A Smith College professor whose literary scholarship has been on post-World War II and postcolonial British novelists, Gorra is better known as one of the most uncompromising and enjoyable reviewers now working. He won the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian award in 2001. (He is also a celebrated travel writer.) Gorra’s fourth book might have been called Experiment in Narrative Criticism. An attempt to loop together biography and criticism, Portrait of a Novel tells the story of Henry James’s first great novel, perhaps his greatest — the story of how James came to write The Portrait of a Lady, and also the story James wrote.

The story is a good one, and Gorra tells it deftly. But the motive behind his book, the reason it is about the making of a masterpiece and not its interpretation, is even more important. Portrait of a Novel is an opening shot in a revolution, an intrepid attack on the ceremonies of academic criticism. Gorra is not the first to call for a revolution; Mark Bauerlein has assailed academic criticism’s “diminishing returns,” and Mark Edmundson has called for an “end to readings,” the only kind of criticism that English professors seem capable of. The microscopic focus of academic interpretation, the stretching of its subject to excessive lengths, its fervid humorlessness, its exclusive concern with a literary text’s inner tensions to the utter neglect of literature’s extensions — the references and even the applications to a world outside the text — have narrowed the appeal of literary criticism and quite naturally cost it readers. Portrait of a Novel is not only a gift to non-specialist readers, who have been starved of literary discussion. It is also a troop movement in a campaign to wrest authority over criticism from the academic interpreters.

Hence Gorra’s resort to narrative, the preferred genre even of non-fiction right now. Gorra sets out a double narrative: he traces the development of James’s novel, beginning his own book with James’s opening scene and ending with James’s (revised) ending, but he counterpoints this retelling with a biographical survey of James’s life. Because the summary of The Portrait of a Lady supplies the order of events, Gorra is able to dispense with strict chronology whenever biographical details are most needed.

He introduces James’s cousin Minny Temple, for example, in introducing James’s heroine Isabel Archer. Minny’s “frank, playful independence,” he says, “provided an inspiration” for Isabel’s. Although Minny died eleven years before James wrote the novel, and though James came to love her even earlier, Gorra includes his own beautiful portait of Minny out of chronological order, where it helps to make sense of the novel and not the life. This becomes his habit. He brings forward the poet and critic John Addington Symonds, whom James met once in 1876, in order to discuss Symonds’s Inquiry into the Phenomenon of Sexual Inversion, published privately fifteen years later, in connection with hypotheses about James’s sexual orientation.

There are two versions of The Portrait of the Lady — the original version, serialized in Macmillan’s magazine and the Atlantic Monthly and then published in book form in the last week of October 1881, and the revised version published in 1908 as two volumes in the famous New York Edition of James’s fiction. James revised the novel, Gorra says, to “make its opening chapters fit the book that it had by its last chapters become.” Gorra prefers the revised ending, in which an “older” James has both the language and the “emotional experience” the “younger James” lacked — the language and emotion to compose the “most frankly sexual moment in all of James’s fiction.” He is referring to the moment when Caspar Goodwood kisses Isabel Archer, igniting a “flash that spread, and spread again, and stayed,” before she breaks out of his grasp and returns to the monster who is her husband.

Gorra does not explain how he knows this is the “most frankly sexual moment in all of James’s fiction.” The only other times in the novel James uses the noun flash are to suggest that Isabel’s confidence in her own moral sense was an “aid to detecting an occasional flash of cruelty,” and that after marriage to the cruel dilettante Gilbert Osmond, she lived “in a world illumined by lurid flashes.” The sexual claim serves to confirm Gorra’s earlier surmises about “the shape of [James’s] erotic longings.” James was a homosexual, you see; “nobody today doubts” it; James was a homosexual, even if he considered Oscar Wilde an “unclean beast” and even if he was a stranger, as Gorra acknowledges, to “our contemporary understanding of homosexuality as an identity, something as central to one’s sense of self as one’s ethnic inheritance or biological sex” — even if he was not subject to the moral fashions of our own day, that is.

And here is where the limitations of Gorra’s method crop up most annoyingly. Narrative absolves him of the need to argue for his conclusions. The special ingenuity of his double-narrative mode, in which text and life are arranged in parallels, gives the appearance of proving a case even where no case is made. The thing about parallels is that they never meet.

Gorra chooses The Portrait of a Lady for his subject, because it is “the link between George Eliot and Virginia Woolf, the bridge across which Victorian fiction stepped into modernism.” Like nearly every other controversial contention in the book, this remark is more suggestive than clarifying. Although James’s debt to Eliot is discussed in passing, the only relevant mention of Woolf is when Gorra offers that “what James does in this chapter [ch 42, in which Isabel comes to grips with the truth about her marriage to Osmond] is much closer to Woolf’s own achievement in To the Lighthouse than it is to Eliot’s Middlemarch.” Gorra then adds that, in his exploration of Isabel Archer’s mind, James “goes so much farther than his predecessors that it amounts to a difference in kind.” Nothing more is said of the difference, perhaps because Gorra expects his readers to assume nobody today doubts what he is saying.

Gorra himself has few predecessors. In 1934 the English painter Frank Budgen wrote a biographical account of Ulysses, which Joyce himself described as “original” in its “method of approach.” Budgen’s title (James Joyce and the Making of “Ulysses”) recalls Gorra’s subtitle. If they did not invent the genre, James H. Sledd and Gwin J. Kolb gave it its name — The Biography of a Book — when they appended that phrase to their history of Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary, published on its bicentennial in 1955. Walter Blair’s Mark Twain and Huck Finn (1960) is probably the first biography of an American masterpiece, unless it were Charles Olson’s quirky Call Me Ishmael (1947).

But an instructive contrast to Gorra’s book is Paul Gutjahr’s biography of The Book of Mormon, which was published by Princeton in August of this year. An English professor at Indiana University, Gutjahr narrates the career of Joseph Smith’s “Gold Bible”; he doesn’t merely shuffle its contents and draw parallels to the life of Mormonism’s founder. Gutjahr is interested in the book as more than just a text; he shows how the Book of Mormon has animated a community of faith and its detractors, how it has shaped thinking and influenced American culture.

Gorra glances at the contemporary reception of The Portrait of a Lady, but he is entirely unconcerned with the novel’s later career. When James dies and the novel ends — in that order, in his telling — his narrative job is finished. Michael Gorra writes in an accessible and jargon-averse style, but his Portrait of a Novel is little more than an occasion for a renewal of interest in Henry James’s great novel, which in itself is a welcome development but hardly enough to spark a revolution in criticism.