Ranking Henry James novels

A quote in Harriet the Spy, the opening sentence of Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady — it began then. I liked the English firmness of his name, the specificity of the title. Not until two summers later, a month before starting high school, did I investigate. Its subtleties may have eluded me, but I was old enough for its crash course on the ash and ruin of a loveless marriage and how malefactors sheathe their contempt in beautiful sentences; the collection of a rich supporting gallery helped too. Over the years I picked off one novel after another, often returning for seconds and thirds, The Princess Casamassima most recently. Only his debut Watch and Ward and the putatively minor late period novel The Outcry remain untouched.

Preceded by a reputation that turns bibliophiles into barbarians on hearing his name, he is best approached as a short story writer and novella writer of excellence. Start with Madame des Mauves and The Aspern Papers. Proceed to Washington Square, an accounting of quashed lives viewed with a cosmic irony. Mid-period novels like The Bostonians may surprise you with their cutting wit and Dickensian comedy. Only later would I open The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl.

About The Awkward Age‘s placement I paused. An experiment in dialogic form and satire, this novel published during the eclipse of his theatrical experiments asks readers to note the plight of a young woman as a bewildering array of suitors and their awful parents besiege her; meanwhile, an old — in every sense — friend of the family sublimates his infatuation with her by offering his protection and counsel. Even for its time this was seedy stuff. James’ panoptic vision was aware of the hints he had prepared like cheese in mousetraps. But the characters don’t stop being chattering non-entities. Unlike What Maisie Knew, whose effectiveness depends on a narrative form in which the preteen title character barely perceives what’s happening to and around her, The Awkward Age presents each scenario as a playlet; it tired this reader. The novel’s giggling attenuations led to the following observation from Ezra Pound’s still-essential guide to James:

If one were advocate instead of critic, one would definitely claim that these atmospheres, nuances, impressions of personal tone and quality are his subject; that in these he gets certain things that almost no one else had done before him. These timbres and tonalities are his stronghold, he is ignorant of nearly everything else. It is all very well to say that modern life is largely made up of velleities, atmospheres, timbres, nuances, etc., but if people really spent as much time fussing, to the extent of the Jamesian fuss about such normal trifling, age-old affairs, as slight inclinations to adultery, slight disinclinations to marry, to refrain from marrying, etc., etc., life would scarcely be worth the bother of keeping on with it. It is also contendable that one must depict such mush in order to abolish it.

It’s important to note that Pound, trying to Make It New, sought to distance from what he saw as the fussiness and repressions of the Edwardian era during which people did express slight inclinations to adultery and slight disinclinations to marry. The “atmospheres, nuances, impressions of personal tone and quality” do reveal character.

Anyway, the list…

The Hague

The Sacred Fount
The Awkward Age


The Reverberator
The Other House

Sound, Solid

The Europeans
Roderick Hudson
The Tragic Muse
The American
The Wings of the Dove

Good to Great

The Portrait of a Lady
Washington Square
The Bostonians
The Ambassadors
The Golden Bowl
The Princess Casamassima
What Maisie Knew
The Ivory Tower

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