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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Henry James’s The Bostonians, published 125 years ago today, sparks a scandal

The Bostonians proved one of the most troubling of Henry James’s publishing efforts. It first appeared in thirteen installments in The Century magazine (February 1885–February 1886), but by the time of the last installment James’s American publisher, James R. Osgood and Company, had gone bankrupt. Scrambling to recover his losses, James had his English publisher, Macmillan & Co., bring out the first edition in London on February 15, 1886. The American edition appeared a month later.

In his novels of the late 1880s—The Bostonians, The Tragic Muse, and The Princess Casamassima—James turned to political topics for the first time and soon discovered that his readers did not follow. Richard Watson Gilder, publisher of The Century, was reportedly alarmed to find his subscribers falling away. Many found James’s portrait of his two main characters, a Boston feminist and her young protégé, scandalously close to the well-known “Boston marriage” of Annie Fields and Sarah Orne Jewett (although James’s biographers claim he drew more from observing his sister Alice’s relationship with Katharine Loring). Even his brother William chided Henry for creating a “portrait from life” in basing the character of Miss Birdseye on the veteran abolitionist Elizabeth Peabody, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s sister-in-law.

Henry found these attacks “harsh and unfair” and protested (perhaps too much) that he had “not seen Miss Peabody in 20 years” and had created Miss Birdseye “from my moral consciousness, like every person I have ever drawn.” Yet he was dismayed at the book’s reception, as he later wrote to William in October 1885:
I fear The Bostonians will be, as a finished work, a fiasco, as not a word, echo or comment on the serial (save your remarks) have come to me (since the row about the first number) from any quarter whatever. The deathly silence seems to indicate that it has fallen flat. I hoped much of it, and shall be disappointed—having got no money for it, I hoped for a little glory.
William reassured his brother of the novel’s success after he was able to read it as a book. His assessment echoed that of many contemporary reviewers:
Never again shall I attack one of your novels in the magazine. . . . The truth [is] that it is superlatively well done, provided one admits that method of doing such a thing at all. Really the datum seems to me to belong rather of the region of fancy, but the treatment to that of the most elaborate realism. One can easily imagine the story cut out and made into a bright, short, sparkling thing of a hundred pages, which would have been an absolute success. But you have worked it up by dint of descriptions and psychologic commentaries into near 500—charmingly done for those who have the leisure and the peculiar mood to enjoy that amount of miniature work—but perilously near to turning away the great majority of readers who crave more matter and less art.
Mark Twain famously declared that “I would rather be damned to John Bunyan’s heaven than read [The Bostonians].” Later critics developed a keener appreciation. In his essay “The Ambiguity of Henry James,” Edmund Wilson wrote:
The first hundred pages of The Bostonians, with the arrival of the young Southerner in Boston and his first contacts with the Boston reformers, is, in its way, one of the most masterly things that Henry James ever did.
Previous Reader’s Almanac posts of interest:
Related LOA works: Henry James: Complete Novels; Edmund Wilson: Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1930s and 40s (includes “The Ambiguity of Henry James”)

1 comment:

  1. I have never read James and I have always had the sinking feeling that my auto-didactic literary education is lacking as a result, not substantially, but lacking nonetheless.


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