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Henry James's Europe

Dennis Tredy
Annick Duperray
Adrian Harding

III. Appropriating European Thematics

11. Balzacian Intertextuality and Jamesian Autobiography in The Ambassadors

Kathleen Lawrence

Texte intégral

  • 1 ”This event, under his father’s roof and to his own knowledge, when Louis was nine years old, cont (...)

Cette aventure arrivée sous le toit paternel, aux yeux de
Louis, alors âgé de neuf ans, contribua beaucoup à le
faire croire aux visions miraculeuses de Swedenborg, qui
donna pendant sa vie plusieurs preuves de la puissance
de vision acquise à son être intérieur.1
Balzac, Louis Lambert

  • 2 See, for example, Sheila Teahan’s ”My Sculptor/My Self: A Story of Reading.” In The Henry James Re (...)

1With recent renewed interest in Henry James’s late style, and in particular the impress of autobiography on his late novels and non-fiction, it is perhaps worth revisiting the question of the meaning of Lambert Strether’s Christian name, with its larger implications for the intertextual relation between Balzac’s Louis Lambert (1835) and The Ambassadors (1903).2 Adeline Tintner ominously warns critics away from the topic, maintaining that,

  • 3 Yet, Tintner contradicts her assertion, stating, ”In view of James’s great attention to the nuance (...)

Scholars have been trying for years to make some sort of identification between Lewis Lambert Strether of The Ambassadors and his namesake Louis Lambert, but the effort is wasted, since the hero of the late James novel of Paris has been ironically saddled with his name by two provincial parents from Woollett, Massachusetts, who did not know that Louis Lambert was a ’bad’ Balzac novel
(Tintner Book World 256).3

2Louis Lambert may be, from the standpoint of form, a ”’bad’ Balzac novel,” but a close reading of Balzac’s and James’s novels in light of Julia Kristeva’s exploration of intertextuality reveals profound resonance between Balzac’s mystical novel and James’s first novel of his late style. Kristeva traces the origin of literature to ”concrete, historical family structures” (97), suggesting we look for intertextual correspondence on the deepest level of psychic identity and the unconscious. Kristeva’s idea of ”writing as a reading of the anterior literary corpus and the text as an absorption of and a reply to another text” (39) opens the possibility of reading The Ambassadors and Louis Lambert in a dialogic mode heretofore too easily dismissed.

  • 4 With a canny sense of verbal play, Henry James Sr. must have realized that ”Garth Wilkinson James” (...)

3In her denigration of Strether’s provincial parents, Tintner fails to take note of their similarity with Henry James’s own parents, one of many autobiographical threads woven into James’s text. Apparently Mr. and Mrs. Strether, Sr. had a lot in common with Mr. and Mrs. Henry James, Sr., who called James’s younger brother Garth Wilkinson James, named, like Lewis Lambert Strether, for a prominent Swedenborgian, albeit for the real British Swedenborgian J. J. Garth Wilkinson and not Balzac’s fictional mystic.4 The name ”Lewis Lambert Strether” thus implicates not only Strether’s absent parents but also Henry James’s own, suggesting that a powerful belief system rather than mere provinciality may have inspired such unwieldy epithets. This matrix of childhood experience had increasing importance for James as he faced failures in the theatre and literary marketplace, the loss of his sister Alice and brother ”Wilky,” the embarrassing dissolution of his brother Rob, and the assault of Gilded Age materialism. Strether’s name and its tie to Garth Wilkinson James leads the reader from Belle Époque Paris back to antebellum Boston, linking The Ambassadors through Balzac to the young James family and the cultural crucible that turned James from infant flâneur to artist, the very source of his genius. Henry James’s Lewis Lambert Strether is thus an ”ambassador” to Paris not only from a distant American land but also from a lost American age, evoking the dawn of James’s own consciousness as part of his family’s idiosyncratic world, as set against increasingly imperialistic and business-minded American values.

