by Henry James
This was my introduction to the novels of Henry James. I first read this book in my American Literature course in college and remember the experience to this day. Starting with his second novel, Roderick Hudson, Henry James featured mostly American characters in a European setting. James made the Europe–America contrast even more explicit in his next novel. In fact, the contrast could be considered the leading theme of The American. This book is a combination of social comedy and melodrama concerning the adventures and misadventures of Christopher Newman, an essentially good-hearted but rather gauche American businessman on his first tour of Europe. Newman is looking for a world different from the simple, harsh realities of 19th century American business. He encounters both the beauty and the ugliness of Europe, and learns not to take either for granted. Coming as it did as my first taste of reading Henry James it laid the groundwork for my enjoyment of many of his more mature novels.
Washington Square was my true introduction to the art of Henry James. I say this because I first encountered James in dramatic form by attending a production of "The Heiress" by Ruth and Augustus Goetz. They had adapted James's short novel in 1947. By the late 1960s the play had become a popular vehicle for High School students and that is where I encountered it, and indirectly Henry James. James originally published his novel in 1880 as a serial in Cornhill Magazine and Harper's New Monthly Magazine. It is a structurally simple tragicomedy that recounts the conflict between a dull but sweet daughter and her brilliant, domineering father. The plot of the novel is based upon a true story told to James by his close friend, British actress Fanny Kemble.
The book is sometimes compared to Jane Austen's work for the clarity and grace of its prose and its intense focus on family relationships. James was hardly a great admirer of Jane Austen, so he might not have regarded the comparison as flattering. In fact, James was not a great fan of Washington Square itself. He tried to read it over for inclusion in the New York Edition of his fiction (1907–1909) but found that he could not, and the novel was not included. Other readers, though, have sufficiently enjoyed the book to make it one of the more popular works of the Jamesian canon. It's popularity may have been enhanced by the stage adaptation "The Heiress" by Ruth and Augustus Goetz.
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