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

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

3.0 2
by Michael Gorra
 

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Henry James (1843–1916) has had many biographers, but Michael Gorra has taken an original approach to this great American progenitor of the modern novel, combining elements of biography,
criticism, and travelogue in re-creating the dramatic backstory of James’s masterpiece, Portrait of a Lady (1881). Gorra, an eminent literary critic, shows

Overview

Henry James (1843–1916) has had many biographers, but Michael Gorra has taken an original approach to this great American progenitor of the modern novel, combining elements of biography,
criticism, and travelogue in re-creating the dramatic backstory of James’s masterpiece, Portrait of a Lady (1881). Gorra, an eminent literary critic, shows how this novel—the scandalous story of the expatriate American heiress Isabel Archer—came to be written in the first place. Traveling to Florence, Rome, Paris, and England, Gorra sheds new light on James’s family, the European literary circles—George Eliot, Flaubert,
Turgenev—in which James made his name, and the psychological forces that enabled him to create this most memorable of female protagonists. Appealing to readers of Menand’s The Metaphysical Club and McCullough’s The Greater Journey, Portrait of a Novel provides a brilliant account of the greatest American novel of expatriate life ever written. It becomes a piercing detective story on its own.

Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
Mixing literary criticism with biography and travelogue, Gorra…provides a fascinating "making of" documentary like those that accompany some films these days…Much contemporary literary criticism is so arcane as to be almost incomprehensible, but Gorra's book reads beautifully, closer to belles lettres than to academic criticism…Portrait of a Novel is a model for the once-discredited biographical approach to criticism, a demonstration of how richly rewarding such an approach can be in the right hands. It is an important book not only for James enthusiasts, but for anyone interested in what Gorra christens "the bridge across which Victorian fiction stepped over into modernism."
—Steven Moore
Publishers Weekly
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.)
The Best American Poetry blog
“Michael Gorra has...created a book that is an adventure from beginning to end.... There are places... where Gorra gets so close to the making of Portrait of a Lady, he actually crosses over from literary history into the interior of James’s consciousness. The interior world that Gorra imagines, and that we come to inhabit, is so plausible, so true to life, that his Portrait of a Novel becomes a novel—a masterpiece of critical imagination.”— Alice Kaplan
Alice Kaplan - The Best American Poetry blog
“Michael Gorra has...created a book that is an adventure from beginning to end.... There are places... where Gorra gets so close to the making of Portrait of a Lady, he actually crosses over from literary history into the interior of James’s consciousness. The interior world that Gorra imagines, and that we come to inhabit, is so plausible, so true to life, that his Portrait of a Novel becomes a novel—a masterpiece of critical imagination.”
The Guardian (UK)
“[A] success in bringing the novel and its author into such vivid close focus… All readers of this novel feel, as Gorra says, that Isabel Archer will have ‘some life beyond the words that fix her to the page’. It is a tribute to his book that he makes us feel the life, of the book and its characters and its author, so deeply. He earns the right to end with James's wonderful words, ‘There is really too much to say’.”— Hermione Lee
Washington Times
“A highly satisfying account charting the evolution of a classic… Mr. Gorra takes us along this journey of self-discovery with the erudition and friendly tone of a master essayist… It is a testament to Henry James that The Portrait of a Lady remains as powerful and as touching since its publication, and thanks to Michael Gorra's Portrait of a Novel, readers will be inspired to return to it anew with a more learned eye.”— Marion Elizabeth Rodgers
Wichita Eagle
“An entertaining and highly personal account of an artist’s struggles with his greatest creation, charting the rhythms, people and places of James’ working life. Gorra brilliantly reshapes the story of James’ consummate story… To call Gorra’s work a detective story; or a diary of literary tourism, as he visits James’ temporary European homes in Italy, England and France; or even an intimate biography of a writer’s secret development—all this only hints at the grand spectacle and suspense Gorra builds as he reveals the self-proclaimed Master at work, refashioning his legacy, rewriting his literary will, bequeathing to generations of writers the great gift of the primacy of character over plot. Portrait of a Novel thus ranks alongside Mario Vargas Llosa’s examination of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary as an inventive watershed in literary criticism… Gorra’s exquisite commentary on James’s ageless masterpiece may be as close as we get to a last word on the Master and his lonely obedience to his Muse. It is a word worth savoring.”— Arlice Davenport
