I read “Poor Richard,” a story by Henry James, a story that William James was a fan of. “Poor Richard” was published in 1867, when Henry was only 24. It’s one of his “American stories”; it takes place in the rural North, and several of the characters are CivilWar soldiers. It’s often called the best of Henry’s early stories. I enjoyed it, and I can understand why it’s well-regarded.
“Poor Richard” was published in Atlantic magazine, where William Dean Howells was assistant editor. Howells was impressed with “Poor Richard,” and wanted to publish everything that James wrote; Howells promoted James, as he promoted Mark Twain. One critic said that “Poor Richard” “led to the beginning of a friendship between James and Howells which may be considered as one of the great literary friendships in the annals of literature.”1
But Howells didn’t trust readers to appreciate James. Howells wrote, “I cannot doubt that James has every element of success in fiction. But I suspect that he must in a very great degree create his audience. In the meantime, I rather despise existing readers.”
I’m reminded of Proust, who felt that an original writer or artist had to form his audience, educate his audience. “People of taste and refinement,” Proust wrote, “tell us nowadays that Renoir is one of the great painters of the last century. But in so saying they forget the element of Time, and that it took a great deal of time, well into the present century, before Renoir was hailed as a great artist.”2 In several respects, Proust reminds me of Henry James: the refinement (of both feelings and language), the wit, the interest in painting (and culture in general), the dedication to literature, the bachelor life, the penchant for socializing.2B
While Howells gave James a chance to “create his audience,” sales of the Atlantic were falling behind sales of illustrated magazines like Harper’s and Century. By 1890, Atlantic editors were no longer eager to publish James; the Atlantic was aiming at a broader audience, and James’ work was becoming subtler and less popular.
I mentioned James’ refinement. Here’s an example:
Richard visits Gertrude when she’s hoping for a visit from another man. Gertrude calls out, “What do you want? Can I do anything for you?” James writes, “A certain infinitesimal dryness of tone on Gertrude’s part was the inevitable result of her finding that that whispered summons came only from Richard.”3 This sentence shows James’ penchant for refinement of both feeling and language. Most writers would be satisfied with “A certain dryness of tone.” “Infinitesimal” and “inevitable” are unnecessary, and obscure the author’s meaning.
One critic said that “Poor Richard” shows James’ “growing fondness for analysis. He allowed it to run away with him.... The psychologist unfortunately predominated over the novelist.”4
“Poor Richard” contains characters and themes that appear in James’ later writings. For example, “Poor Richard” has a female character, Gertrude, who captivates men, not with her beauty, but with her character. One critic spoke of James’ “gravely sweet girls.”5
And “Poor Richard” has a male character, Richard, who finally wins the heart of the woman he pursues, but then steps back. One critic wrote,
|In [James’] later works such renunciation nearly always involves a turning away from sexual union, from the natural consummation of passion. As Edmund Wilson remarks, “the men are always deciding not to marry the women in Henry James.”6|
Another critic says that Richard’s renunciation of Gertrude is “an early version of the Jamesian ‘renunciation,’ made famous by characters like Christopher Newman, Isabel Archer, Fleda Vetch, and Lambert Strether.”7 This theme of stepping back from marriage has an obvious parallel with James’ own life.
“Daisy Miller” was published in 1878, when James was 35. It launched his career, becoming popular in both England and America. It’s about 50 pages long, so it should probably be called a novella. Like many James stories, it deals with an American in Europe. James contrasts Daisy’s spontaneity with the propriety of her elders. One might call “Daisy Miller” a novel of manners, since much of it deals with the question, What is proper behavior? How should a well-mannered person act? I enjoyed it, it’s a readable story, a sketch of scenic spots in Europe, an introduction to James’ modus operandi. But I missed James’ subtler touches, I needed to read critical essays to appreciate James’ artistry.
[Spoiler Warning: If you’re thinking of reading “Daisy Miller,” you may want to skip the rest of this section.]
