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.
Review: You Say You Want a Revolution
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Are the warplane's secrets safe?
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is the newest generation air platform for the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marines. Lockheed-Martin, which builds the F-35, describes it as “a 5th Generation fighter, combining advanced stealth with fighter speed and agility, fully fused sensor information, network-enabled operations and advanced sustainment.” For both diplomatic reasons and to encourage sales, Lockheed-Martin subcontracted the production of many F-35 components to factories abroad. Many program partners—Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, Denmark, for example—are consistent U.S. allies.
Turkey, however, is also part of the nine-nation consortium producing the plane, which gives Turkey access to the F-35’s technology. “As a program partner, Turkish industries are eligible to become suppliers to the global F-35 fleet for the life of the program. In total, F-35 industrial opportunities for Turkish companies are expected to reach $12 billion,” the warplane’s website explained. “Turkey plans to purchase 100 of the F-35A Conventional Takeoff and Landing variant. Its unsurpassed technological systems and unique stealth capabilities ensure that the F-35 will be the future of Turkish national security for decades to come.”
But is the F-35 safe with Turkey? In recent years, the Turkish government has leaked highly-classified information to America’s adversaries in fits of diplomatic pique. Back in 2013, for example, Turkey leaked to the Iranians the identities of Israeli spies in Iran. Danny Yatom, former head of the Mossad, told USA Today that the incident would damage U.S. intelligence efforts, “because we will be much more reluctant to work via Turkey because they will fear information is leaking to Iran… We feel information achieved [by Israel] through Turkey went not only to Israel but also to the United States.”
On July 19, the Pentagon criticized Turkey’s state-controlled news agency for exposing ten covert U.S. bases in Syria in a way that can enable both the Islamic State and Iranian-backed forces to target Americans. Bloomberg reported that the leak also detailed aid routes and equipment stored at each base.
Both these incidents raise serious questions about whether Turkey can be trusted with the F-35, especially given Turkey’s growing military and diplomatic ties to Russia, and the wayward NATO state’s recent cooperation with China as well. The United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense is rightly concerned about the security implications of a plan to service its F-35s in Turkey, but such concern should only be the tip of the iceberg.
Should Turkey even receive F-35s and, to the extent the program relies on Turkish factories, is it time to stand up quickly a Plan B? To do otherwise might squander the billions of dollars already spent on the program, risk increasing President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ability to blackmail the West, and potentially land America’s latest military technology on Kremlin desks.
Too many martyrs make a movement.
If the GOP is to be converted into a vehicle for politicians who evince Donald Trump’s brand of pragmatic center-right populism, Trump will have to demonstrate his brand of politics can deliver victories for people other than himself. Presidential pen strokes help to achieve that, as do judicial appointments. Nothing is so permanent, though, as sweeping legislative change. On that score, the newly Trumpian Republican Party is coming up short. If the passive process of transformational legislative success fails to compel anti-Trump holdouts in the GOP to give up the ghost, there is always arm-twisting. It seems the Republican National Committee is happy to play enforcer.
The RNC’s nascent effort to stifle anti-Trump apostasy by making examples of high-profile heretics has claimed its first victim: New Jersey’s Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno. The Republican is running to replace the nation’s least popular governor, Chris Christie, and the effort has been a struggle. Trailing badly in the polls and facing the headwinds associated with trying to succeed an unpopular outgoing GOP governor in a blue state, Guadagno needs all the help she can get. That help won’t be coming from the RNC. According to NJ Advance Media, the committee’s objection to helping Guadagno isn’t the imprudence of throwing good money after bad. It’s that she was mean to President Trump in 2016, and she must be punished.
“[The president] is unhappy with anyone who neglected him in his hour of need,” said a source billed as an RNC insider. The specific complaint arises from an October 8 tweet from the lieutenant governor said that “no apology can excuse” Trump’s “reprehensible” conduct on the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape. “Christie was not as stalwart as some people in the party, but at least he didn’t go against him the way she did,” the insider added.
This source’s version of events was supported by former two-term New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman. “She went down there, and the (Republican National) Committee was reluctant to back the campaign in the way one would have expected,” she said. “The implication was, ‘Well you were not a Trump supporter in the primary, and so don’t expect much money.'”
This is almost certainly a pretext. Republicans are facing stiff competition and an unfavorable political environment in November’s gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey. In 2017-2018, 27 GOP-held seats are up for grabs, nine of which are in some jeopardy of falling to Democrats. Republicans are going to have to husband their resources and triage their officeholders. That’s a forgivable, if demoralizing, condition. Declaring Guadagno to have offended the leader and to be cut off from the font of Republican goodwill is not only unjustifiable, it’s terribly foolish.
