How to Read Henry James

October 6, 2011

This blog is in response to someone who could not break the Henry James code.

Henry James is called “The Master.” There are good reasons: tone, language, playfulness with psychological suspense. But if you are fighting him, the game is over. In order to read him, you want to feel very quiet inside, very still, and realize that James is in no hurry because he is enjoying himself too much. The longer he takes to arrive anywhere, the better for him and the reader. James above all reaches for the interesting story. His stories never end as you would wish. Finally, he is the quintessentially elegant writer. Start with accessible works: his early works. For short stories, try “The Real Thing.” For a novella, try “Washington Square” (taught in high schools and known as the film “The Heiress.” For a novel, try “Portrait of a Lady.” Note: all of his works are called masterpieces, but his late works become obtuse. His greatest masterpiece is “The Ambassadors.”