At first blush Henry James’s The Ambassadors (1903) must seem
an unlikely candidate for the honor of Great American Novel.  For
a start, none of this story takes place in the United States. The
characters, for their part, act in atypical ways for Yanks, engaging
again and again in un-American activities,
albeit different from those that gave
agita
to Cold Warriors in the 1950s.  Honestly this
may be the most European of any of Henry
James's  novels—quite a claim for an author
whose emotional allegiance to the US was
so weak that he actually became a British
subject in 1915.  Indeed,
The Ambassadors
anticipates that later development, articulating
precisely the kind of allure and mystique the
Old World held for this native New Yorker.  
And do we really want a Great American Novel
that makes us feel inferior to our smug relatives
across the big pond?  

But over and above these issues,
The Ambassadors has other
marks against it.  Most notably, it is seldom read and, apparently,
even less often understood.  How else do we explain the peculiar
fact that chapters 28 and 29 were reversed in an early edition of the
novel, and the likely error repeated in later editions—and no one
apparently noticed for more than forty years?  Okay, some critics
have defended the alternative order, but that hardly gives the casual
reader much comfort.  Is the narrative really so loose and confusing,
they are justified in asking, that scholars can't even agree on the
chronology of the tale or sequence of chapters?  

James's later works are, of course, notoriously difficult.  For this
reason, they are rarely assigned in college lit classes.  Far better
to introduce students to
Daisy Miller or The Turn of the Screw, or
—if a meatier book is inserted in the syllabus—
The Portrait of a
Lady
.   The latter work might be daunting in length, running well
over 200,000 words, but it still offers smooth sailing compared to
the turbulent waters of the late James’ masterpieces:
 The Wings
of the Dove
, The Golden Bowl, or—most formidable of all—The
Ambassadors
.

I believe this focus on mid-period James in college courses and
(to a lesser extent) in critical commentary does a disservice to
our nation's most distinguished novelist. James believed that
The Ambassadors represented his highest achievement as a
novelist, claiming it raised "artistic faith to its maximum."  I concur,
and would add that James enjoyed his peak period as an
author between the ages of 50 and 65, a decade-and-a-half of
writing marked by unprecedented narrative virtuosity and
psychological insight.  This period starts with the breakthrough
of
The Spoils of Poynton (a neglected classic, in my opinion)
in 1897, reaches its high point with
The Ambassadors (1903)
and concludes with James’s final masterpiece,
The Golden Bowl,
in 1904.  These works are where readers ought to start in
assessing James’s contribution to fiction.  Instead, they are
too often kept off reading lists, and for the worst of all possible
reasons—namely because they are too challenging, too
unconventional, too daring, too damn difficult.  The very qualities
that we should seek in the great exemplars of our national literature
have instead caused the marginalization of the towering works of
Henry James’s mature years.  

And why do I praise these works, and
The Ambassadors
in particular, so lavishly?  I will answer that.  But first I must go
off on a tangent.  And you must come along for the ride.  

I must start by asking you a personal question.  

Have you ever looked back, years later, at an important conversation
that had a significant impact on your life, and realize you completely
misinterpreted what had been said at the time?  Perhaps this was
a conversation that led to the break-up of a relationship. Or maybe
it prevented a promising relationship from ever gaining momentum.
Or it might have been an emotionally-charged discussion with a
family member. Or a decisive dialogue with a teacher or boss.

The exact nature of the conversation isn't important.  The key
element is that you thought you understood what was going on,
but you really didn't.  Only years later, with the benefit of hindsight,
maturity and emotional distance, you finally comprehend what was
actually going on.  The hidden agendas now emerge in all their vivid,
perhaps painful, clarity.  And perhaps your whole life changed
because you missed the cues, you didn't pick up on the subtlety
of the message.  

I can think of a handful of such incidents in my own life, and I
suspect you can too.  Or if you can't come up with a first-hand
example right now, mull over my question some more over the
next few days.  Scrutinize your past with more intensity. I think
you might surprise yourself at what you uncover.  Some of our
greatest breakthroughs in self-awareness come from precisely
these retrospective moments of insight, when what was opaque
suddenly clears up.  We finally understand the psychological
underpinnings of an event that previously only existed for us on
a superficial level.

And this brings me back to Henry James and
The Ambassadors.  
Because this novel represents the breakthrough moment when
American fiction realized how dark, deep and misleading human
communication could be.  
The Ambassadors is filled to the brim
with these double-edged conversations, these discussions that
possess hidden reefs and unexplored crannies, secrets that only
reveal themselves long after the fact.  I've never encountered a
work of fiction—or of psychology, for that matter—that does a
better job of conveying the problematic nature of dialogue, and
the fragile meanings embedded in our words.

This breakthrough of James’s mature work is, by its nature, a
harbinger of the most radical forms of modern narrative.  Henry
James is rarely considered an experimental novelist, but by pushing
meaning to the breaking point in
The Ambassadors, and his other
late works, he sets the stage for more overt manifestations of
semantic breakdown.  For me, modern fiction begins with
The
Ambassadors
.