Commentary
Portrait of a Novel is an opening shot in a revolution, an intrepid attack on the ceremonies of academic criticism... Not only a gift to non-specialist readers, who have been starved of literary discussion. It is also a troop movement in a campaign to wrest authority over criticism from the academic interpreters.”— D. G. Myers
The Economist
“One of the many merits of Alan Ryan’s monumental new history of political philosophy is that it restores our enthusiasm for politics.... Mr Ryan’s historical approach helps us at the very least to look at our problems from new angles, and at best to harness the help of history’s sharpest minds in producing policies.... an impressive achievement: an enjoyable mental workout and an admirable monument to a lifetime of academic toil.”
The New Criterion
“A new and interesting approach to writing about Henry James… Although an academic, Michael Gorra does not write like one…[An] excellent book.”— Joseph Epstein
The Chronicle Review
“An elegant testimony that [Portrait of a Lady] can stand up to endless re-readings, accommodating you as you age.”— David Yaffe
New Statesman
“Marvellous… James’s sensibility suffuses [Gorra’s] language, creating a book that feels not unlike reading James: stately, reflective, nuanced and wise.”— Sarah Churchwell
The Nation
“James has become a solidly major figure, one of a handful of Big Names, as Michael Gorra’s thorough, level-headed new book, Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece, suggests. A scholarly (or fanatical) love letter, it reads like a biography of Portrait of a Lady—its gestation, development, reception—or perhaps a well-researched novel about Henry James that favors the early period.”— Leo Robson
Rebecca Mead - New Yorker
“...Michael Gorra in Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece... takes the rare but wise decision to approach James through the channel of a single work... In deference to James’s brilliance, Gorra has assumed the role of a professional prismatist. He peers at the book from multiple angles—those of biography, geography, publishing, textual variation, and mild erotic sleuthing, among others—as if hoping to catch it at an unfamiliar slant.”
Nicholas Mancusi
“The author’s encyclopedic understanding of not only James, but also his influences and contemporaries, offers a thoroughly illustrated and appropriately tumultuous picture of fiction’s awkward adolescence between stilted Victorianism and modernistic messiness. The reader does not have to love or even be particularly familiar with James’s work to enjoy this book; this is as much a story about the creative process itself, or the function of genius, as it is about any particular product.”
Lesley McDowell - The Independent
“I wish I could give this sublime marrying of the art and the life 10 stars…Gorra is a delightful guide through James’s world, tracing the American’s steps in Florence, looking over the Arno from the point that James did, or mounting the stairs of his home in Rye. His investigations never detract attention from his subject, but he permits the admittance that he sheds tears at Isabel’s final scene with the dying Ralph. At literary festivals throughout the country, readers always ask writers how they write. This books tells us, but never was demystification such an enjoyable and inspiring experience.”
James Wood - London Review of Books
“One of the many pleasures of Michael Gorra’s book is that he too has loved this novel since he studied it in college, and wants to share his passion for it. He has also taught it for many years, at Smith College, and he has written the kind of patient, sensitive, acute study that gifted teachers should write but rarely do.”
Joseph Epstein - The New Criterion
“A new and interesting approach to writing about Henry James… Although an academic, Michael Gorra does not write like one…[An] excellent book.”
Arlice Davenport - Wichita Eagle
“An entertaining and highly personal account of an artist’s struggles with his greatest creation, charting the rhythms, people and places of James’ working life. Gorra brilliantly reshapes the story of James’ consummate story… To call Gorra’s work a detective story; or a diary of literary tourism, as he visits James’ temporary European homes in Italy, England and France; or even an intimate biography of a writer’s secret development—all this only hints at the grand spectacle and suspense Gorra builds as he reveals the self-proclaimed Master at work, refashioning his legacy, rewriting his literary will, bequeathing to generations of writers the great gift of the primacy of character over plot. Portrait of a Novel thus ranks alongside Mario Vargas Llosa’s examination of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary as an inventive watershed in literary criticism… Gorra’s exquisite commentary on James’s ageless masterpiece may be as close as we get to a last word on the Master and his lonely obedience to his Muse. It is a word worth savoring.”