One critic said that James often introduces his theme in his opening paragraph. The opening paragraph of “Daisy Miller” introduces the theme of the spontaneous, exuberant American and the proper, staid European:
|At the little town of Vevey, in Switzerland, there is a particularly comfortable hotel. There are, indeed, many hotels, for the entertainment of tourists is the business of the place, which, as many travelers will remember, is seated upon the edge of a remarkably blue lake — a lake that it behooves every tourist to visit.... In this region, in the month of June, American travelers are extremely numerous; it may be said, indeed, that Vevey assumes at this period some of the characteristics of an American watering place. There are sights and sounds which evoke a vision, an echo, of Newport and Saratoga. There is a flitting hither and thither of “stylish” young girls, a rustling of muslin flounces, a rattle of dance music in the morning hours, a sound of high-pitched voices at all times. [But] there are other features that are much at variance with these suggestions: neat German waiters, who look like secretaries of legation; Russian princesses sitting in the garden; little Polish boys walking about held by the hand, with their governors; a view of the sunny crest of the Dent du Midi and the picturesque towers of the Castle of Chillon.|
A critic named Motley Deakin compared “Daisy Miller” to Corinne, a novel by Mme de Stael. Corinne is half novel, half travel book; it describes many scenic spots in Italy. Like “Daisy Miller,” Corinne is about a strong-willed woman who comes into conflict with society and dies.
The Colosseum in Rome had a special significance for James as for Mme de Stael. Mme de Stael calls the Colosseum “the most beautiful ruin of Rome.” Deakin says that the Colosseum is a “magnet to the Romantic spirit.” Corinne and Daisy both view the Colosseum at night, “the time favored by romantic devotees of this scene.”
Deakin argues that Daisy is more than an-American-in-Europe, she’s also part of a European tradition, the tradition of the Romantic Rebel. But the Romantic tradition evolved in the decades between Mme de Stael and James; Romanticism became mixed with Realism. Deakin says, “The romantic sentiment felt for the Colosseum is still strong enough to draw Daisy to it, but the attenuation of its attraction becomes evident in Daisy’s incapacity to see this somber scene as anything more than ‘pretty.’” Perhaps we should call James “half Romantic, half Realist,” rather than “full Romantic.”
As Daisy’s feeling for the Colosseum is attenuated, so too the erotic passion in “Daisy Miller” is attenuated; James is not a “full Romantic.” Corinne was a far more ardent lover than Daisy:
|[Corinne’s] love for Oswald [is] overpowering and total.... Corinne exudes an erotic sentiment characteristic of the Romantic Movement and reminiscent of a host of earlier heroines — a sentiment that, though later diminished and viewed negatively as scandalous impropriety, still informs “Daisy Miller.”|
The element of political rebellion in Mme de Stael is also attenuated in “Daisy Miller.” The protagonist of Mme de Stael’s Delphine is enthusiastic about the American Revolution and the French Revolution. For Delphine, freedom is both a personal ideal and a political ideal. “By the time it reaches Daisy, this ideal is flattened and attenuated; it is diminished to deportment and manners. As a result, Daisy comprehends only dimly the ideal of freedom which she symbolizes.”
Was James directly influenced by Mme de Stael? Or was he influenced through intervening writers? Probably both. In “Daisy Miller,” James mentions one of these intervening writers — Victor Cherbuliez, author of Paule Méré. Thus, James gives us a hint about who influenced “Daisy Miller,” and what tradition “Daisy Miller” belongs to. Deakin says,
|the stories of James and Cherbuliez have much in common. They both explore the theme of social disorientation, examining the effects of rigid conventions on a young girl not sympathetic to them.... The male protagonists in both novels cannot resist the pressures of convention, thus exposing the unprotected heroines to the crushing power of these pressures. Both novels present a protest against these inhuman social forces, but both also contain the bitter recognition that they are invincible, destroying as they do the young innocents.|
Another critic writes,
|Like James’ novel, Paule Méré takes its title from the name of its heroine and concerns a spirited, independent-minded young woman whose unchaperoned excursions with a man excite the censure of European society and make her an object of scandal. Even the settings of the two novels are similar: both open at a Swiss hotel and end in Italy.|
Since Paule Méré ends with the death of the protagonist, the reference to Paule Méré in “Daisy Miller” might be viewed as a foreshadowing of Daisy’s death. There are other, more obvious foreshadowings: When Daisy says she’s going for a walk, her mother says, “You’ll get the fever as sure as you live.” And Daisy tells Winterbourne, “We are going to stay [in Rome] all winter, if we don’t die of the fever; and I guess we’ll stay then.”
