Introducing Henry James

unspecifiedThe American, 1877 and Washington Square, 1880

Hello. Please welcome Henry James to the blog. Or don’t. He isn’t particularly welcome. I have read one short story, one novella and four full length novels by the fellow and I don’t care for him. The short story, Daisy Miller, was very pretty good, but everything else fell flat. I am not going to list the defects of James’ prose style now, because everything I have read by him contains the same flaws. I plan on working up a post on his many shortcomings to avoid the tedium of detailing them in every post. Dude wrote a lot of novels. You don’t need to read the same screed eight times. Today I will discuss two of his earliest novels and detail the flaws that are specific to them.

Henry James was American but spent much of his life living overseas. He was very concerned with culture clashes between Americans and Europeans. The titular American is a chap called Christopher Newman, a wealthy industrialist who ventures to the Continent in search of culture and a wife. Christopher Newman. Get it? He’s a new type of man that stale European bluebloods have not encountered. And you can tell he’s a good guy, because Christ appears in his name. I rolled my eyes when I first encountered this name. So heavy-handed, Henry. Our American hero is earnest, hard-working and self-assured. He has the excessive confidence of a tall, rich, American man.

The story opens in the Louvre with an entertaining scene in which poor Newman is duped into buying a poor copy of a painting by a pretty, opportunistic French mademoiselle. I was ready for wily Noemi to tempt him into a life of idleness and dissolution. Get in there and corrupt his Puritanical morals, girl. Sadly, Christ-opher is incorruptible. Instead, another character gets involved with her and pure, innocent Christopher is shocked when she becomes the mistress of a rich man. How dare she attempt to escape poverty! Before this scenario transpires Chris has befriended Noemi’s father and the two of them discussed her sexual purity for absolutely no reason. Sensing Christopher’s high-minded morality, the father tries to ingratiate himself by stating that he would kill his daughter if she ever ruined herself. When Chris hears about her ruination, he turns up at the father’s door like “Well…you better go kill her now.” Seriously. He is disappointed that the father doesn’t murder his daughter. Really.

Elsewhere in the novel, James attempts to update the Gothic novel for the late Victorian Era. In Gothic romances a young villager falls in love with the pure maiden who lives in the castle. Her evil wardens mistreat her and conspire against him. Against all odds, he persists, rescues her, and turns out to be the long-lost son of some nobleman. The angels of heaven descend to bless their holy matrimony. Newman stands in for the plucky villager. He came to Europe in search of a wife and he has very high standards. Chris spouts off copious entitled piffle about his search for an ideal wife. He sees this paragon as a reward due to him for his hard work. What is the point of the wealth he has accumulated if he doesn’t have “a beautiful woman perched on the pile, like a statue on a monument. She must be as good as she is beautiful, and as clever as she is good. I can give my wife a good deal, so I am not afraid to ask a good deal myself. […] I want to possess, in a word, the best article in the market.” Did you just throw up in your mouth a little? I did. I know that Henry James is taking a jibe here at the American obsession with money. The very words Newman chooses are redolent of Capitalism. But, we must remember that he is the hero. He is portrayed as a good and pure Christian who deserves the fantasy wife he seeks even though he only seeks her as a symbol of “victory over circumstances.”

Christopher soon encounters the exact embodiment of his fantasy, his “dream realized,” in the person of Claire de Cintre, a widow and member of an aristocratic French family. Unfortunately, the last three quarters of the novel center on this romance and it is not a very convincing one. Claire is quite boring. James does not make his reader fall in love with her. However, in true Gothic style, Christopher is willing to brave the contempt of her evil relatives in his attempts to win her hand. It’s all quite dull. Ultimately, she is too good and pure to disobey her mother. She becomes a nun. Newman returns to America in despair and remains in despair forever.

If The American has a silly and dramatic plot, and it does, Washington Square veers hard in the other direction. He examines how the scenario of the maiden wishing to marry an unsuitable man would play out in contemporary New York with no drama, just realism. Our male lead is Dr. Sloper, an eminent physician and misogynist. His wife dies, leaving him with a daughter whom he does not respect. Dr. Sloper thinks very highly of his own intellect and does not esteem Catherine’s intellect at all. Probably, if he had given her more credit from the outset, she would have accomplished more intellectually and developed more common sense.

A fortune hunter named Morris Townsend starts sniffing around Catherine, who is a bit of an old maid. Dr. Sloper does not believe that anyone could love Catherine for her own merit and forbids her to marry him. Poor Catherine somehow has some self-esteem despite being raised by such a pig of a father. She wishes to marry Morris. Dr. Sloper is right about Morris, but express his reservations in an honest conversation. He is too much of a misogynist for that. Instead he sees the question of her marriage as a competition between himself and the man who wishes for her hand. Who has more influence? Who will she obey? Catherine has never defied him before, and he believes that his paternal sway over this meek and humble girl will reign triumphant. In a way he wins, the two never marry because he threatens to disinherit her if she marries him. Catherine is happy to be well off with Morris, but Morris only wants her if she comes with a giant dowry.

The scuffle between the Morris, Dr. Sloper and Catherine does not end in a marriage. Instead Catherine loses respect for her father, because of his disrespectful and manipulative treatment of her. After the doctor’s death, an impoverished Townsend shows up at spinster Catherine’s door and expresses his regret. He should have taken her when he had the chance. Would she like to go out for oysters? No she would not. She is perfectly happy with her needlework and charity work and doesn’t need him.

On the surface, Washington Square sounds like an interesting reexamination of the well-worn archetype of the defiant daughter. There are some good bits of dialogue. I did take some pleasure in James’ subversion of the dramatic and romanticized elements of these stories into prosaic, everyday reality. However, prosaic reality isn’t all that fun or interesting. The characters are dull and flat. I didn’t care much whom Catherine married. It’s not a long book, but it still seemed bogged down in minutiae.

You might like The American or Washington Square if:

  • you are writing your Ph.D. on Henry James for some reason.

You might not like The American or Washington Square if:

  • see above. I think I covered it.

Final Thoughts: These books are just plain bad.

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The Forgotten Woman Who Created the Detective Novel

leavenworth case

The Leavenworth Case, Anna Katharine Green, 1878

You have probably never heard of Anna Katharine Green. I certainly hadn’t before I started researching notable 19th century novels. This is a travesty because this woman GAVE BIRTH TO THE DETECTIVE NOVEL. Yes, I am screaming.

She wasn’t quite the first detective novelist or even the first American woman to write in the genre. One other lady whom no one remembers beat her to that distinction, Seeley Regester. But, Anna K was a pioneer. She was the first to publish a series of novels featuring the same detective. What? Yes! She pre-sherlocked Sherlock. I’m so excited I can’t think of verbs. She invented the nosy older lady detective, pre-marpling Marple. And she introduced the first girl detective. A trail of evidence that leads straight to Nancy Drew!

Anna Katharine Green. Remember that name. I’m smiling just thinking about her. What a woman. What a genre starter. Wilkie Collins loved her. Agatha Christie cited her as an influence. Obviously. Arthut Conan Doyle made a point of visiting her when he traveled to the States.

Her first novel is The Leavenworth Case. Our narrator is a young and presumably handsome lawyer whose boss is conveniently laid up when his longtime client and good friend is MURDERED IN COLD BLOOD. Convenient because, this means dashing young Mr. Raymond is sent to comfort and advise the murdered man’s two beautiful nieces. His whole world is shaken when the police inquiry immediately casts suspicion on one of the bereaved ladies. But how could anyone suspect such a lovely creature of  such a foul deed? Horrors.

Our chivalrous hero sets out to aid the eccentric lead detective, Mr. Gryce, out of curiosity, but mainly with the intention of proving that neither of New York’s finest debs could possibly commit such a grizzly deed. I know, confirmation bias. It’s ok though, because Mr. Gryce does make a fool out of him after making good use of his ability rub elbows with high society.

I was surprised by how well Anna Katharine Green tricked me. I’ve read so many books, I can usually guess the outcome many chapters away, but she lays down so many great false paths of suspicion. The actual murderer only popped into my head as a potential suspect fleetingly, before she convinced me that it must be someone else.

I’ll admit, the book is a bit melodramatic, but hey, so what. It’s such good fun. I am going to read more of her stories and I can’t wait to do so. I need to meet the original Ms. Marple and the original girl detective, who appear in later books, not this one. It’s truly delightful. If you’re a mystery fan, you owe Anna Katharine Green some of your time. She birthed your genre for you and it was hard, thankless work. She deserves to be remembered.

You might like Anna Katharine Green if:

  • you’re a fan of classic mystery writers like Conan Doyle and Christie
  • you enjoy period pieces and murder mysteries

You might not like Anna Katharine Green if:

  • mysteries just aren’t your thing

Final Thoughts: Read The Leavenworth Case. Just do it. Anna Katharine Green deserves a renaissance. Or read one of her other novels. At the very least listen to one on librivox.org. It’s free. There are 42 mysteries for you to choose from! Enjoy, darlings.

The Tragic Fall that Broke a Young Girl’s Personality

what katy did

What Katy Did, Susan Coolidge, 1872

Listen, children, to a story that was written long ago, ‘bout a girl who fell off the swings and broke her will to resist patriarchy.

I think the best place to start is with Susan Coolidge’s own explanation of her tale, given in the introduction. She describes

“a Katy I once knew, who planned to do a great many wonderful things, and in the end did none of them, but something quite different, –something she didn’t like at all at first, but which, on the whole, was a great deal better than any of the things she dreamed about.”

I need you to bear that quote in mind while I describe this novel to you.

Protagonist Katy Carr is the eldest of a throng of motherless children. She’s not particularly attentive and kind to the little ones or to her lessons, because she occupies herself “dreaming of a time when something she had done would make her famous,” instead of learning her lessons or tying her bootlaces like a good little girl. She rambles in fields and meadows, and gets into scrapes including a fight with the rival girl’s school.

The setup for Katy’s character growth is the best part of the book. Katy’s inept leadership of her band of siblings is quite charming. Sure, she lacks the patience and empathy that come with time, but she’s just a kid. Merely twelve. Unfortunately, Coolidge sees Katy’s spunk as a tragic flaw and not a strength. More unfortunately, Coolidge thought that a spinal injury should be the catalyst for Katy’s character growth.

Obstinate Katy decides to use the swings after her aunt told her not to. Aunt didn’t mention that they needed repair. Katy falls and injures her spine. Four years of immobility rob Katy of her dreams and domesticate her. Conveniently, she has an angelic and permanently paralyzed cousin to guide her out of her depression with such sage advice as “get a prettier nightgown so that you don’t bum other people out with your appearance.”

Bored out of her skull, Katy decides to start taking on domestic duties like deciding what her family should have for dinner. Gradually, she becomes a mother to her younger siblings. Her spine heals and she walks again.

Garbage.

I have so many problems with this story. Do we really need Katy to be paralyzed for her to mature? She’s immobile for four years, which would have been enough time for her to start taking on household responsibilities because she saw the need, not because she literally could not do anything else with herself.

The lesson here is that instead of striving to have significance in the larger world, young girls should endeavor to be good housekeepers, because that is “a great deal better.” Shut up, Susan Coolidge. Why are you writing novels when you should be ordering servants to cook certain meals on certain days? Oh, because you want to be recognized outside your own home. . .for telling women not to look for validation, acclaim or meaning outside their homes. Shut up. You’re the worst.

 

I also really hate when characters suddenly become not paralyzed. There’s so little representation for disabled people in literature, tv and film, it’s a damn shame that authors can’t conceive of meaningful growth for disabled characters that does not involve them miraculously becoming abled. Temporary disability as a vehicle for character growth is astoundingly weak writing on many levels, especially when said “growth” means giving up your dreams and settling for your gender role.

What an absolute piece of drivel this novel is.

You might like What Katy Did if:

  • you’re a halfwit

You might not like What Katy Did if:

  • you’re fully witted

Final Thoughts: Let’s not print this novel anymore, ok? Please.

Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn Are the Original Scooby and Shaggy

IMG_1459 (5)

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain, 1872

I did not read Tom Sawyer as a child, so I cannot give it the sentimental effusion I gave to Little Women, which is a comparable book; both are so influential that children’s literature and television still borrow techniques and elements from these seminal works. Mark Twain’s two young scamps, Tom and Huck, sneak to the cemetery at night to perform some sort of witchcraft with a dead cat. They witness a crime and spend the rest of the book wrestling with scruple and fear. Ultimately, they manage to stumble into all the right places at all the right times to thwart the villain whom adult authorities failed to apprehend. Does this not remind you of Scooby Doo and Shaggy, and a host of other children’s stories in which the kids capture the bad guy? Mark Twain invented that. He also invented or at the least popularized going to your own funeral as a plot element.

He also created or described a delightful little boy barter economy. Tom trades marbles, teeth, bugs, bits of glass, one-eyed kittens and doorknobs among other things. He notoriously exchanges a chance to whitewash a fence for a wealth of items discarded by adults in their ignorance of the value of sundry scraps to little chaps. Half the humor of the book is in the small things Tom values, such as the ability to steer the movements of a tick during a school lesson. I also appreciate the charming superstitions Tom adheres too. Very funny.

While Twain satirizes the romantic visions of knights, thieves and pirates that Tom has acquired from Robin Hood and other literature, his story is quite a romantic fantasy itself. Children thwart a hardened criminal, survive for days while lost in a cave, and we must talk about Huckleberry Finn. As the son of the town drunk, Huck is brought up by no one. He sleeps in the haylofts of kindly strangers. He doesn’t go to school. The boys in town envy his freedom. Twain does not adequately explain how Huck manages to avoid starvation. Fishing? Seems unlikely to provide year round sustenance.

When the Widow Douglas insists on giving Huck a home, Twain portrays the moment as a lamentable loss of freedom. Granted, young boys can’t be expected to recognize the value of being told to bathe and go to school. It’s natural for Huck to feel uncomfortable in an unfamiliar setting. What bothers me is Twain’s depiction of the glorious liberty of being an uncared for child. I shudder to think of Huck’s vulnerability. Being unloved, undefended and unprovided for is a horrible position for a child to be in. As an allegory for freedom from the tethers of society, Huckleberry Finn in Tom Sawyer only kind of works. I understand what he represents, but he represents it poorly in my opinion. You can take the teacher out of the school, but you can’t take the concern for the safety of children out of the teacher. I hope this trifle will be remedied in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which I have enormously high expectations for. I find that books with glowing reputations in the canon tend to deserve them.

In Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain evinces exactly the racial sensitivity and understanding you would expect from a Southerner in the 1870s. Not good. Injun Joe is a dark spot in the already dark history of Native people in the English canon. I could go on about race in this novel and I will, upon request, but if you have found this blog, you probably already know enough about race in America to know what to expect from this region during this era.

You might like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer if:

  • you like children’s literature
  • you have a silly sense of humor

You might  not like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer if:

  • your life is too short for the slightly lesser works of great authors

Final Thoughts: Certainly worth reading. Very funny and charming if not the greatest work by this author.

Oh, Those Quaint and Wacky Dutch

silver skates

Hans Brinker, or, the Silver Skates, Mary Mapes Dodge, 1865

I was surprised to see Hans Brinker, or, the Silver Skates pop up on Wikipedia’s list of literature published in 1865. I remember watching the movie as a kid, but I never knew it was based on a book. If I had known, I would have assumed that the book was written by a Dutch person. Nope, it’s a romanticized vision of the Netherlands written by an American.

Why? To teach children about the strange, charming habits of the Dutch with their windmills, dikes and such. Mary Mapes Dodge invites us to “take a rocking-chair trip with me to that far country where you may see, perhaps for the first time, some curious things that Hans and Gretel saw every day.” Yes, she really did name her two main characters Hans and Gretel. Grimm’s Fairy Tales was published 43 years earlier, just so we’re clear on that. Mapes considers Holland “one of the queerest countries under the sun.” So, that’s the tone of the novel. Look-at-those-whacky-Dutch.

It’s pretty charming to imagine Victorian children sitting around the fire at night listening to Pa or Ma read to them from Hans Brinker from the rocking chair, though, even if the tone is. . .not ideal.

The story contains two plotlines. First we have the Brinker family: Dame Brinker, Raff Brinker, Hans and Gretel. Years before the start of our story, Raff was called to the dikes to make emergency repairs during a bad storm. Whilst battling back the sea, which threatens to flood Holland constantly (Did you know that? I guess I should have known that, because of the dikes. Will climate change eliminate the Netherlands? Kind of a scary place to live. I’m so glad I don’t live in a place that will be underwater soon.), Raff falls and strikes his head. His TBI causes him to lose his memory and most of his intellect. Also, he has a watch in his pocket that is not his and he can’t explain where he got it. Also, the night before his accident Raff suspected that a frenemy of his was plotting to steal the pile of gold he and Dame Brinker had diligently saved for their children’s education. Unfortunately, Raff moved the gold and did not have time to tell his wife, because he was called to the dikes. Without Raff’s earning power, the Brinkers have descended into poverty. They bear it nobly, but the poor children have become social pariahs, because no one wants to hang out with poorly clothed children.

The second story line involves a group of boys who decide to skate between several Dutch cities along the canals. Hans is not included, because he doesn’t have the money for food and lodging and no one likes him, because he’s poor. Of course, one boy has an English cousin visiting who needs everything explained to him so he can comment on how weird the Dutch are. The boys’ trip is a vehicle for description of Dutch history, geography, architecture and culture. Sadly, there’s a heavy dose of fat shaming. Mapes paused every few pages to poke fun at the good natured, pudgy kid in the group who can’t keep up and continually needs a nap and more food.

Both stories culminate in a race to see who is the fastest kid in this particular Dutch town. The prize is a pair of silver skates.

If you’re a sentimental sort, like me, you will find the resolution of the Brinker family’s strife quite touching.

I don’t have much else to say about this book, because there’s not much to it. Considering that the genre of children’s literature did not exist as we know it when this book was written, it’s not a bad first foray. It’s not great either.

You might like Hans Brinker, or, the Silver Skates if:

  • you’re dutchophile (Is that a thing. Surely it is.)

You might not like Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates if:

  • you’re not even a little bit sappy

Final thoughts: While Hans Brinker is an influential work of literature, it popularized the speed skating and the story of the Dutch boy plugging the dike with his finger, it is forgettable as literature. Some aspects are well done, but it’s a bit tiresome overall.