David Yaffe - The Chronicle Review
“An elegant testimony that [Portrait of a Lady] can stand up to endless re-readings, accommodating you as you age.”
Sarah Churchwell - New Statesman
“Marvellous… James’s sensibility suffuses [Gorra’s] language, creating a book that feels not unlike reading James: stately, reflective, nuanced and wise.”
D. G. Myers - Commentary
“Portrait of a Novel is an opening shot in a revolution, an intrepid attack on the ceremonies of academic criticism... Not only a gift to non-specialist readers, who have been starved of literary discussion. It is also a troop movement in a campaign to wrest authority over criticism from the academic interpreters.”
Leo Robson - The Nation
“James has become a solidly major figure, one of a handful of Big Names, as Michael Gorra’s thorough, level-headed new book, Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece, suggests. A scholarly (or fanatical) love letter, it reads like a biography of Portrait of a Lady—its gestation, development, reception—or perhaps a well-researched novel about Henry James that favors the early period.”
Library Journal
Every portrait has a subject and a background. In this work, Gorra (English, Smith Coll.; After Empire: Scott, Naipaul, Rushdie) not only provides the expected creation story behind Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady but also scrutinizes James's life, the state of the novel in the late 19th century, and literary history as it influenced and was influenced by Portrait. This novel was a turning point for both James's career and the novel form itself, and Gorra incisively tracks its repercussions throughout fiction. In addition—like Michael Anesko in Monopolizing the Master—Gorra literally follows in James's footsteps by visiting the same places as the master and inserting himself as a character into the background of his portrait. VERDICT Gorra's detailed yet expansive examination of all factors relating to the creation and import of James's masterpiece makes this obligatory reading for James fans and scholars, though Gorra assumes a familiarity with other period writers that some James readers—such as the many college students assigned to read Portrait each year—may not have. Strongly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, 1/30/12.]—Megan Hodge, Chesterfield Cty. P.L., Richmond, VA
Kirkus Reviews
Gorra (English/Smith Coll.; The Bells in Their Silence: Travels Through Germany, 2004, etc.) blends a focused biography of Henry James (1843–1916) with the story of his composition of The Portrait of a Lady (1881). Throughout this work of astonishing scholarship, Gorra directs our attention to the quotidian life of James (and his remarkable family), his composition of the novel (which first appeared in serial installments in the Atlantic here and Macmillan's Magazine in England), the significance of the events and characters in the story, and the influence of the novel on the subsequent fiction of James and others. Gorra also blends accounts of his own visits to important James sites in America, England and elsewhere. After a brief introduction to James' life and to the novel, the author establishes his narrative pattern: chapters about the novel followed by others about James' activities, family, friends, typists, contemporaries and so on. We read about his relationships with Atlantic editor William Dean Howells and with James' gifted brother William. We follow his travels to England, France and Italy; we visit his final home in Rye; we view his intimate relationships with Constance Fenimore Woolson and others--including Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (Gorra does not accept the suggestion that Holmes and James had sexual encounters). We also see him, near the end of his life, visiting and comforting hospitalized World War I soldiers. But most of Gorra's book examines Portrait--its creation, significance and revision (for the New York Edition in 1908). The author argues that chapter 42 of the novel, Isabel Archer's reverie, is "one of James' greatest achievements and a turning point in the history of the novel." Not for all readers, but Gorra's approach will appeal to scholars, fans of the James family and lovers of important novels and those who create them.
Cynthia Ozick
“In his resplendent Portrait of A Novel, Michael Gorra breaks through the remoteness of the Master—that majestic but privately enigmatic figure—so that Henry James now comes to us with the sensuous immediacy of his quotidian reality: the rooms he lived in, the streets he trod, and the very texture of his inmost sensibility. Remarkably, Gorra achieves this living nearness through a deep literary mining of the heroine of a single novel: Isabel Archer of The Portrait of A Lady. In Gorra's ingenious and capacious reading, James stands before us with a clarity of seeing and feeling given to no previous biographer.”
