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Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the…

Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the making of an American masterpiece

by Michael Gorra

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To begin my review, I did receive this book as a Goodreads Giveaway.

That said, this was a gem of a study of Henry James' life and his novel, "Portrait of a Lady". Michael Gorra begins with James' birth and childhood, continuing on to analyze his life, experiences, and growth as a writer.

To really grasp what Gorra has done it is best if readers of this book have read at least James' novel "Portrait of a Lady". If you haven't read the novel and then read this study, you may not fully understand what Gorra has done. He has taken this American masterpiece and its creator, putting both under a microscope. In analyzing James' life and his personal journals, he is able to portray the personal touches, how life was imitated in art, and how timeless literary masters and their works are timeless. Those who read this book that haven't read Portrait of a Lady will not only have the story's plot ruined but will also miss out on James' wonderful use of words, syntax, structure, and sarcasm.

Reading this book brought back memories of the first and second times that I have read "Portrait of a Lady". What a struggle the first time but once I understood the plot the second time was a pleasure. "Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece" brought back the joy of James' writing for me. It enlightened me on his personal life and experiences. Michael Gorra has done an incredible job. He has taken the typical "stuffy" Victorian man and made him intriguing. He has analyzed multiple works and has combined all the information into an easily readable biography/literary criticism. Do not think that this will be a dry biography/critique - it is everything but that.

A sheer joy to read - this is a must for any lover of literature, biographies, and history. ( )
2 vote JEB5 | Oct 30, 2013 |
For James fans, a must-read. Fascinating, well-told, so pleasurable and informative about the writers' life and process, and ways of reading the novel itself. ( )
  NancyKay_Shapiro | Sep 12, 2012 |
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Michael Gorra has invented a new literary form, one for which there is no name as yet. His book is a critical study of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, based on a lovingly close reading of this pivotal masterwork, as well as a subtly nuanced mini-biography of the author. At another level, though, it is a kind of re-creation of the novel, a reimagining of it – a re-presentation of it – that uncovers the secret springs of the work even as it celebrates the intricate and exquisite artistry of its multifaceted surface. For readers already familiar with The Portrait, this study will throw a wholly new light upon what had seemed well-known territory, while those who have not read James’s book will be bound to fall upon it with unbounded anticipation. With Gorra as guide, they will not be disappointed.
In a crowded field of biographical interpretation, Gorra argues that Portrait is "a critique of American exceptionalism". The historical paradox for Americans is that they believe in a republican egalitarianism – all are created equal – and in the freedom to pursue, competitively, individual happiness. Isabel (leaving America, turning down a nice English lord and a determined Bostonian, choosing Osmond because she thinks he is a free agent) insists that she must be free to write her own plot. She will not be measured by what surrounds her – clothes, houses, money, traditions. She believes "in her own autonomy, her own enabling isolation: a belief, and a dream, that all her later experience will challenge". As the sinister and subtle Madame Merle suggests to her, in a conversation about the limits of the self, complete "self-sufficiency" is impossible. In Europe Isabel "learns that her own life" has already "been determined". She finds that for her, as for America, there is no such thing as a "fresh start" or a "city on a hill" or a "new world". Other ways of reading Isabel – as a young woman afraid of sexual experience, as an innocent fallen into corrupt hands, as an enactment of James's passion for Europe, as a characterisation of solitude – take second place to this political interpretation.
One of the many pleasures of Michael Gorra’s book is that he too has loved this novel since he studied it in college, and wants to share his passion for it. He has also taught it for many years, at Smith College, and he has written the kind of patient, sensitive, acute study that gifted teachers should write but rarely do. Portrait of a Novel is effectively a new biography of James, with The Portrait of a Lady at its centre. Gorra describes the entire arc of James’s life, unobtrusively (this is made possible by the fact that James wrote it as a youngish man, and rewrote it, in 1906, as an oldish man); but he does so in order to tell the story of the novel – both as a critic and as a biographer.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0871404087, Hardcover)

Chosen as one of the "10 Books to Read for 2013" by msn.com.

A revelatory biography of the American master as told through the lens of his greatest novel.

Henry James (1843–1916) has had many biographers, but Michael Gorra has taken an original approach to this great American progenitor of the modern novel, combining elements of biography, criticism, and travelogue in re-creating the dramatic backstory of James’s masterpiece, Portrait of a Lady (1881). Gorra, an eminent literary critic, shows how this novel—the scandalous story of the expatriate American heiress Isabel Archer—came to be written in the first place. Traveling to Florence, Rome, Paris, and England, Gorra sheds new light on James’s family, the European literary circles—George Eliot, Flaubert, Turgenev—in which James made his name, and the psychological forces that enabled him to create this most memorable of female protagonists. Appealing to readers of Menand’s The Metaphysical Club and McCullough’s The Greater Journey, Portrait of a Novel provides a brilliant account of the greatest American novel of expatriate life ever written. It becomes a piercing detective story on its own. 10 illustrations

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:07:57 -0400)

A revelatory biography of the American master as told through the lens of his greatest novel.

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