Writer Spotlight: Henry James

My favorite literary time period is the Victorian era (1814-1895, UK) and the late 19th century in general. I haven’t read everything from that era, of course, but my favorite authors and books come from that time period: Charles Dickens, the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Bram Stoker  (Dracula is considered Gothic, not Victorian, but it was written in the late 19th century, 1897).

 

Henry James is not Victorian either – he’s an American and a Naturalist – but I am attracted to his work. Much of his writing was produced in the late 19th century. My attraction to that time period is probably due to its pessimism about society, criticism of class divides, defiance of certain social conventions, and an attitude of self-determination rather than relying on supernatural solutions to human problems. Naturalism, though, tends to believe that environment creates destiny, which I disagree with. Victorian literature responds to its disappointment with society by attempting to provide hope; it is essentially optimistic. Exploring the predicaments that arise from confronting the power of Custom is engaging and timeless. So, I’ve decided to celebrate 19th century literature periodically in this blog by spotlighting certain authors.

 

Today, it’s Henry James. There are several things that stood out to me about James’ life. One, is that he grew up fairly privileged. Both of his parents came from money. This afforded James the opportunity to travel extensively at a young age. Certainly, his experiences in Europe influenced his writing. Many of his stories are about clashes between American and European culture when Americans are on European soil. He knew about this first hand, choosing to eventually give up American citizenship to become a Brit.

 

In Europe, he also associated with other writers.  Association is crucial. Charles Dickens and George Eliot were two of James’ acquaintances, along with other artists and intellectuals. I often forget how important association is. Most successful creatives throughout history have had other creatives to associate with, and gain inspiration from. Birds of a feather…

 

My favorite fact about Henry James is that he continued to have success later in life. The piece that is considered by many to be his first real masterpiece is Portrait of a Lady (1881), which came out in his 38th year. And one of his most famous works, Wings of the Dove, came out when he was fifty-nine. The good news about writing is that it’s not like modeling. As long as you keep at it, you can get better with age!

 

Following is a list of some his most notable novels and novellas. I know summer is unofficially over, but I hope you haven’t put away your summer reading list yet!

 

  • Portrait of a Lady (1881)
  • Washington Square (1881)
  • The Bostonians (1886)
  • The Princess Casamassima (1886)
  • The Aspern Papers (1888)
  • The Tragic Muse (1890)
  • The American (1891)
  • What Maisie Knew (1897)
  • The Turn of the Screw (1898)
  • The Ambassadors (1903)
  • The Wings of the Dove (1902)
  • The Golden Bowl (1904)

 

Happy reading and have a beautiful weekend,

Raven

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That Which We Resist Persists, a commentary on a passage from Nella Larsen’s Passing

Today I was reading Nella Larsen’s novella Passing when a particular passage jumped out at me:

“That strange, and to her fantastic, notion of Brian’s of going off to Brazil which, though unmentioned, yet lived within him; how it frightened her, and – yes, angered her!….

“He had never spoken of his desire since that long-ago time of storm and strain, of hateful and nearly disastrous quarreling, when she had so firmly opposed him, so sensibly pointed out its utter impossibility and its probable consequences to her and the boys, and had even hinted at a dissolution of their marriage in the event of his persistence in his idea. No, there had been, in all the years that they had lived together since then, no other talk of it, no more than there had been any other quarreling or any other threats. But because, so she insisted, the bond of flesh and spirit between them was so strong, she knew, had always known, that his dissatisfaction had continued, as had his dislike and disgust for his profession and his country…

“It wasn’t now, as it had been once, that she was afraid that he would throw everything aside and rush off to the remote place of his heart’s desire. He wouldn’t, she knew. He was fond of her, loved her, in his slightly undemonstrative way. And there were the boys….

“It was only that she wanted him to be happy, resenting, however, his inability to be so with things as they were, and never acknowledging that though she did want him to be happy, it was only in her own way and by some plan of hers for him that she truly desired him to be so. Nor did she admit that all other plans, all other ways, she regarded as menaces, more or less indirect, to that security of place and substance which she insisted upon for her sons and in a lesser degree for herself.”

Wow! I really appreciate the psychological subtlety as well as the universality of this passage. It encapsulates so well the common dynamics that go on between couples. It is unfortunate, but, in many long-term relationships, people are coerced into relinquishing pieces of themselves, aspects of their hearts’ desires in response to the selfishness and insecurity of their partners.

