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Sara S. Chapman. Henry James's Portrait of the Writer as Hero. New York: St. Martin's, 1990. 151 pp. $35.00.
Joel Porte, ed. New Essays on "The Portrait of a Lady."New York: Cambridge UP, 1990. 166 pp. $19.95 cloth; pb. $8.95.

Although both these new books contribute to our understanding of Henry James, it is probable that many readers who like the one will not like the other, in part because of the critical approaches that dominate each book. Sara Chapman's Portrait of the Writer as Hero, for example, is primarily formalistic in its treatment of James's fiction, despite her knowledge of other approaches, and despite her attempt to make of James a reader-response critic and to stress his links to literary modernism. The majority of essays in New Essays on "The Portrait of a Lady," on the other hand, aggressively scrutinize James's novel from contemporary psychoanalytical and/or feminist perspectives. Moreover, the images of James that emerge from each book are quite different: Chapman's James is a humanist with religio-ethical Arnoldian goals—to express in his texts and cultivate in his readers a respect for individual responsibility and values. The James of Joel Porte's edition, however, is primarily not someone who wants to make "somebody care" (as Hugh Dencombe expresses the ideal in "The Middle Years"); instead, this James looks inward as he uses fiction to deal with his own neuroses.

In her book, Chapman traces the "evolution" of the "artist as hero" as this figure appears in James's criticism (beginning with "The Art of Fiction"), in his stories about writers, artists, and critics written between 1884-1901, and, finally, in the "Prefaces" to the New York Edition, where the narrator becomes the "last and most complete dramatization of the writer-as-hero, fully integrated, now, with his essential collaborator, the reader-as-ideal-critic." In addition, there is a useful (although not particularly original) final chapter on The Sacred Fount, in which Chapman sees the narrator as an anti-hero, because he attempts to "dominate" and "exploit" the other readers of the social text at Newmarch, rather [End Page 546] than to promote genuine collaboration. The best part of Chapman's book is her discussions, usually quite short, of James's stories, particularly of the role of the narrators and of the formal choices James makes to achieve his purposes. The cumulative effect of these discussions should be to encourage many readers to return to these stories, most of which have been undervalued and undercriticized.

Joel Porte's lengthy and gracefully written Introduction to the essay collection provides a clear, thorough overview of the issues debated for years by critics about The Portrait and contributes usefully to the debate. Given the general thrust of this collection, however, it is ironic that Porte's Henry James is close to Chapman's: "James's belief that a truly moral fiction is not essentially an abstraction but rather the expression of an empathetic relation to the world in the concrete fullness of its being finds its direct parallel in Isabel's aesthetic education . . . Isabel's growth as the artist of her own 'felt life' amounts to a crash course in the Arnoldian/Paterian theory of self-culture." In the collection's second essay Donatella Izzo links James not with Arnold but with the Flaubert of Madame Bovary because of the supposed self-reflexivity of each novel. Everywhere, Izzo argues, James violates reader expectations; and so, for example, rather than creating an active heroine who actually does "affront her destiny," James forces us to see that Isabel's "very choices tend to be mostly negative and to reinforce her passivity." And thus the novel's opening phrase—"Under certain circumstances"—and the reference to "portrait" in the title point to elements of closure that epitomize Isabel's story—that of "an illusory opening and of increasing suffocation." In Alfred Habegger's provocative third essay, Isabel's limitations are also stressed, which Habegger links to the "deep background" of the novel: the "thousand novels" which preceded Portrait, in which the "independent orphan-heroine" was "in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-658X
Print ISSN
0026-7724
Pages
pp. 546-548
Launched on MUSE
2009-01-01
Open Access
No
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