Henry James: Misogynist Pervert or Venal Creep?

Thu 10/2/14. I just finished reading James’ The Portrait of a Lady, puffed on the cover and elsewhere as a “young woman affronting her destiny” — presumably James’ sentiment, but perhaps just some famous degenerate’s historical approbation....

I am an unusually ignorant reader, managing to avoid almost all forms of higher education throughout a long and pointless career, and thus had no idea that James’ little scrivenings were about poor stupid girls and their miserable lives. ... I mean, who knew? ... Nobody reads these books anymore, except in the government-subsidized hackeries that we call universities. And me....

So I got up to about page 350, which is a little more than half-way through the ponderous tome, which up to then had been a fairly-amusing treatment of expatriates in Europe and their winsome ways, with a feisty girl journalist, a kindly dying American billionaire with a beautiful English estate, and the Isabel girl heroine, who inherits a fortune from the billionaire and before whom a decent liberal English lord and a yankee industrialist genius fling themselves to no avail. ... That is, up to the point where I abandoned the story, it was an elaboration of a hundred 20s and some of the better 30s Cosmo stories about intrepid girls and their beaus, showing that the 1880 book was way ahead of its time (Virginia Woolf was born in 1882).

... So after this endearing setup, James careens into an emotional Grand Guignol of dumb American girl stupidity, as Isabel for no apparent reason marries and cleaves-to with idiotic loyalty a repulsive creep[1] who couldn’t possibly bear some weird perverse resemblance to the real-life Henry James. I did not actually read this part. Actually, I had been insisting to my beloved helpmeet that James would never let her marry the creep, since the amusing development up to then had clearly been on the side of life and light. So for all I know, in her further adventures she was taken in a flying saucer to visit her other-worldly sado-masochist over-girls with their chains and whips before returning to a wonderful life of pain and pointlessness on a forever dreary planet Earth. Although the end of the book leaves a little bit of ambiguous hope I gather, although otherwise it’s morally-equivalent to the equally-repulsive and misogynist 1948 Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky, so perfectly did James anticipate important boring trends in girl depravity....

Money

The internet is alive with the sounds of James blithering, although my brief survey suggests that the anti-James forces — amongst which I definitely count myself — have got the worse of it. And why after all would I want to denigrate those who obtained some ghastly joy from these pitiful vomitings? And of course the sad plight of graduate students without theses cannot but wring tears from all decent government subsidizers....

I will instead suggest a novel and useful interpretation which, I am confident, is not likely to surface elsewhere until the world struggle for the new socialist dawn finally crashes to an end. Which is, that James obviously was a striver, desperately seeking literary/societal success, and found it, by writing super high-minded Perils-of-Pauline-style melodrama which provided rare and strange entertainments to the great legions of self-hating women who would read the serializations in the Atlantic. And thus make for James crass cash and success. ... Perils is apparently a 1914 (!) film serial, demonstrating once again James was indeed ahead of his time. The path from high art to cheap-seats trash is a familiar one; I just had no idea that James, so peculiarly-worshiped amongst some American intellectuals, was such an obvious example. I will, however, never forget, and read him no more forever....



1. I plan to model my future ęsthetic pretensions entirely on the creepy Gilbert Osmond, the Henry James avatar and evil deed doer of Portrait of a Lady — it will be such fun! ... The surging 19th-century American crowds will derive intense entirely-permitted sickly pleasures from cursing my effeminate eyes....