I have seen people pushed into giving up school, abandoning their dreams of entrepreneurship, dumbing down their talents, abandoning friends, and even family. This list goes on. But, for me – because I am keenly aware that I have only one incarnation that I know of for certain – I am not willing to do this.

I accepted long ago that my belief system necessitates certain trade-offs. What other people call “security,” for example, I do not have. But what other people view as security I view as minimum-security prison. I am also aware of my privilege to hold these beliefs due to the country and time period in which I live. In many parts of the world, people, especially women, still face dire consequences for not submitting to society’s plan for their lives. I plan to use my privilege to live my life full out, whatever that means to me over the years. I accept that this makes me an oddball. While other single women often look at couples with a sigh in their hearts and a lump in their throats, I view relationships as calculated risks, mostly ego-alliances, and socially sanctioned refuges from fear and insecurity. Such relationships often encourage mediocrity, consumerism, frustration, and stagnation.

On the other hand, I celebrate the fact that there are also vibrant, dynamic couples in which both parties are evolving, living their lives full out, and actively supporting each other’s dreams, goals, desires, and happiness. In these partnerships, each person feels free to be fully themselves and to pursue their deepest longings, free from emotional blackmail. I admire and respect such couples. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are couples in which neither party has desires outside the culturally-approved goals of a “normal” life, an easy retirement, and a gentle coast into the grave. These couples are traditionally-minded and very well matched. They are doing no one any harm.

But in the many cases in which people are clinging to each other in a desperate attempt to control the natural unpredictability of life, where one or both parties apply external restrictions and psychological manipulation in order to prevent their partners from growing and changing, where people have resigned themselves to an unsatisfactory life out of guilt or obligation, I would hasten to remind such people that Impermanence is an inescapable fact of life.

The protagonist in Passing assumes that she can beat back the passionate longing in her husband to explore Brazil, and pursue other career paths, with a barrage of threats, manipulation, blackmail, and fighting. She is wholly and singularly concerned with her own needs, comfort, and happiness, not his. She comes to learn that what we try to deny in ourselves, and in others, has a sneaky way of rising to the surface anyway. Then we are left not only with the original problem of Impermanence, but an even greater feeling of panic, failure, and helplessness.

The best way to deal with change is to get out in front of it and embrace it. (It’s coming anyway).

Peace and blessings,

Raven

Charles Dickens – My Hero

I fell in love with reading before I had even learned how to do it. Like most babies, I enjoyed being read to. I even memorized my favorite stories to the point where people who didn’t know better thought I was reading – because I remembered exactly when to turn the pages! And my love for reading never faded with age.

Early in my childhood, my mom established the helpful habit of regular trips to the library. Because she also loves to read, she would venture off to the popular fiction section, and I would head over to the kids/young adult section. I loved mysteries at first. Eventually I moved on to the Judy-Blume-type books. I remember the book Go Ask Alice (by Anonymous) had a profound effect on me. People make fun of me when I say that because they view it as a cheesy “don’t do drugs” book. But it worked on me. I was never interested in drugs anyway. But the visuals from that story painted a nauseating enough picture to permanently discourage me from going down that road.

As I got older, I fell in love with classic literature. When I’d go to bookstores (remember those?) I’d always go straight to the Literature section. I didn’t know what I was looking for exactly. I just wanted to be told a great story, but I wanted to have to work for it a little bit. I wanted the language itself to speak to me. I wanted the humor to be sarcastic and subtle. I wanted any romance involved to be oblique, hinted about, not graphic and obvious. The first author I became attached to was Charles Dickens.

I don’t remember which of his novels I read first. But I remember Oliver Twist and Great Expectations being the most memorable ones for me. Dickens was a great entry-level literary fiction author for me because, though he is considered “literary” now, his novels were received as popular fiction in his day. I loved the humor in his novels, the way he makes fun of his characters in a loving way, and the cartoonishness of his villains. Beyond that, he’s able to inject social commentary without being self-righteous or preachy.

The social justice aspect of his novels combined with great writing and great story-telling make him my favorite author. I never knew much about him personally, so the above YouTube video was informative for me. I identify with him in many ways. I know what struggle is. I am always on the side of the underdog. I believe the arts should do something beyond entertain. They should inform the reader in some way, make him/her better off, inspired, open to changing societal ills. I’ve always loved the old morality plays for that reason. Yes, they are simplistic, but they are powerful in that they entertain as well as deliver a message.

So I hope to do the same with my writing! In fact, learning about Dickens has inspired me to scrap the story I was working on and start something that has a deeper meaning for me. Wish me luck!

Happy Reading and Writing,

Raven