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Reviewed by:
  • Henry James: The Contemporary Reviews
  • Sheila Teahan
Kevin J. Hayes, ed. Henry James: The Contemporary Reviews. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996. 477 pp. $95.00 (cloth).

This recent volume in the American Critical Archives series offers the most complete collection yet published of contemporary British and American magazine and newspaper reviews of James’s writings. The reviews cover twenty-two works, including the major novels, as well as The Reverberator, The Other House, The Two Magics (comprising The Turn of the Screw and Covering End), and The American Scene. They are chronologically arranged by work and then in order of appearance, and each chapter is followed by a checklist of additional reviews.

Hayes’s selection underlines some striking differences between British and American responses to certain works. Especially in reviews of the early novels, American critics tend to be either defensive or complacent about the assumed typicality of James’s American characters. Judging from this volume, for example, The American appears to have been received more positively in Britain than in the U.S. Some American reviewers are offended by what they perceive as Christopher Newman’s implied representativeness; one complains,

If Mr. James had chosen to write his novel with Newman for hero, and to call it by his name, or Mme. de Cintré’s, or any other, and to let Newman go as a representative of a certain kind of American who gets rich in California, very well; but to have an American hold this man up to the world as the American is not highly satisfactory.


Eclectic Magazine finds that the Wentworths inspire “the reader to feel a sort of conscious pride in being an American” (57); Atlantic Monthly “cannot help wishing that our native authors would have done with this incessant drawing of comparisons between ourselves and the folk in Europe, and our respective ways of living, thinking, and talking” (63). A less literal-minded British reviewer hails The Europeans as “perhaps the purest piece of realism ever done” and predicts that James might become “one of the most renowned novelists of his epoch” (49).

Students of James are familiar with his distress over his steadily waning popularity and depression about the commercial failure of the New York Edition. Those who have not read widely among contemporary reviews of his work may expect to find predominately obtuse or hostile responses to James’s genre-changing technical and stylistic innovations. Such responses are here, but they are balanced, if not always outweighed, by an abundance of astute and sympathetic readings. The Portrait of a Lady is almost universally recognized as James’s most [End Page 100] significant and fully achieved work to date. W. C. Brownell in Nation calls Portrait “the most eminent example we have thus far had of realistic art in fiction” (148), while a New York Tribune reviewer finds it “properly to be compared . . . with the gravest and most serious works of imagination which have been devoted to the study of the social conditions of the age and the moral aspects of our civilization” (136). Some reviewers are quick to grasp James’s privileging of interiority; Brownell refers to his “attempt to dispense with all the ordinary machinery of the novelist except the study of the subtle shades of character” (146). The Pall Mall Gazette praises Daisy Miller for James’s innovative use of limited third-person narrative (74). Of The Bostonians, one reviewer observes that under James’s influence the novel “has become so far revolutionized that it is no longer a story” (155); another approvingly announces James’s and Howells’s establishment of the “analytical school of novel writers” (159). Of course, the critical reception of The Bostonians and The Princess Casamassima was mixed. Reviews of The Bostonians range from the Independent’s complaint that it is “not worth writing” and “unreadable” (167) to the Boston Beacon’s prediction that “the literary mastership of the Bostonians [sic], will be prized and praised after the fault-finders of today are forgotten” (160). The Princess Casamassima is faulted by the New York Times for its “decadence” and “want of virility” (181, 179), yet found by Saturday Review to be “worth a...

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