Chicago Tribune
“It’s hard to imagine, indeed, that there is much illumination still to offer on this particular author, or this particular book. Yet Gorra has produced a welcome new addition to the shelf.”— Nicholas Delbanco
Colm Toibin - Wall Street Journal
“Masterly and evocative… offers an exemplary approach to what remains a complex and fascinating subject.”
Anthony Lane - New Yorker
“Takes the rare but wise decision to approach James through the channel of a single work... In deference to James’s brilliance, Gorra has assumed the role of a professional prismatist. He peers at the book from multiple angles—those of biography, geography, publishing, textual variation, and mild erotic sleuthing, among others—as if hoping to catch it at an unfamiliar slant.”
Wall Street Journal
“Masterly and evocative… offers an exemplary approach to what remains a complex and fascinating subject.”— Colm Toibin
New Yorker
“Takes the rare but wise decision to approach James through the channel of a single work... In deference to James’s brilliance, Gorra has assumed the role of a professional prismatist. He peers at the book from multiple angles—those of biography, geography, publishing, textual variation, and mild erotic sleuthing, among others—as if hoping to catch it at an unfamiliar slant.”— Anthony Lane
Boston Globe
“Both personal and profound. Michael Gorra’s intense focus on a single work reflects his deep curiosity about this novel and displays his loving scrutiny of it. Gorra’s study, while keeping The Portrait of a Lady, its heroine Isabel Archer, and the years of its creation (1880-81) at its center, roams gracefully through James’s life and art.”— Barbara Fisher
The Sunday Times (UK)
“Incisive, informative and hugely entertaining. ... [N]ot only instructive and a pleasure to read, but (as Gorra doubtless intended) it also sends us back to James with a deeper appreciation for his literary technique, his painstaking approach to language and style, and above all, the genius and profundity with which he portrayed the characters who continue to populate our imaginative world and accompany us, at home and abroad.”— Francine Prose
Hermione Lee - The Guardian (UK)
“[A] success in bringing the novel and its author into such vivid close focus… All readers of this novel feel, as Gorra says, that Isabel Archer will have ‘some life beyond the words that fix her to the page’. It is a tribute to his book that he makes us feel the life, of the book and its characters and its author, so deeply. He earns the right to end with James's wonderful words, ‘There is really too much to say’.”
Marion Elizabeth Rodgers - Washington Times
“A highly satisfying account charting the evolution of a classic… Mr. Gorra takes us along this journey of self-discovery with the erudition and friendly tone of a master essayist… It is a testament to Henry James that The Portrait of a Lady remains as powerful and as touching since its publication, and thanks to Michael Gorra's Portrait of a Novel, readers will be inspired to return to it anew with a more learned eye.”
Daily Beast
“The author’s encyclopedic understanding of not only James, but also his influences and contemporaries, offers a thoroughly illustrated and appropriately tumultuous picture of fiction’s awkward adolescence between stilted Victorianism and modernistic messiness. The reader does not have to love or even be particularly familiar with James’s work to enjoy this book; this is as much a story about the creative process itself, or the function of genius, as it is about any particular product.”— Nicholas Mancusi
Nicholas Delbanco - Chicago Tribune
“It’s hard to imagine, indeed, that there is much illumination still to offer on this particular author, or this particular book. Yet Gorra has produced a welcome new addition to the shelf.”
Nicholas Mancusi - Daily Beast
“The author’s encyclopedic understanding of not only James, but also his influences and contemporaries, offers a thoroughly illustrated and appropriately tumultuous picture of fiction’s awkward adolescence between stilted Victorianism and modernistic messiness. The reader does not have to love or even be particularly familiar with James’s work to enjoy this book; this is as much a story about the creative process itself, or the function of genius, as it is about any particular product.”
Barbara Fisher - Boston Globe
“Both personal and profound. Michael Gorra’s intense focus on a single work reflects his deep curiosity about this novel and displays his loving scrutiny of it. Gorra’s study, while keeping The Portrait of a Lady, its heroine Isabel Archer, and the years of its creation (1880-81) at its center, roams gracefully through James’s life and art.”