A critic named Carol Ohmann says that James links Daisy to the natural world, and to the natural cycle of birth and death, thereby preparing the reader for Daisy’s death. Daisy walks with Giovanelli in the Pincian Garden, overlooking the Villa Borghese, and later she walks with Giovanelli at “the Palace of the Caesars” on Palatine Hill. Both these locations afford the visitor a broad prospect, and James describes both with a kind of poetic rapture. James had a special fondness for Rome, and doubtless he enjoyed these two places many times. Ohmann is probably right when she says that James is subtly connecting Daisy to natural processes. “Once Daisy is identified with the world of nature.... her death is inevitable.”
I mentioned above that James was influenced by the French Romantic tradition, including Mme de Stael and Victor Cherbuliez. Another writer in this tradition is George Sand. James admired Sand. Like Daisy, the heroines of Sand’s novels are spontaneous, willful women who clash with society and die. “Forced back upon themselves by their unwillingness to accede to the demands of society, they have developed habits of introspection and self-examination. They are superior women in their dedication, their moral virtue, or their genius.”
Like Mme de Stael, Sand “intended her works as defenses of herself, as vindications of her own unorthodox opinions and actions.” Like Mme de Stael, Sand was drawn to revolution/reform; Sand even started her own newspaper. Wikipedia says that Sand “was a member of the provisional government of 1848, issuing a series of fiery manifestos.” The Romantic spirit is passionate in love, unconventional in manners/lifestyle, revolutionary in politics, immoderate in all things.
Daisy’s death is somewhat puzzling. Does she die because society frowns on her free-spirited ways? Does she die because Winterbourne doesn’t commit himself to her as decisively as he might have? If we view Daisy as part of a Romantic tradition, it helps us to make sense of her death. This tradition includes Mme de Stael (born 1766), George Sand (born 1804), and Victor Cherbuliez (born 1829). Henry James (born 1843) drew on these earlier writers.9
Perhaps one cause of Daisy’s death is her own frevel; she’s “asking for trouble,” she tempts fate, she teases the numinous powers. “‘I don’t care,’ said Daisy in a little strange tone, ‘whether I have Roman fever or not!’” Some readers might say, “This remark is out of character, it doesn’t ring true. It has no connection to what precedes it.” But perhaps this remark rings true insofar as frevel is a constant in human nature, especially in one as young and willful as Daisy.
The name “Daisy” suggests a person who’s open and spontaneous, as Daisy is. The name “Winterbourne,” on the other hand, suggests a person who’s more controlled. Did James put part of himself into Winterbourne? Daisy says to Winterbourne, “I noticed you were as stiff as an umbrella the first time I saw you.” When Winterbourne says to Daisy, “I don’t dance,” Daisy responds, “Of course you don’t dance; you’re too stiff.” When Winterbourne advises Daisy to get into Mrs. Walker’s carriage, Daisy says, “I never heard anything so stiff!” When Winterbourne tells Daisy, “I wish you would flirt with me, and me only,” Daisy responds, “You are the last man I should think of flirting with. As I have had the pleasure of informing you, you are too stiff.”10
Winterbourne is rather solitary, as the bachelor James may have been. When Winterbourne encounters Daisy on the Palatine Hill, Daisy says, “I should think you would be lonesome.... You are always going round by yourself. Can’t you get anyone to walk with you?”
Did James put part of himself into the character of Winterbourne, as Shakespeare put part of himself into Hamlet? And does Winterbourne spread a lethal chill around him, as Hamlet seems to? In an earlier issue, I said that Wilson Knight regards Hamlet as “a shadow figure, a ‘negative thinker,’ one who kills people with negative thoughts, an example of the power of negative thinking.” Is Winterbourne also a shadow figure, a “thought killer”?11
When Daisy and Giovanelli see Winterbourne in the Colosseum, Daisy feels that Winterbourne is casting an Evil Eye on them. James writes,
|Presently the sound of the woman’s voice came to [Winterbourne] distinctly in the warm night air. “Well, he looks at us as one of the old lions or tigers may have looked at the Christian martyrs!” These were the words he heard, in the familiar accent of Miss Daisy Miller. “Let us hope he is not very hungry,” responded the ingenious Giovanelli. “He will have to take me first; you will serve for dessert.”|
Perhaps the lonely, stiff Winterbourne is emotionally hungry.
Daisy’s death has multiple causes, as real events have multiple causes. The notion that Daisy is killed by a dark, mysterious, evil force, such as the Evil Eye, is consistent with an argument made by Jacques Barzun. Barzun calls James a “melodramatist.” Barzun divides literature into melodrama and comedy; he views tragedy as a subset of melodrama. He says that melodrama deals with “terrifying evil.... man’s horror in the face of evil.... freezing fear, the mysteriousness of the force [of evil] at work.”12
Barzun speaks of “Aesthetic Melodrama,” and he distinguishes Aesthetic Melodrama from tragedy and from low-grade melodrama. He says that many novelists, including James and Balzac, write Aesthetic Melodrama. Some novelists, like George Meredith, write comedy; according to Barzun, Meredith “believes in faults, errors, follies, but not in terrifying evil.” Barzun says, “I have long puzzled over the undoubted fact that relatively few persons are admirers of both Henry James and Meredith.” So Barzun sees a fundamental difference between James and Meredith, between Melodrama and Comedy.
Barzun says that James is somewhat critical of the older melodrama of Dickens, Balzac, etc. And James is also somewhat critical of realists like Flaubert; Flaubert’s work is “tame and, in the end, life-denying.” James tries to “purge and renovate” the old Romantics; he uses subtler methods than they used, he uses “the nuances of a subdued rhetoric.” But there’s “fire and force beneath the surface.”
Barzun says that James depicts “the friction of two men.” We find this friction in “Daisy Miller”; Winterbourne and Giovanelli look askance at each other. In “Poor Richard,” we find friction between three men, all of whom are interested in Gertrude.
In “Daisy Miller,” it’s difficult to tell who’s the hero and who’s the villain. Barzun says that the hero and the villain want the same things: the girl and the money.13 The reader of “Daisy Miller” may sympathize with Winterbourne rather than Giovanelli, but at the end of the novella, Giovanelli rises in our estimation. As Barzun says, James often gives the reader a “moral shock,” James says, “Look! It is not as you think!”
At the end of both “Poor Richard” and “Daisy Miller,” nobody gets the girl. This is typical of James. One critic wrote, “Like so many Jamesian heroes, Winterbourne has lost the capacity for love, and he has lost the opportunity to come to life.”
In describing the death of Daisy, James does a superb job of combining two dark forces, frevel and the Evil Eye. In his discussion of “Daisy Miller,” Leon Edel seems oblivious of both frevel and the Evil Eye. But Edel grasps the theme of the disobedient child. He speaks of “the unerring vision which James had of the total abdication, by the mass of American parents, of all authority over their children.”14
The film version of “Daisy Miller,” made in 1974, is faithful to the novella, and takes you to all the scenic spots in the novella.
Climate change is becoming more noticeable. This summer has been unusually hot and rainy in the eastern U.S., unusually hot and dry in the western U.S. An article in the New York Times said that the U.S. “is becoming both drier and wetter in the era of climate change.... Wet places get wetter and dry places get drier.”
Climate change will doubtless cause many problems, but it might have some benefits, too. When two geologists wrote about Massachusetts trails, they said, “Most geologists believe that in a few thousand years, this area once again will be buried in ice.” Will global warming reduce the severity of the next ice age?
People who live in orderly, affluent countries often speak of climate change as if it were The Problem. People who live in North Korea, Syria, Yemen, etc., people who live in dysfunctional or anarchic or despotic countries, probably don’t regard climate change as The Problem. They know that, if climate change were completely solved tomorrow, they would still be in a fine mess.
And even for people in functioning countries, climate change may not be the most urgent problem. The most urgent problem may be how to keep functioning, how to keep the ship of state afloat, how to avoid falling into the dysfunctional category. Perhaps half the countries in the world are dysfunctional, and the other half are in danger of becoming dysfunctional.
Click here for an interview with Vaclav Smil, who takes a balanced view of climate change.
