Henry James' Historical Character Is More Controversial Term Paper

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¶ … Henry James' historical character is more controversial than the very personality of his life. Neither the author's view of nationalism, obsession with young men and prolific female writers, nor inclination for the dark comedy of everyday life rival the intrigue Colm Toibin investigates in The Master. This 2004 New York Times Book Review award-winning novel is a historical examination of the middle-aged life of monumental author Henry James, whose descriptive infatuation with the English language gives insight into the life of the ex-patriot Boston Brahmin, the author great literary figures of the era, including Oscar Wilde, Edmund Gosse, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the voracity of the theoretical outsider, and the very essence of being.

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Sometimes in the night he dreamed about the dead - familiar faces and the others, half-forgotten ones, fleetingly summoned up," Toibin begins. (1) As Henry James lay half-awake in his London bedroom in January of 1895, he quelled concerns of his newest theoretical work, Guy Domville. The Proustian entrance to James' life reveals the similarities Toibin pieces together between James and the hypothetical Swann, negotiating the path between wake, sleep, the very bodily concerns of the day, and the tormenting construction of ghosts, issues of sexuality, and Americana that plague James by night. While Toibin embraces the light every reader finds in the historic Henry James and weaves it successfully into a powerful story of individual and society, the existentialist qualities of the novel are not without their grounding; indeed, Toibin plucks his storied James from the letters, tales, and biographies about the writer, including Henry James: The Imagination of Genius, Biography of Broken Fortunes, and A Private Life of Henry James. (339)

Term Paper on Henry James' Historical Character Is More Controversial Assignment

Historically, Henry James was brother to the psychologist William James, upon whose death in 1910 Henry returned to England and stayed in his house for several weeks. Henry James' affinity for those gone was not singled to that of his brother, but the untimely death of his invalid sister, loss of his mother, and suicidal father provoked in him a great wealth of loved ones to fill his heart with tragedy, dark romance, and need for seance. In the opening chapter, Toibin reveals this frightful imagery that captivated the unflaggingly fruitful James.

He covered his face for a moment when he remembered one second in the dream which had caused him to wake abruptly. He would have given anything now to forget it, to prevent it from following him into the day: in that square he had locked eyes with his mother, and her gaze was full of panic, and her mouth ready to cry out. She fiercely wanted something beyond her reach, which she could not obtain, and he could not help her." (3)

The death that haunted James was immediately revealed by Toibin to be not merely human though, not isolated purely to those whom he had loved and later lost, but also to the very livelihood of his professional career.

In 1985, Toibin writes that James sat all day in the company of "several fat women who made the costumes" for his new play. As he wrote of his new story to Lady Wolseley. Toibin sets James in the company of others, particularly at first in that of the Russian princess who was being forced back into a life of solitude, loneliness, and ill-fate at her husband's hand. To this James felt an inevitably syncopated pull; while his life was in England, it was the life of loneliness and ill-fate that pulled him there, too. It is in this description of James' relations to others that Toibin really succeeds; while all of James' works provide great insight into his view of others, Toibin is now able to seemingly provide the same for James.

After he learns of his dear friend's departure to the desolate lands of Russia at the remanding behest of her husband, James busies himself once again with the preparations for his play. At this point, James was yet unestablished, and while not questioned in potential, provided a meager plethora of work of questionable quality. He enjoyed the routine of preparing the play, Toibin writes, and after its opening night at St. James theatre, he is told it is a success by the stage manager. Perhaps unwittingly though, the lead director, Alexander, heralds James on to the stage where he does not meet resounding applause, but instead catastrophic failure.

He had dreamed so much of moments of triumph, mingling with the invited guests, pleased that so many old friends had come to witness his theatrical success. Now he would walk home and keep his head down like a man who has committed a crime and is imminent danger of apprehension." (17)

No thing nor person had prepared the early James for the monumental failure of his play. At the same time as he struggled to make theatrical success of his tormented middle age, Oscar Wilde was taking the stage by storm and leaving James in his wake, alone with his fate.

He waited in the shadows backstage so that he would not have to see the actors. Nor did he wish to leave just yet as he did not know whom he might see in the streets around the theater. Neither he nor they would know what to say, so great and so public his defeat. For his friends, this night would be entered into the annals of the unmentionable, pages in which he had so studiously avoided having his name appear." (18)

It is in this great disaster, though, that James finds his greatest fear: to be exposed. Of course, Toibin paints the picture of a wavering, not always steadfast but yet resolved man who, in the course of time, would clench his fists, smile, and carry on.

After the failure of Guy Domville, his determination to work did battle with the feeling that he had been defeated and exposed." (19) At this point, on the inside, James felt his failure was both intrinsic and eternal; at the same time, the success of his rival was deafening. "There was a line in Oscar Wilde's play that he had liked in which the question was put- did the sadness of Londoners cause the fog or did the fog cause the sadness?" (19) In Wilde's adeptly put acceptance of melancholy, Toibin shows James' only true failure. He was not the struggling writer he preserved, but instead a great writer struggling with his own deep melancholia.

Perhaps this was because James spent his time observing others and painting their likeliness with words, not succeeding in carrying out the very breath that might fill his life. In the presence of the great privileged society and the successors of the art world, James' historical fifties seemed to be marked be a lethargy Toibin successfully renders as James would have done another. He was comforted by the great safety of the finances that funded his boarding school education mirrored by Andover-educated friend Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and the Brookline, MA homestead that would lead him to the expected education ends of Harvard. But even there, the great Minny that Toibin says captured the hearts of all the other young students, was not as tormenting in its pleasure as the company of Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Toibin is given to providing an earnest questioning of James' sexuality early in the novel. When the princess discussed her departure, she very purposefully dropped the name in casual conversation of the supposed love of James' life. "She caught his eye for one second and it was a though a flash of clear summer light had come into the room," upon the mention of his name. (7) "Paul Joukowksy was almost fifty now, he calculated; they had not met for many years. No one had ever come like this and mentioned his name." (7) As the hidden sexuality brewed within James' character, he needed a retreat, from his own failure on the stage, his failing stocks, and his failing life that was viscerally creeping into skin of old age with nightmares in the dark and mediocrity by day.

James retreats to the company of the Wolseley's Dublin Castle, to the Ireland that seeps through his spirit with the melancholy Wilde wagered as the sentimental basis for all of London. He was there reminded not only of his ancestry, but also of the home he left in Boston where the Civil War has torn at the fabric holding America together. With his home life in London and patria terra thrown into conflict, he is forced to examine the relative questions posed by the American Civil War. In England, it seems the question of the war bares more political relevancy than it does in James' history. While he chose to not fight because of his own handicap (be it physical or emotional in reality, Toibin leaves this deliberately open for examination since neither hard physical evidence nor impenetrable fact leans the cause one way or the other very… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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