Francine Prose - The Sunday Times (UK)
“Incisive, informative and hugely entertaining. ... [N]ot only instructive and a pleasure to read, but (as Gorra doubtless intended) it also sends us back to James with a deeper appreciation for his literary technique, his painstaking approach to language and style, and above all, the genius and profundity with which he portrayed the characters who continue to populate our imaginative world and accompany us, at home and abroad.”
Brenda Wineapple
“A revelation: charming, fresh, capacious, a surprise and a delight.”
Jay Parini
“Michael Gorra—one of the finest critics at work today—paves a way in this study for a new era in literary criticism, one that combines travelogue, memoir, intellectual history, close reading, and—above all—a profound sympathy for the world summoned by a major author.”
Wall Street Journal - Colm Toibin
“Masterly and evocative… offers an exemplary approach to what remains a complex and fascinating subject.”
Chicago Tribune - Nicholas Delbanco
“It’s hard to imagine, indeed, that there is much illumination still to offer on this particular author, or this particular book. Yet Gorra has produced a welcome new addition to the shelf.”
New Yorker - Anthony Lane
“Takes the rare but wise decision to approach James through the channel of a single work... In deference to James’s brilliance, Gorra has assumed the role of a professional prismatist. He peers at the book from multiple angles—those of biography, geography, publishing, textual variation, and mild erotic sleuthing, among others—as if hoping to catch it at an unfamiliar slant.”
Boston Globe - Barbara Fisher
“Both personal and profound. Michael Gorra’s intense focus on a single work reflects his deep curiosity about this novel and displays his loving scrutiny of it. Gorra’s study, while keeping The Portrait of a Lady, its heroine Isabel Archer, and the years of its creation (1880-81) at its center, roams gracefully through James’s life and art.”
The Sunday Times (UK) - Francine Prose
“Incisive, informative and hugely entertaining. ... [N]ot only instructive and a pleasure to read, but (as Gorra doubtless intended) it also sends us back to James with a deeper appreciation for his literary technique, his painstaking approach to language and style, and above all, the genius and profundity with which he portrayed the characters who continue to populate our imaginative world and accompany us, at home and abroad.”
Literary Review
“Michael Gorra...has pulled off an astounding feat...in this impressive study...Gorra goes anywhere that strikes his fancy, and the result is splendid: a book to reread in years to come, a model for what criticism can do when happily married to biography.”
The Sunday Times
“...nobody to my knowledge has written more perceptively about The Portrait of a Lady. Gorra's reading of the novel is consistently revealing...Portrait of a Novel is not only instructive and a pleasure to read, but (as Gorra doubtless intended) it also sends us back to James with a deeper appreciation for his literary technique...”
Hermione Lee - The Guardian
“It is a tribute to his [Gorra's] book that he makes us feel the life, of the book and its characters and its author, so deeply. He earns the right to end with James's wonderful words, There really is too much to say.”
London Review of Books
“...he [Gorra] has written the kind of patient, sensitive, acute study that gifted teachers should write but rarely do.”

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780871404084
Publisher:
Liveright Publishing Corporation
Publication date:
08/27/2012
Pages:
416
Sales rank:
502,391
Product dimensions:
9.30(w) x 6.40(h) x 1.30(d)

What People are Saying About This

Cynthia Ozick
In his resplendent Portrait of A Novel, Michael Gorra breaks through the remoteness of the Master—that majestic but privately enigmatic figure—so that Henry James now comes to us with the sensuous immediacy of his quotidian reality: the rooms he lived in, the streets he trod, and the very texture of his inmost sensibility. Remarkably, Gorra achieves this living nearness through a deep literary mining of the heroine of a single novel: Isabel Archer of The Portrait of A Lady. In Gorra's ingenious and capacious reading, James stands before us with a clarity of seeing and feeling given to no previous biographer.

Meet the Author

Michael Gorra teaches English at Smith College. His books include After Empire, The Bells in Their Silence, and, as editor, the Norton Critical Edition of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. He lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.

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Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
blahsfemi More than 1 year ago
James Woods review in the New Yorker - " Michael Gorra has written the best single-volume life of Henry James that we now have."  I agree. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago