“It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance”
From The Bostonians, Almi Pictures, 1984
Today the broader public knows James through films of his novels, notably Merchant Ivory productions of The Golden Bowl, The Bostonians, and The Europeans. He holds a special place in the Atlantic’s pantheon of writers for a number of reasons, chief among them the many novels that explore the cultural and psychological differences between Europeans and Americans. To his contemporaries, James represented the quintessential artist, laboring at his craft to the exclusion of much else. In a May 1885 Atlantic review of a biography of George Eliot written by her husband, John Cross, James presents the author of Middlemarch as many saw James himself. The “creations” which “possessed” her and “brought her renown,” James wrote, “were of the incalculable kind, shaped themselves in mystery, in some intellectual back shop or secret crucible, and were as little as possible implied in the aspect of her life.”
What is remarkable … is that this quiet, anxious, sedentary, serious, invalidical English lady, without animal spirits, without adventures, without extravagance, assumption, or bravado, should have made us believe that nothing in the world was alien to her; should have produced such rich, deep, masterly pictures of the multifold life of man.
Mere living might suit others, but, as James told H. G. Wells in 1915, “It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance … and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.” Wharton addressed her letters to James as “Cher Maître” because she bowed to his mastery of form. James’s experiments with limited third-person narration place the reader in the consciousness of a narrator—him or herself an actor in the story. The process allowed readers to see the narrator’s process of thinking, the slow dawning of consciousness, accompanied by a loss of innocence.
James’s first signed story, “The Story of a Year” appeared in the Atlantic’s March 1865 issue. Though melodramatic, it mimics and rejects the conventional endings of Civil War fiction by not having the pretty, young heroine immolate herself on the altar of her fallen lover’s memory. Those who associate James with ambiguous prose and drawing-room dramas might be surprised to think of him beginning his career like any hack writer intent on boiling the pot, or plot. In 1871, the Atlantic serialized Watch and Ward, a novel that pushed conventional boundaries of fiction by having a bachelor adopt and groom a twelve-year-old girl for later marriage. A friend of the James family, Charles Eliot Norton would have preferred for the beginning author to avoid sensation by pursuing his acquaintance with Homer and Virgil. Neither he nor James Russell Lowell, his coeditor at the North American Review, saw promise of a great career for James. That prediction fell to James’s friend William Dean Howells, who bet on him “to do better than any one has yet done toward making us a real American novel.” James fulfilled that promise when Daisy Miller set readers on both sides of the Atlantic debating its heroine’s morals. James told her story through the jaded eyes of an American expatriate named Winterbourne, who does not know how to interpret Daisy’s flirtatious behavior any more than readers do. Readers fell into opposing camps: the “Daisy Millerites,” who thought her virginal, and the “anti-Daisy Millerites,” who knew her to be lost. The argument soon extended to the manners of American girls generally.
Over the years, the Atlantic accepted as much work from James as it could reasonably print without seeming to be a vanity press. Roderick Hudson (1875), The American (1876–1877), The Europeans (1878), The Portrait of a Lady (1881), a dramatization of Daisy Miller subtitled “A Comedy” (1883), after being rewritten to end with Daisy’s and Winterbourne’s engagement, The Princess Casamassima (1885–1886), The Aspern Papers (1888), The Tragic Muse (1889–1890), and The Old Things (1896), later titled The Spoils of Poynton, all appeared in the magazine.