4James seems at first to want to throw his readers off the track. For example, he complains vociferously in an early review of Balzac, ”’Louis Lambert,’ as a whole, is now quite unreadable; it contains some admirable descriptions, but the ’scientific’ portion is mere fantastic verbiage” (”Correspondance de H. de Balzac” 76). In another review of his French master, James claims, ”Balzac possessed indeed a lively interest in the supernatural: ”La Peau de Chagrin, ”Louis Lambert” and ”Séraphîta,” are a powerful expression of it. But it was a matter of adventurous fancy, like the same quality in Edgar Poe; it was perfectly cold, and had nothing to do with his moral life” (”Honoré de Balzac” 48). These statements presage Maria Gostrey’s oft-quoted dismissal of the novel in the first chapter of The Ambassadors, the line that has confused scholars analysing the book according to conventional tenets of close reading. But, as Kristeva explains, ”relationships that the nineteenth century labeled ’social value’ or literature’s moral ’message’” are ”actualized as textual ambivalence.” She continues, ”Dialogue and ambivalence are borne out as the only approach that permits the writer to enter history by espousing an ambivalent ethics: negation as affirmation” (Kristeva 40). In spite of James’s prosaic repudiations, autobiographical correspondences between Louis Lambert and The Ambassadors bespeak not rejection but rather ambivalence that Kristeva pairs indissolubly with the unseen psychic gears driving intertextuality and literary absorption. James rejects Louis Lambert in his essays and dismisses it in on the surface of The Ambassadors itself only to reply to it on a subtle level throughout the novel where the symbolic manifestations of his unconscious have free play. Kristeva explains this level of imaginative work as ”the psychic aspect of writing as trace of a dialogue with oneself […] as a splitting of the writer into subject of enunciation and subject of utterance” (Kristeva 44).

5As Graham Robb delineates in his recent biography of Balzac, Louis Lambert’s fantastical visions and pseudo-scientific epigrams are affixed to a solid armature of dates and facts derived from Balzac’s actual life. Balzac begins his novel by announcing Louis Lambert’s birth date as 1797, two years before his own, and continues with realist portions that correspond to Balzac own experiences during his school days as a boarder at the Oratorian College de Vendôme where he was spurned by his schoolmates and punished by his teachers for his recondite intellectual pursuits. Lambert’s pamphlet ”Traité de la Volonté,” written in spite of the harsh circumstances of school life, matches a corresponding one written by Balzac himself, as remembered by one of his schoolmates years later. Autobiographical correspondences continue in Lambert’s move to Paris where he experiences the loneliness and desperation felt by Balzac during his literary apprenticeship in his garret in Paris on the Rue Les diguières. Last but not least, Balzac intrudes into the text to announce his authorship and his identity as Lambert’s companion: ”Ce fut en mémoire de la catastrophe arrivée au livre de Louis que, dans l’ouvrage par lequel commencent ces Études, je me suis servi pour une oeuvre fictive du titre réellement inventé par Lambert […]” [It was in memory of the disaster that befell Louis’ book that, in the tale which comes first in these Etudes, I adopted the title invented by Lambert for a work of fiction] (Louis Lambert 624). Louis and the narrator become inseparable companions, known by the hyphenated epithet ”Le Poète-et-Pythagore” who ”furent donc une exception, une vie en dehors de la vie commune” [The Poet-and-Pythagoras formed an exception and led a life apart from the life of the rest] (613). Linked to Louis as his alter ego, the narrator reveals, ”Nous nous habituâmes, comme deux amants, à penser ensemble, à nous communiquer nos rêveries” [Like two lovers, we got into the habit of thinking together in a common reverie] (615).

6Analysed according to Kristeva’s ”psychic aspect of writing as trace of a dialogue with oneself,” Balzac’s novel is more than just an autobiographical roman à clef. Splitting himself into both the narrator and Louis, Balzac infuses the text not only with autobiographical facts, but also with symbolic logic corresponding to the deepest needs of his psyche to portray the unhealed wounds of childhood, in particular his rejection by his mother. As Balzac’ scholars have long noted, Balzac’s mother not only put him out to nurse as a baby but also arranged to send him away to school at a tender age. Letters home show his intense desire to please her. She also exposed him to Swedenborg as a child, parallel to James’s initiation by his father. In Louis Lambert, Madame de Staël discovers the young Louis reading Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell alone in the woods, recognises his genius, and endows him with a scholarship to school. De Staël’s initial benevolence is ironically detrimental to the precocious visionary when she recklessly sends him to the conventional Collège de Vendôme where schoolmates and teachers alike torment him for his idiosyncratic genius. When he goes to Paris in search of her counsel and wisdom, he is unable to find his benefactress and suffers further desperation and loneliness. Exemplifying Kristeva’s concept of ”dialogue and ambivalence,” Balzac again mentions Madame de Staël as a metonymic exchange for her great heroine but disparages the careless author whose largesse ironically hurt Lambert, ”déplanté par Corinne de ses belles campagnes pour entrer dans le moule d’un collège auquel chaque intelligence, chaque corps doit, malgée sa portée, malgré son tempérament […]” [transplanted by ”Corinne” from the country he loved, to be squeezed in the mould of a collegiate routine to which every spirit and every body must yield, whatever their range or temperament] (619). ”Corinne’s,” i.e. Madame de Staël’s, carelessness ruins Lambert’s life. Lambert the wounded Swedenborgian dies while his friend and alter ego the narrator lives on. Displacing his mother as Madame de Staël, Balzac re-enacts his childhood trauma but also his ambivalent relationship to his mother from whom he sought approval and who became his financial assistant during his early years as an author, enabling him to succeed and survive.

7Balzac’s references to Madame de Staël’s novel Corinne (1807) tie the autobiographical aspects of Louis Lambert to intertextual and generic considerations. As Kristeva’s writes, ”any text is constructed as a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another […]” (37). Like Corinne, Louis Lambert can be construed as a Bildungsroman or novel of the development of the young person. Madame de Staël’s Corinne makes an earlier appearance in Louis Lambert when Balzac’s narrator describes Madame de Staël’s iconic portrait by Gérard where she appears dressed as her heroine and holding her lyre in a scene from the famous novel. With an ekphrastic description of this painting, Balzac’s narrator again intrudes on the text, recording the moment of his primal identification with his precursor, ”j’ai vu le tableau de Corinne, où Gérard l’a représentée et si grande et si belle; hélas! la femme idéale rêvée par mon imagination la surpassait tellement, que la véritable Madame de Staël a constamment perdu dans mon esprit, même après la lecture du livre tout viril, intitulé De l’Allemagne” [ I saw at a later time the picture of Corinne, in which Gerard represents her as so tall and handsome; and, alas! the woman painted by my imagination so far transcended this, that the real Madame de Stael fell at once in my estimation, even after I read her book of really masculine power, De l’Allemagne.] (601).The narrator’s own vision of his precursor exceeds the real woman. Balzac also mentions Goethe’s Werther (1774), the other great Romantic Bildungsroman that he wished to supersede. Goethe’s hero, like Madame de Staël’s, shares many traits with his author. In a lengthy digression, Balzac discloses his intention for his protagonist to surpass Goethe’s troubled hero, ”Les soupirs de Lambert m’ont appris des hymnes de tristesse bien plus pénétrants que ne le sont les plus belles pages de Werther […]. Werther est l’esclave d’un désir, Louis Lambert était toute une âme esclave” [Lambert’s woes had taught me many a chant of sorrow far more appealing than the finest passages in ”Werther” […] Werther is the slave of desire; Louis Lambert was an enslaved soul.] (614). Just as Louis Lambert exceeds Werther in the intensity of his suffering, so Balzac intends to supplant Goethe’s Romantic fervor with his realist mode, explaining the precision of places, dates, and specific sensory memories in spite of the novel’s bizarre catalogue of visionary and pseudo-scientific insights.