If Republican women are to be punished for saying that Trump’s comments about sexually assaulting unsuspecting females were unacceptable, there are going to be a lot fewer Republican women. Moreover, the RNC has invited the perception that there is a double standard at play here. A slew of Republicans called on Trump to drop out of the race after that tape, but the RNC is unlikely to withhold support for Senators Rob Portman or John Thune when they need it. Among those calling on Trump to drop out was his own chief of staff, Reince Priebus—a fact the president reportedly won’t let Priebus forget.
Cults of personality can be bullied into existence, but they rarely outlast the personality around whom they form unless that personality can claim some lasting achievements. In lieu of any compelling rationale, the effort to remake the GOP in Trump’s image by force will only create dissidents. The ideological conservatives who once dominated the Republican Party are unlikely to make peace with the ascendant populist faction at gunpoint. And the RNC is not solely to blame for this boneheaded move. Even if the notion that Guadagno is being punished for disloyalty is a pretense, it is a response to a clear set of incentives promoted by this White House.
Maybe the most intriguing question of the present political age is whether or not conservatives in the GOP will come to terms with a man they once saw as a usurper. A heavy hand will only catalyze resistance, and Trump needs his own party as much or more than they need him. Guadagno’s gubernatorial bid is on no firmer ground today than it was yesterday, but the Republican candidate’s allies can now legitimately claim persecution at the hands of personality cultists. Too many martyrs make a movement. The White House and the Republican National Committee should tread lightly.
Podcast: Conservatism in shackles while O.J. goes free?
On the second of this week’s podcasts, I ask Abe Greenwald and Noah Rothman whether the health-care debacle this week is simply a reflection of the same pressures on the conservative coalition Donald Trump saw and conquered by running for president last year—and what it will mean for him and them that he has provided no rallying point for Republican politicians. And then we discuss OJ Simpson. Give a listen.
Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.
Hyperbole yields cynicism, not the other way around.
Newly-elected French President Emmanuel Macron surprised almost everyone when he invited President Donald Trump to celebrate Bastille Day with him in Paris, especially after the two leaders’ awkward first meeting in Brussels in May. After all, between now and then, Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris Climate Change Agreement, and Macron has become perhaps the most vocal critic of Trump among European leaders.
In hindsight, Macron’s reason for embracing Trump might have been to get the president to reverse course on the Paris agreement. From the Associated Press:
French President Emmanuel Macron says his glamorous Paris charm offensive on Donald Trump was carefully calculated — and may have changed the U.S. president’s mind about climate change…. On their main point of contention — Trump’s withdrawal from the landmark Paris climate agreement — Macron is quoted as saying that “Donald Trump listened to me. He understood the reason for my position, notably the link between climate change and terrorism.”
According to Macron, climate change causes droughts and migration, which exacerbates crises as populations fight over shrinking resources. If Macron really believes that, France and Europe are in for some tough times.
First, droughts are a frequent, cyclical occurrence in the Middle East, the Sahel, and the Horn of Africa. The difference between drought and famine is the former is a natural occurrence and the latter is man-made, usually caused by poor governance. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the Horn of Africa, where the same drought might kill a few dozens of Ethiopians but wipe out tens of thousands of Somalis.
Second, the common factor in the wars raging in the Middle East today is neither climate change nor extreme weather, but brutal dictatorship, radical ideologies, and the militias supported by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Yemen could be a breadbasket. Its terraced fields rising up thousands of feet in the mountains grow almost every fruit imaginable. Yemen also catches the tail end of the monsoon. If Yemenis planted exportable crops like coffee rather than the mild drug qat, which does not bring in hard currency, they might be fairly prosperous.
It is not climate change that denied the Syrian public basic freedoms and liberty for decades, nor was it climate change that dropped barrel bombs on civilian neighborhoods, tortured and killed 13-year-old Hamza Ali al-Khateeb, or used chemical weapons. For that matter, when it comes to radicalization, the problem is Syria was less climate and more decades of Saudi-and Qatari-funded indoctrination and Turkish assistance to foreign fighters.
Regardless of all this, another obvious factor nullifies Macron’s thesis: When drought occurs in regions outside the Middle East, the result is seldom suicide bombing.
Terrorism does not have a one-size-fits-all explanation but, generally speaking, when it comes to Islamist terrorism, ideology plays a key role. Most terrorists are educated, middle class, and relatively privileged. Islamic State caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, for example, has a Ph.D. Many of the 9/11 hijackers were educated. In the Gaza Strip, Hamas recruits inside schools. Simply put, there is no linkage between climate change and terrorism.
