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Malaria and the Revision of Daisy Miller

From: Literature and Medicine
Volume 30, Number 2, Fall 2012
pp. 217-240 | 10.1353/lm.2012.0026

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:


Henry James's novella Daisy Miller (1878) raises timeless questions about the meanings of illness: does illness create immunity or result from lack of it? Does social status, sexual identity, or national affiliation protect against disease? Does illness create or mark social boundaries? Can social interactions cause illness and death? In Daisy Miller, the trope of malaria dramatizes intricate answers to these questions by exposing otherwise obscure power relationships among national identities, genders, and social classes. Thirty years after Daisy Miller's original publication, James extensively revised the trope of malaria for the 1909 New York edition of his works, providing one nuanced view of how all these cultural meanings of malaria were evolving at the end of the nineteenth century. Between 1878 and 1909, malaria's etiology and transmission also were being rewritten by an international group of scientists, and James's revisions to Daisy Miller—read against the revisions of malaria science—make visible the complex circulation of consciousness, power, and their failures in this well-known novella.

I. The 1878 Daisy Miller

Daisy Miller's first readers weighed in eagerly—and with great variety—on the text's most persistent question: is James's eponymous American innocent of social and sexual indiscretion while she is abroad in Europe? Though Leslie Stephen graciously agreed to publish Daisy Miller in his Cornhill Magazine, he guessed nevertheless that Lippincott's, where James first sent the manuscript, had declined the story without comment after finding it "an outrage on American girlhood."The New York Times concurred strongly in November of that year: "[t]he tragical sketch of a young girl from Schenectady may not be recognized as a portrait of any maiden of that old Dutch town, who traveled in Europe only to find her grave in the Eternal City. Schenectadians—if that be the right term to use—may not be pleased to find their town identified with a young person of bad manners. Nor is it likely that Schenectady, or any other town of the Middle States, would produce just such a compound as the pretty, independent, but very ill-advised damsel whose name is Daisy Miller." In the January 1879 edition of The North American Review, Richard Wright vigorously joined the objectors, proclaiming Daisy "irredeemably vulgar in her talk and her conduct." Others, however, rushed as quickly to Daisy's defense. Only two months after Wright's review was published, John Hay observed in The Atlantic Monthly that: "[a]ll poor Daisy's crimes are purely conventional. She is innocent and good at heart, susceptible of praise and blame; she does not wish even to surprise, much less outrage, the stiffest of her censors. In short, the things she does with such dire effect at Vevay [sic] and Rome would never for an instant be remarked or criticized in Schenectady. They would provoke no comment in Buffalo or Cleveland; they would be a matter of course in Richmond and Louisville." The December 1878 edition of the Nation voiced formal concerns instead, reading Daisy's death not as a punishment for social recklessness but merely as "Mr. James's incapacity to get his dramatis personae off stage in any way except killing them." As William Dean Howells observed, James's slim novella had divided American society into "Daisy Millerites and anti-Daisy Millerites."

Daisy Miller, of course, is Henry James's young American girl from Schenectady who travels to Europe with her mother and brother and becomes involved with Frederick Winterbourne, an erudite American expatriate. After meeting in Vevey, Winterbourne and Daisy resume their flirtation in Rome, though now under the constant scrutiny of Winterbourne's Aunt Costello and a friend, Mrs. Walker, who shares Mrs. Costello's commitments to convention and propriety. Daisy's free social interaction with Winterbourne, and later with her Italian suitor, Giovanelli, soon convince Mrs. Walker and Mrs. Costello that she is guilty of sexual misconduct. But Winterbourne, against his aunt's urgings, suspends judgment on Daisy for most of the novella—not least because of his own consuming attraction to her. As Daisy continues to see Giovanelli, her American circle (including Winterbourne) raises concerns that she will contract malaria, or Roman fever...

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