90.9 WBUR - Boston's NPR news station
Top Stories:
PLEDGE NOW
Henry James' ‘Portrait Of A Lady’

A fresh take that finds a bridge out of the Victorian Age and a tough comment on American exceptionalism.

Henry James, by John Singer Sargent

Henry James, by John Singer Sargent

American exceptionalism is a hot topic again in this year’s presidential campaign.  Are we or are we not fundamentally different?  Uniquely able to make our own way in the world?  To master our own fates?  It’s not a new idea.  The great Henry James took it on in his novel Portrait of a Lady more than a century ago.

A novel bridging up out of the Victorian age, toward the modern.  With a woman at its heart.  Struggling to define her own life.  Meeting limits of history and human nature.

This hour, On Point:  American exceptionalism and Henry James “Portrait of a Lady.”

-Tom Ashbrook

Guests

Michael Gorra, professor of English at Smith College and author of Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece.

Susan Griffin, chair of the English department at the University of Louisville. She is editor of the Henry James Review and the author of Henry James Goes to the Movies.

From Tom’s Reading List

The Daily Beast “Is Henry James’s ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ the great American novel? Michael Gorra makes the case that even in Europe, Isabel Archer’s sense of her independence and exceptionalism—and its limits—reflected America’s own.”

The New Yorker “This is hardly the most American of starts, and certainly not the most American of sentiments; those readers, if canvassed, could have nominated a host of more agreeable experiences. The whole setup sounds suspiciously English; was it for this that Emerson, Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and others had founded the magazine, twenty-three years before? Suspicions are confirmed, as the tale unfurls; the setting is indeed an English lawn, rug-soft, on a waning summer’s day, and one of the tea-takers, to make matters worse, is an English lord.”

Huffington Post “It is not surprising that the choice puzzling most readers revolves around Isabel’s choice of a husband. To paraphrase Jane Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged, at least by readers of fiction, that a young woman in possession of a fortune must be in want of a husband. Of course she has opinions about marriage — what heroine doesn’t? But this heroine is different: “The first on the list was a conviction of the vulgarity of thinking too much of it.””

More:

This is the trailer for the 1996 film adaptation of Portrait of a Lady.

Text: Portrait of a Lady

Henry James. (1843–1916). The Portrait of a Lady.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

Chapter I

UNDER certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea. There are circumstances in which, whether you partake of the tea or not—some people of course never do—the situation is in itself delightful. Those that I have in mind in beginning to unfold this simple history offered an admirable setting to an innocent pastime. The implements of the little feast had been disposed upon the lawn of an old English country-house, in what I should call the perfect middle of a splendid summer afternoon. Part of the afternoon had waned, but much of it was left, and what was left was of the finest and rarest quality. Real dusk would not arrive for many hours; but the flood of summer light had begun to ebb, the air had grown mellow, the shadows were long upon the smooth, dense turf. They lengthened slowly, however, and the scene expressed that sense of leisure still to come which is perhaps the chief source of one’s enjoyment of such a scene at such an hour. From five o’clock to eight is on certain occasions a little eternity; but on such an occasion as this the interval could be only an eternity of pleasure. The persons concerned in it were taking their pleasure quietly, and they were not of the sex which is supposed to furnish the regular votaries of the ceremony I have mentioned. The shadows on the perfect lawn were straight and angular; they were the shadows of an old man sitting in a deep wickerchair near the low table on which the tea had been served, and of two younger men strolling to and fro, in desultory talk, in front of him. The old man had his cup in his hand; it was an unusually large cup, of a different pattern from the rest of the set, and painted in brilliant colours. He disposed of its contents with much circumspection, holding it for a long time close to his chin, with his face turned to the house. His companions had either finished their tea or were indifferent to their privilege; they smoked cigarettes as they continued to stroll. One of them, from time to time, as he passed, looked with a certain attention at the elder man, who, unconscious of observation, rested his eyes upon the rich red front of his dwelling. The house that rose beyond the lawn was a structure to repay such consideration, and was the most characteristic object in the peculiarly English picture I have attempted to sketch.

You can read the full text here.

Excerpt: Portrait of a Novel

Use the navigation bar at the bottom of this frame to reformat the excerpt to best suit your reading experience.


“Reprinted from Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece by Michael Gorra. Copyright © 2012 by Michael Gorra. With the permission of the Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company.”

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
ONPOINT
TODAY
Oct 31, 2014
Nurse Kaci Hickox, right, and her boyfriend, Ted Wilbur are followed by a Maine State Trooper as they ride bikes on a trail near her home in Fort Kent, Maine, Thursday, Oct. 30, 2014.  (AP)

Quarantines and Ebola. An exploding rocket. Apple’s CEO comes out. Hawaiian lava flows. Midterms in the home stretch. Our weekly news roundtable goes behind the headlines.

Oct 31, 2014
Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) and Sauncho Smilax (Beninico del Toro) share a drink in a scene from the upcoming Paul Thomas Anderson film, "Inherent Vice," an adaptation of the Thomas Pynchon novel of the same name. (Courtesy Warner Bros. Entertainment)

From “Interstellar” to “Into the Woods.” The biggest and best movies of the fall and holiday seasons. What to see, what to skip.

RECENT
SHOWS
Oct 30, 2014
Soylent is a new meal-replacement substance meant to offer a complete nutritional alternative to traditional food. (Courtesy Soylent)

Soylent is a grey smoothie the consistency of pancake batter that claims it can replace all your food. On a crowded planet, is this the future of food? Plus: what does the Antares rocket crash mean for private space travel?

 
Oct 30, 2014
Realtor Helen Hertz stands in front of one of her listings in Cleveland Heights, Ohio Friday, Oct. 24, 2014. Hertz, a real estate agent for more than three decades, has seen firsthand what has happened to the market in the wake of the recession and foreclosure crisis. (AP)

Home ownership rates are at a 20-year low. Millennials and more aren’t buying. We’ll look at what American’s think now about owning a home.

On Point Blog
On Point Blog
The Explicast, Episode Three: What Is The Dow Jones Industrial Average?
Friday, Oct 31, 2014

We dig in to that all-important, all-confusing daily stock notice: the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

More »
Comment
 
Our Week In The Web: October 31, 2014
Friday, Oct 31, 2014

We tumble for ya, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Tuco the Massachusetts K-9 Unit puppy in training.

More »
Comment
 
Awards Season 2014: The Movies Worth Your Time
Friday, Oct 31, 2014

What movies should you watch before 2014 comes to a close? Our critics offer their picks for the movies of the season right here.

More »
Comment