8All three protagonists—Werther, Corinne, and Lambert—are creative geniuses suffering from exclusion and misunderstanding by the mediocre hordes, placing their fictional biographies in the generic sub-category of Künstlerroman, or novel of the growth of the young artist. All three novels also exhibit autobiographical overlap with their authors on both surface and symbolic levels. In The Ambassadors, James absorbs and replies to the generic and thematic particulars of the autobiographical Künstlerroman and in particular to Werther, Corinne, and Louis Lambert in subtle ways that exhibit Kristeva’s idea of authorial ambivalence paired to intertextual absorption. In her discussion of intertextuality in Revolution in Poetic Language, Kristeva defines novels as having ”borrowed from different signifying materials […] never single, complete and identical to themselves, but always plural, shattered […]” (Kristeva 111). For example, James transposes the plot device of the early deaths of Werther, Corinne, and Louis Lambert into the early death of Strether’s son and wife, and, metaphorically, the early emotional death of Strether himself. Attributing to Strether’s lost boy the Romantic passion of Werther, Corinne, and Louis Lambert, James writes in his original notebook entry, ”He was wild—he was free—he was passionate; but there would have been a way of taking him” (Notebooks 142). As James reveals in his later synopsis for Harper’s, ”There have been special facts about the boy, his nature, his temperament, tendencies, that Strether has subsequently accused himself, with bitter compunction, of not having understood and allowed for, not handled with sufficient tenderness and tact” (549). Like his precursors in the canonical Künstlerroman, Strether’s son is the misunderstood and sensitive type of the artist too good to survive in the world. In the finished novel, James explicitly connects the death of his wife and son with Strether’s own inner death, ”Beyond, behind them was the pale figure of his real youth, which held against its breast the two presences paler than itself—the young wife he had early lost and the young son he had stupidly sacrificed” (The Ambassadors [2009] 84). Subtly referencing Louis Lambert, whose protagonist turns pale, almost completely white, before he dies, Strether’s youth becomes embodied as a ”pale figure” that dies along with his son and wife, ”two presences paler than itself.” When his son dies, Strether dies emotionally and intellectually, as symbolised by the ”lemon-colored volumes” of Hugo that represent his youth, purchased in Paris ”back in the sixties,” that are now buried in his attic, ”stale and soiled and never sent to the binder” (86-87). Subsuming works of his French precursors, James hopes to supplant Romantic and even Balzacian realist modes with his psychological realism.

9Kristeva’s theory of intertextuality lends insight to a re-reading of The Ambassadors in light of its precursors in the genre of Künstlerroman. Kristeva discusses the intersection of ”language (the true practice of thought) with space,” where the word works ”horizontally (the word in the text belong to both writing subject and addressee)” and ”vertically (the word in the text is oriented towards an anterior or synchronic literary corpus)” (Kristeva 36-37). This conception is part of her examination of ”spatial conception of language’s poetic operation,” the ”three dimensions of textual space” that extend the work outward to ”larger sequences” and ”exterior texts.” Enfolding Louis Lambert into The Ambassadors, James enters Kristeva’s vertical space, subsuming not only Balzac’s novel but also Goethe’s and Madame de Staël’s novels. Lambert Strether leads us to Louis Lambert, who leads us to Werther and Corinne, who tie us back to Strether, an intertextual mise en abîme that extends forward and backward in the ”synchronic literary corpus.” With the autobiographical correspondences between each of the protagonists and their creators, on the level of simple surface resemblance and deeper psychic symbolism, Kristeva’s image of a ”synchronic literary corpus” allows a strand of autobiographical text parallel to and shadowing the vertical line of Künstlerromans as the fictional and real-life figures lend each other added resonance vertically across the vast literary infrastructure.

10Autobiographical parallels between James and Strether are strengthened when analysed in light of James’s covert reference through Balzac and Louis Lambert to Garth Wilkinson, ’Wilky’ James, implicitly calling forth the world of James’s childhood and their idiosyncratic Swedenborgian and Emersonian upbringing. By specifying Strether’s age as fifty-five in the year 1900, James further strengthens the link between his hero and his brother Garth Wilkinson, who also would have been fifty-five in 1900, born like Strether in 1845, just two years after James himself and a year before youngest James brother, Robertson. Just as James connects Strether’s birth to his own and Wilky’s, Lewis Lambert Strether and Garth Wilkinson James are exact contemporaries. More important than their vital statistics, Wilky and Strether are tied by repeated personal failure, a predicament shared with Balzac’s Louis Lambert and authors Balzac and Henry James themselves. Like James’s brothers Wilky and Bob, Strether ”had failed, as he considered, in everything, in each relation and in half a dozen trades” (The Ambassadors [2009] 114), a description that fits James’s sensitive and good-natured younger brothers more than it does the successful editor Howells, who is Strether’s ostensible prototype. Strether edits the Woollett Review in order to rescue from ”the wreck of hopes and ambitions, the refuse-heap of disappointments and failures, [his] one presentable scrap of an identity” (100-01). James’s hypersensitive and troubled sister Alice is also implicitly included in James’s record of failure through Maria Gostrey, who is herself tied to Louis Lambert’s female counterpart in failure, his beloved Pauline de Villenoix, ostracised from French society by her Jewish genealogy and sensitive nature. As Maria Gostrey confesses, ”’If you knew,’ she sighed, ’the dreams of my youth! But our realities are what have brought us together. We’re beaten brothers in arms’” (84). As for James, his brothers, and Alice, Strether and Gostrey’s relationship is ultimately fraternal and their shared failures makes them ”beaten brothers in arms.” Of particular significance for Kristeva’s psychoanalytic and semiotic reading are the deaths of Strether’s wife, son, and the metaphorical death of Strether’s soul. Death plays a key role for Kristeva in the artistic process. As she explains the work of the novelist,