Not only would Trump be foolish to buy Macron’s argument, but environmentalists who believe climate change puts the Earth in immediate peril should be outraged. It is hyperbole. Moreover, it is the casual invocation of climate change as a catch-all cause for every other issue that breeds the cynicism that leads so many to become so dismissive of everything climate activists say. Macron may look down up Trump as an ignorant bore, but Macron’s own logic suggests he is also living in a world where facts and reality don’t matter.
Quid pro quo?
Until now, the notion that Donald Trump was providing Russia and Vladimir Putin with concessions at the expense of U.S. interests was poorly supported. That all changed on Wednesday afternoon when the Washington Post revealed that Donald Trump ordered his national security advisor and CIA director to scrap a program that provided covert aid to anti-Assad rebels in Syria.
The president made that decision on July 7, within 24 hours of his first face-to-face meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The sources who spoke to the Washington Post accurately characterize it as a reflection of “Trump’s interest in finding ways to work with Russia.” That is a fool’s errand but, more important, this move demonstrates that the United States is willing to cede ground to adversaries and bad actors as long as they are persistent enough.
I endeavored to demonstrate as thoroughly as I could why American interests in Syria and those of Russia not only do not align but often conflict violently. The president appears convinced, like his predecessor, that his personal political interests are better served by allowing Moscow to be the power broker in Syria—even if that makes America and its allies less safe.
Moscow has made it a priority to execute airstrikes on American and British covert facilities in Syria, and Donald Trump has just rewarded those air strikes on U.S. targets. Trump has sacrificed the goodwill he garnered from Sunni-dominated Middle Eastern governments when he executed strikes on Assad’s assets and, as recently as June, the U.S. downed a Syrian warplane for attacking anti-ISIS rebels laying siege to the Islamic State capital of Raqqa.
America will continue to provide support to indigenous anti-ISIS rebels, despite the fact that those forces are often under assault from both Russian and Syrian forces. It should be noted, however, that the CIA suspended aid to Free Syrian Army elements when it came under attack from Islamist in February. The agency said it didn’t want cash and weapons falling into Islamist hands, but this move exposes that claim as a mere pretext.
This concession to Russia is significant not just because it removes some pressure on Moscow’s vassal in Damascus. It sends a series of signals to the world’s bad actors, who will inevitably react.
The phasing out of aid for anti-Assad rebels (presumably the indigenous Sunni-dominated factions) gives Russia and Syria the only thing they’ve ever wanted: the ability to frame the conflict in Syria as one between the regime and a handful of radicals and pariahs. A cessation of aid will squeeze the remaining moderate, secular rebel factions in Syria and compel them to seek whatever assistance they can—even at the risk of augmenting the ranks of Islamist insurgents. How that advances America’s interests is entirely unclear.
This move will only further embolden not just Russia and Syria but their mutual ally, the Islamic Republic of Iran. It will convince the region’s Sunni actors that the United States is not on their side—a matter of increasing urgency in Iraq. The insurgency in Syria is unlikely to end so long as regional fighters have a means of getting into the country. America will simply sacrifice its leverage over those groups.
This move will confirm, finally, that the use of weapons of mass destruction in the battlefield is survivable. A truly resolute American administration might fire off a handful of Tomahawk missiles at an abandoned airfield, but regime change is not in the offing. That will only beget other bad actors who will test the parameters of America’s willingness to defend the international norms prohibiting the use of WMDs. Because American servicemen and women are stationed around the world in unstable theaters, the likelihood that they will one day be fighting on chemical battlefields just became a lot more likely.
American covert involvement in Syria also filled a vacuum that the Obama administration allowed to expand in 2011 and 2012. “One big potential risk of shutting down the CIA program is that the United States may lose its ability to block other countries, such as Turkey and Persian Gulf allies, from funneling more sophisticated weapons—including man-portable air-defense systems, or MANPADS—to anti-Assad rebels, including more radical groups,” the Washington Post speculated. Ironically, American withdrawal from the anti-Assad effort could actually fuel the fire, but in a way that we can neither control nor effectively influence. We’ve seen that movie before. We know how it ends.
And all of this is for what? To garner goodwill with the bloody regime in Damascus? To court Moscow or Tehran? There is nothing to gain from cozying up to these regimes that is not offset by the sacrifice of American national interests and moral authority associated with rapprochement. For all of the Trump administration’s criticisms of Barack Obama’s policy with regard to those regimes, this decision suggests he’s willing to double down on Obama’s mistakes.