|1.||A Landscape Painter, New York, Scott and Seltzer, 1919, Preface by Albert Mordell back|
|2.||The Guermantes Way, Part II, Ch. 1|
|2B.||Ezra Pound “said that Proust is ‘the nearest the French can get to Henry James.’” back|
|3.||When James revised “Poor Richard” for publication in book form, he changed this sentence to, “A certain indefinable dryness of tone on Gertrude’s part was the inevitable result of her finding that this whispered invocation came from poor Richard.” This revised version, like the original version, has the refinement of feeling and language that I think is typical of James. back|
|4.||The Early Development of Henry James, by Cornelia Kelley, Ch. 5, p. 72 back|
|5.||“Howells Reviews James: The Transcendence of Realism,” Sarah B. Daugherty, American Literary Realism, 1870-1910, Spring-Autumn, 1985, jstor.org/stable/27746179
Is Daisy Miller also one of James’ “gravely sweet girls”? Daisy’s beauty is striking, and she seems exuberant rather than grave, but she’s innocent, she has little interest in sex or money. James describes Daisy’s glance as “perfectly direct and unshrinking. It was not, however, what would have been called an immodest glance, for the young girl’s eyes were singularly honest and fresh.... She was very quiet; she sat in a charming, tranquil attitude.... [Daisy] was not a coquette.” back
|6.||“Henry James: Money and Morality,” Alice Morgan, Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Spring 1970, Vol. 12, No. 1, jstor.org/stable/40754083
Peter Collister says that Richard is one of “the series of romanticized young and fragile males cherished by James.” (Writing the Self: Henry James and America, by Peter Collister, p. 91) Sarah Daugherty calls Richard “an early exemplar of the ‘poor gentleman’... a sensitive youth.”
Richard’s fragility and sensitivity suggest that he represents James himself, just as I suspect that Winterbourne (in “Daisy Miller”) represents James himself. Leon Edel says that, as Richard is pushed to the periphery of the social circle by two soldiers, so James was pushed to the periphery by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and John Gray, both veterans. As three men pay attention to Gertrude, so Holmes, Gray, and James paid attention to Minnie Temple. “Richard’s feelings,” Edel writes, “have all the vividness of personal experience.”
Edel says that when Richard recovers his health, Gertrude falls ill. Edel calls this James’ “vampire theme”; Edel says that this theme can be found in other works by James.(See Volume 1 of Edel’s 5-volume biography of James, pp. 236-238) back
|7.||“Flirtations in Early James,” David Southward, Nineteenth-Century Literature, March 1998, jstor.org/stable/2934063 back|
|8.||Victor Cherbuliez’s protagonist, Paule Méré, whom I discuss below, has a Swiss father and an Italian mother. She also feels the Italian spirit to be liberating. Deakin writes, “Though [Paule Méré] combines qualities of both countries, she responds most evidently to Italy and its attributes of beauty, spontaneity, pleasure, and freedom.” back|
|9.||Cornelia Kelley argues that “Daisy Miller” was influenced by A Foregone Conclusion, a novel by James’ friend William Dean Howells. This Howells novel has a lively heroine named Florida Vervain. But Motley Deakin points out that Howells’ heroines have “a happier future with marriage and children,” while Daisy dies the untimely death of the French Romantic heroine.
Another critic, Tristram Coffin, views Daisy Miller as a typical hero of the American West. Coffin writes, “Daisy Miller, who is pretty typical of Henry James’s American in Europe, is really little more than a western hero with parasol and bank account. Not that she was modelled with the West in mind. Far from that! Nonetheless, James, in trying to portray the subtleties that distinguish the American upper-class girl from her European counterparts, gave to Daisy the very personality traits that we have for some time now recognized as those of the western hero....
Like the typical western hero, Daisy was willing to rely on her own judgment and so befriend Giovanelli in defiance of society; trust her own moral fiber and so travel to Chillon with the puzzled Winterbourne; to rest secure in her self-esteem and so treat her servants with familiarity.... The independence of thought and action, the self-imposed morality, the laudable innocence, the straightforward distrust of subtlety and ‘front’ that have become hallmarks of the western hero are all carefully drawn into Daisy Miller to give her her American nature.”
The split between America and Europe is due, at least in part, to America’s westward expansion; Coffin quotes Frederick Jackson Turner: “Moving westward... the advance of the frontier has meant steady movement away from the influence of Europe.” Coffin credits James with understanding the Western spirit, and the influence of the West on the East, “fourteen years before Turner’s pioneering work.” back
|10.||Did James describe himself as “stiff” in his correspondence, or in his autobiographical writings? back|
|11.||Winterbourne is described as “a man of imagination and, as our ancestors used to say, sensibility.” Couldn’t this be said of James himself? back|
|12.||I found Barzun’s essay, and other essays, in Tales of Henry James, which is part of Norton Critical Editions. Barzun may be the only HenryJames scholar who’s also a WilliamJames scholar. back|
|13.||Barzun says that “most of [James’] novels and tales deal with middling people pursuing the two simplest objects of human concern — love and money.” back|
|14.||See Edel’s biography of James, Volume 2, Book 6, “Daisy,” Section 3 back|