in order to function, he must make himself the bearer of death. In this sense the artist is comparable to all other figures of the ’scapegoat.’ But he is not just a scapegoat; in fact what makes him an artist radically distinguishes him from all other sacrificial murderers and victims […] the artist sketches out a kind of second birth (120).

11As we noted earlier, Balzac displaces anger towards his mother onto Madame de Staël, who destroys Louis but not the narrator, who triumphs as Louis’s alter ego and succeeds where he failed. Just as Strether gains ”a kind of second birth” in Paris where ”He had never expected […] again to find himself young […]” (Louis Lambert 81), so James experiences vicariously a ”second birth” through symbolic deaths in his novels, surviving the loss of Minny Temple, his parents, sister Alice, and brother ”Wilky.” Like Werther, Corinne, and Lambert, Wilkie died too early, in 1883 at the age of thirty-eight, the first of the James children to die. James had felt the loss keenly, writing to William ”It is a great weight off my spirit” (Edel Henry James II 256).

12Between October 1895, when James first recorded receiving the ’donnée’ for The Ambassadors from Jonathan Sturges, and his summary sent to Harper’s five years later, James looked back with poignant meditation at a series of calamitous losses, not just the deaths but also the attending catastrophes, financial and personal, of the family fortunes as well as his own failure in the theatre and continual ’friction’ with the literary marketplace, the ”bitter grief” of which Michael Anesko so thoroughly recounts (Anesko 162). In his notebooks, James describes himself as having ”been exactly the martyr and victim of […] that long vain study to take the measure abovementioned, to ’meet’ the vulgar need, to violate his intrinsic conditions […] I lost my place—my letters weren’t wanted” (Notebooks 110). In the fall of 1900, rather than leave England for his usual peripatetic travels, James instead installed himself in Rye, beyond the reach of social entanglements, and set to work. Past fifty, wounded by his failures and those of his siblings, James thought deeply about the past, and faced a reckoning of sorts, as evidenced by his elegiac tone in a letter to Morton Fullerton that he was ”face to face at my age, with every successive lost opportunity (wait till you’ve reached it!) and with the steady, swift movement of the ebb of the great tide—the great tide of which one will never see the turn.” Referencing Strether’s speech to Little Bilham from The Ambassadors that he was then in the midst of writing for later serialization, James added ominously, ”The grey years gather; the arid spaces lengthen, damn them—or at any rate don’t shorten; what doesn’t come doesn’t, and what goes does” (Edel Henry James IV 169). Strether had said to Little Bilham, ”What one loses, one loses, make no mistake about that.” While William Dean Howells may have been his original prototype for Strether, here James identifies himself with his hapless protagonist during the imaginative phase of constructing his novel, before having put pen to paper.

