Fellow writers have often called him “the Master,” a salute to Henry James’s central place in the achievement of American fiction. The purpose of this course will be to read a number of James’s novels, stories, and essays in counterpoint with some of the other writers with whom he had an imaginative connection – predecessors, contemporaries, followers. We will, for example, read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter in conjunction with James’s Hawthorne, and George Eliot’s Middlemarch along with James’s reviews of several of Eliot’s novels. A selection of Ivan Turgenev’s short stories will be paired with James’s four essays on the Russian writer. Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth will enable us to examine Wharton’s famous complaint about “the continued cry that I am an echo of Mr. James.''
In more or less alternate weeks, we will read a selection of James’s novels and short stories, including representative texts from each phase of his long and immensely productive career. James is said to have produced ten million words of fiction, comprising over one hundred short stories and two dozen novels. This in addition to several travel books, a dozen plays, three volumes of autobiography, assorted literary studies and art criticism – and enough letters to fill five volumes (and counting), despite James’s vigorous efforts to burn as much of his correspondence as he could. Our Jamesian readings will probably include Daisy Miller, The Portrait of a Lady, The Bostonians, “The Beast in the Jungle,” “The Jolly Corner,” The Wings of the Dove, and The American Scene.
Henry James and his work have provoked his readers to erect a mountain of biographical and critical / theoretical texts. We will try to gain an understanding of these diverse (and sometimes antagonistic) responses, which in turn will give us some access to the shifting fashions of literary and cultural criticism over the past century.
James’s stories and novels have been adapted into at least three dozen feature films, television series, and at least six operas. We will try to find time to look at clips from at least a few of these productions. James has also been the subject of numerous novels, stories, and dramatizations. We will conclude the semester with a discussion of one of the best of these tributary volumes, Colm Toibin’s The Master.
Requirements. Students will (1) complete each reading assignment, (2) attend every class and participate in discussion, (3) present two brief oral reports, one on a biographical or critical study of James, the second on a Jamesian novel outside the core reading list, and (4) prepare a fifteen-page research paper. There will (5) be a final exam.