The Magazine

The American Woman

What Henry James Knew

Nov 13, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 09 • By LAUREN WEINER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

American women hold few surprises, if you've read your Henry James. His high political satire about the suffrage movement, The Bostonians, showed all the way back in 1886 that the most salient and least rational feature of feminism would be its radical egalitarianism. He knew what our own era's feminists would be theorizing about -- because he knew their sisters over a century ago. His nuanced but incisive generalizations about America's maidens and matrons could have been written today.

He even foresaw the difficulty of ever resolving the problem of American women. The Portrait of a Lady famously ends "up in the air" -- and James may well cut off his story where he did as an acknowledgment that he could not realistically portray the ideal of womanhood that his heroine Isabel promised: a woman who had the best of both Europe and America, a woman who had made herself highly civilized without losing "the value of the Puritan residuum." For James, this "glimpsed ideal" -- to use F. R. Leavis's term -- was just that: an ideal. Excessive and selfish autonomy was the danger he saw lying in wait for his real-life countrywomen.

The French writer Leon Daudet said that James had "an ironic gift, of a benevolent kind." James's favorite subject upon which to train both that irony and that benevolence was the American woman. In his novels and stories she reveals herself to be an undisciplined, lively, direct, brave, complacent, foolish sort of creature. From Daisy Miller to Isabel Archer to James's memorial of his cousin, Minny Temple, written not long before he died in 1916, the author's renown rested on his keen understanding of the "new woman" -- she who so "infinitely amused the nations."

That phrase is from James's 1907 The American Scene, in which he observed that the American woman "had been grown in an air in which a hundred of the 'European' complications and dangers didn't exist, and in which also she had to take upon herself a certain training for freedom. It was not that she had, in the vulgar sense, to 'look out' for herself, inasmuch as it was of the very essence of her position not to be threatened or waylaid."

That unwaylayability is something we ought to recognize. Look around and we can see what he's talking about. There she is -- sitting behind the principal's desk; reporting live from inside the men's locker room; needling her husband, in front of strangers, because his jacket and tie don't match. James's American women are not just who we were, but who we are.

Since the mid-twentieth century, when Cornelia Kelley, Leon Edel, and others dusted off what were, at that time, the largely forgotten works of James, interest in his writing has not flagged. New books of his correspondence and journalism continue to be published, and a complete edition of his fiction and criticism rolls off the presses of the Library of America in steady installments. The movie adaptations keep coming: The last decade alone has seen filmings of The Golden Bowl, The American, Washington Square, The Wings of the Dove, The Portrait of a Lady -- to say nothing of the six versions of James's horror story "The Turn of the Screw."

And all because of the free and constant way this writer was able to draw upon his "quick empathy for the female young," as Edel put it. The American woman was mistress of her situation in a country that recognized the right of self-government. She was left to develop herself according to her own lights -- and could pick her own husband, a liberty not allowed women elsewhere. James liked, in his fiction, to watch what happened when he uprooted this "most freely encouraged plant in our democratic garden" and placed her in Europe, where she met with the social restrictions of a more traditional way of life. By dramatizing this encounter from every angle, he showed his admiration for, as well as his misgivings about, the American woman.

The admiration and the misgivings describe a kind of moral arc. Or, better, two cross-cutting arcs, if what I call his "female juggernauts" -- American matrons -- are added to the mix. When it comes to young women, the reaction of the senses comes first. James is delighted with the animation and grace of a Bessie Alden in "An International Episode" (1878) or a Pandora Day in "Pandora" (1884) -- and so are the men in his stories, on both sides of the Atlantic. But then, through the scrapes their energetic natures get them into, he brings out the effect of their overreaching: sometimes humorous, but more frequently poignant and tragic.