Realism, in its various manifestations, dictated the terms of
engagement for literary fiction during the period in which James
reached maturity as a an author.  James himself contributed to
its ascendancy.  But with
The Ambassadors, he both pushes
realism to its limits and also reveals a crack in its foundation.  
If other novelists saw the ultimate goal of fiction as telling the
truth
exactly as it manifested itself, undiluted and without apology,
James took the bolder step of claiming that truth is
not manifested.
Perceived reality misleads at every step in the pages of
The
Ambassadors
.  The idea that the truth-telling requires the
subversion of traditional narrative, so essential to the later
modernist and postmodernist manifestos, is implicit here, even
as James retains all of the superficial mannerisms of classic
nineteenth century realism.

But
The Ambassadors shows off its modernist credentials in
other ways.  No previous James novel reveals such grievous
disregard for the expectations of the general reader or the
conventions of commercial fiction.  James achieves a new level
of density in the prose of
The Ambassadors, a more stubborn
insistence on probing the interstices of the action, embracing
the ambiguities of situations rather than avoiding or clarifying
them, adding the extra clauses that seek
not to explain but rather
to suggest uncharted depths and hidden fields of psychological
force lingering just outside our purview.  

James is clearly aware of the new game he has devised.  Early
on in the book, he describes the reluctant leading man of the
novel, Lambert Strether, in terms that both articulate the main
gambit of the text as well as the readers' likely reaction:

[H]e was in fact so often at sea that his sense of the range of
reference was merely general and that he on several occasions
guessed and interpreted only to doubt. He wondered what they
meant, but there were things he scarce thought they could be
supposed to mean, and 'Oh no - not that!' was at the end of most
of his ventures.

Strether, a middle-aged man from Woollett, Massachusetts, has
arrived in Paris to undertake a delicate mission for his rich fiancée.  
She wants him to retrieve her son Chad Newsome, who is enjoying
Europe
too much, and has fallen under the spell of a Parisian lady.  
Chad must come home and take on the responsibilities of the family
business—a manufacturing concern whose chief article of production
is so trivial, or perhaps embarrassing, that Strether perfers not even
to mention it.  (Literary sleuths have come up with many theories for
the unnamed product: matchsticks, chamber pots, toothpicks and
buttonhooks have all been offered—but James’s willful silence
on this matter is very much in keeping with the ambiguity and
misdirection of the novel as a whole.)

Yet few characters in this novel play the part they are assigned.  
Certainly not the young Chad Newsome, or his supposed romantic
interest, and least of all Lambert Strether.  Strether finds himself
torn between allegiances in ways that even he can't full comprehend
or evaluate.  Instead of offering his mature wisdom to the young
man, he finds their roles strangely reversed. Is Strether a failed
ambassador, or does he simply need to summon up a different
kind of diplomacy?  Or, in the worst case scenario, should he
change sides, and throw in his lot with the younger generation?  

The term 'mid-life crisis' didn't exist when Henry James wrote
The Ambassadors—it wouldn't show up until psychologist Elliot
Jacques described the syndrome in 1965.  But back in 1903,
James captured the essence of this condition with a degree of
perspicuity and sympathy no one has since surpassed.  And
James anticipated the 1960s in another manner: namely, his
reversal of the traditional generational hierarchies.  In
The
Ambassadors
, as in the cultural ferment of the Vietnam era,
the pace of change is no longer driven by wise elders but rather
by daring youngsters, who disregard tradition in favor of a quasi-
hedonistic quest for self-actualization that is all-too-familiar to
us but hardly known to (and even less rarely praised by) James's
contemporaries.  And what James does for age and experience,
he also does for gender roles. The richly developed, confident
female characters in
The Ambassadors manage to drive the plot
and call most of the shots in a novel where, at first glance, the men
appear to be in charge.  Here, as in so many other aspects of this
book, things aren't quite what they seem.

But don’t read
The Ambassadors because it was ahead of its
time. Rather, enjoy  and admire it for what it can add to our own
time.  For in one crucial way, this novel is both the antithesis and
the antidote to the endemic weakness of current-day narratives. In
a world dominated by visual storytelling, whether on the big screen
or the small, 21st century audiences increasingly put their faith (and
hard-earned cash) into narratives depicted in images, standstill or
moving, two-dimensional or 3D, streaming or stored on disk,
Tivoed or beamed from a distant satellite.  Movies, video games,
television, YouTube:  these set the tone for the current-day
narrative.  Even the novel, the last repository of psychological
profundity in storytelling, has fallen under the sway of cinematic
techniques, and nothing is rarer nowadays than a work of fiction
that places all its chips on truths hidden from view, or builds on
the premise that seeing is not believing, that the reality accessible
via brutish empiricism is merely a dodge and a subterfuge. That's
a lesson more necessary now than ever before, and no book
embraces its radical implications with more determination and
sheer bravado than Henry James’s 1903 effort to push "artistic
faith to its maximum."


Ted Gioia writes on literature, music and popular culture.  His most recent book
is
The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire.


Published on October 14, 2013
My Favorite American Novel

or

How Henry James Invented Modern
Fiction with The Ambassadors (1903)

by Ted Gioia
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