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

Michael Gorra, Author
Michael Gorra. Norton/Liveright, $29.95 (384p) ISBN 978-0-871-40408-4
Reviewed on: 05/07/2012
Release date: 08/01/2012
Open Ebook - 416 pages - 978-0-87140-328-5
Paperback - 385 pages - 978-0-87140-670-5
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In this innovative biography, written with flair and unostentatious erudition, Smith College English professor Gorra (The Bells in Their Silence) tells the life of Henry James through the story of the composition of his novel, The Portrait of a Lady. First published in 1881, the novel was a landmark work: James’s scrupulous devotion to craft led him to dramatize the interior life of his heroine, Isabel Archer, in unprecedented fashion. Instead of transparent plots and clear moral conflicts, James opted for subtle clashes of personality and morally ambiguous stories in which action was character and character action. Analyzing James’s letters, journals, stories, and travelogues, Gorra traces the author’s life and literary milieu, alternating a reconstruction of his travels with extensive attention to the novel’s composition and reception. The book reads like an exciting voyage of discovery, beginning with James revising his novel 20 years after it was written, and later depicting his blooming consciousness as an author torn between an American and a European identity. Gorra’s highly engaging introduction to James will be most attractive to lovers of literature who want to learn more about the craft of novel writing and will likely send readers back to the shelves to discover James all over again. Agent: Steve Wassermann, Kneerim & Williams. (Aug.)
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