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Tony Tanner. Henry James: The Writer and His Work. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1985. 142 pp. $17.50. In his modest and (for the reviewer) disarming introduction, Tony Tanner states that his book is essentiaUy the fusion of three pamphlets originaUy published in the "Writers and Their Works" series (1979-81), under the auspices of the British Council. At the start Tanner sets forth his intention: this small book "is not aimed at the reader already familiar with the work and life of James; by the same token it is not intended to supply utterly basic information and plot summary for some notionaUy completely ignorant reader. The hope is, rather, that it may interest and stimulate any educated reader who has read some James but is in no way a specialist." Though a reader familiar with both James's work and Tanner's own distinguished and extensive criticism of fiction may feel a certain frustration that the present study is so brief and restricted in intention, few could deny that the explicit goals have been mainly achieved. And yet one wonders what need this volume satisfies. Over the years several brief "introductory" books on James have appeared—by Michael Swan, D. W. Jefferson, S. Gorley Putt, and perhaps others. Tanner himself acknowledges that his new study "does not hope or attempt to supplant or supercede the late F. W. Dupee's book on Henry James, which became an essential introduction to the man and his work some thirty-five years ago." The reader can only nod in agreement: the beginner will still find Dupee the most profitable and stimulating guide to the vast and complex writings of Henry James. In part the problem with Henry James: The Writer and His Work is that it is impossible to do justice to the novelist in 142 pages (ten of which are given over to a bibliography). Tanner's main intention is to present a comprehensive account of James's career and his oeuvre: aU of the novels are discussed, usuaUy in three or four pages, half of which summarize the plot; about a dozen short stories and some of the criticism and travel writings are considered; and the critical material is enclosed within three biographical frames, corresponding to the familiar phases of James's career. In The Reign of Wonder and Adultery in the Novel, Tony Tanner makes it obvious that he needs considerable space to exercise his superb critical talents. Here, his readings of the novels and other works are mostly as informative and penetrating as one can legitimately expect given the restrictions under which he wrote, but it would be a treat to have a more spacious book on James from Tanner's own critical perspective. The reader for whom this book was not intended, the specialist, wiU find few surprises. The biographical material is (as Tanner acknowledges) minimal and basic. The critical judgments are for the most part orthodox, though it is important to note that Tanner inclines toward a pessimistic reading of James; for example, he foresees failure and pain awaiting the young married couples of The Bostonians and The Golden Bowl. Here and there Tanner reveals his originaUty and acute perception. In examining the pervasive "deviancy and perversion" of The Bostonians, he makes it difficult for the reader to continue to regard that novel as a social comedy. Probably Tanner ranks The Other House higher in the James canon than any other critic. He caUs this widely ignored novel a "powerful work," though he seems to ascribe this power to the morbid, violent, Review of Henry James: The Writer and His Work 219 and painful content rather than to effectiveness of execution. The commentary on The Awkward Age is especiaUy provocative. Here Tanner closely analyzes James's rhetoric, which he otherwise ignores; he stresses the "indeterminacy of nomenclature" that characterizes the conversation of Mrs. Bookenham's circle. In his preface, Tanner justifies his book by asserting that "every age needs to be reintroduced to ... a major writer and it is that need that I am addressing in offering a brief introduction to Henry James for our times." I am not sure what Tanner means by this...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 218-220
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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