13Failure in The Ambassadors parallels failure in Louis Lambert, both linked to the overarching sense of failure in the James family, particularly in regard to money and ”business.” After his arrival in Paris, Louis writes to his uncle, his sole surviving relative, ”Cher oncle, je vais bientôt quitter ce pays, où je ne saurais vivre. Je n’y vois aucun homme aimer ce que j’aime, s’occuper de ce qui m’occupe, s’étonner de ce qui m’étonne. Forcé de me replier sur moi-même, je me creuse et souffre. […] Ici le point de départ en tout est l’argent. Il faut de l’argent […]” [Dear Uncle,—I shall soon be leaving this part of the world, where I could never bear to live. I find no one here who likes what I like, who works at my work, or is amazed at what amazes me. Thrown back on myself, I eat my heart out in misery... Here, money is the mainspring of everything. Money is indispensable […]” (646-47). Representing Balzac’s and James’s failure in business, Lambert laments that ”Je manque essentiellement de la constante attention nécessaire à qui veut faire fortune. Toute enterprise mercantile, toute obligation de demander de l’argent à autrui, me conduirait à mal […]” [I am absolutely devoid of the constant attention indispensable to the making of a fortune. Any mercantile venture, any need for using other people’s money would bring me to grief […].] (647). Like his protagonist, Balzac was desperate for money, constantly in debt and living monastically in his garret while roaming the Parisian streets as a nighttime flâneur. Balzac’s difficulties did not end with his successful entry into the literary world after publication of his first masterpiece, La Peau de Chagrin, in 1831. In fact, the ostensible reason for his penning of Louis Lambert was as a refutation to his enemies’ assertions of his ineptitude and even possible madness. As he writes to his future wife Madame Hanska in a letter quoted by James in a review of Balzac’s letters, Louis Lambert would be ”a work in which I have striven to rival Goethe and Byron, Faust and Manfred. I don’t know whether I shall succeed, but the fourth volume of the ’Philosophical Tales’ must be a last reply to my enemies and give the presentiment of an incontestable superiority” (”Correspondance de H. de Balzac” 76).

14James notes in this same essay, ”We constantly feel that his work would have been greatly better if the Muse of ’business’ had been elbowed away by her larger-browed sister. Balzac himself, doubtless, often felt in the same way; but, on the whole, ’business’ was what he most cared for” (”Correspondance de H. de Balzac” 82). What James discusses in this essay is a duality in Balzac, wondering ”what concern the poet has with so much arithmetic and so much criticism, so many statistics and documents” and conversely ”what concern the critic and the economist have with so many passions, characters and adventures” (Notes on Novelists 114). James agrees with French critic Hippolyte Taine that Balzac was ”an artist doubled with a man of business” (118). In this discussion of Balzac’s duality as both artist and ”man of business,” James uses ”business” in both its literal and figurative sense, as denoting the vocation of mercantilism but also metaphorically as significant occupation, be it commercial or artistic. Balzac embodies the literal definition of businessman in his desire to be ”the impassioned economist and surveyor, the insatiate general inquirer and reporter” (117). Balzac is also business-like in his obsession with money, ”’Things’ for him are francs and centimes more than any others, and I give up as inscrutable, unfathomable, the nature, the peculiar avidity of his interest in them” (120). But James contrasts this faculty of economic preoccupation with art, asking ”again and again what then is the use on Balzac’s scale of the divine faculty. The imagination, as we all know, may be employed up to a certain point in inventing uses for money; but its office beyond that point is surely to make us forget that anything so odious exists” (120). James, in other words, ultimately rejects Balzac’s ”business” and recognizes his ”divine faculty,” equating imagination with something sacred and holy. Indeed, Balzac possesses for James ”the inner vision all the while wide-awake, the vision for which ideas are as living as facts and assume an equal intensity” (116). This ”inner vision” making ideas ”as living as facts” is what matters most to James. By the end of the essay, James has transposed ”business” from its literal to its figurative sense as endeavor. James writes that ”we can think, frankly, of no one else with an equal amount of business on his hands,” referring to the gargantuan project of La Comédie Humaine as a whole. He adds, ”It is the whole business in fine—that grand total to which he proposed to himself to do high justice—that gives him his place apart, makes him, among the novelists, the largest weightiest presence” (121).

15It is just this transposition of the meaning of ”business,” and its related cognates ”office” and ”errand,” from the literal to the figurative that James enacts in The Ambassadors. This rhetorical legerdemain ties Balzac the artist to Strether and, most important, ties them both to James and his own larger project, his version of the ”Human Comedy” as ”American Human Comedy.” Here we must return to James’s own obsession with ”business.” As Kristeva reminds us, novels are ”the result of a redistribution of several sign-systems: carnival, courtly poetry, scholastic discourse” (Kristeva 111). James’s essays on Balzac have a bearing on his fiction, are implicit commentary on it, as are his two actual autobiographies, A Small Boy and Others (1913) and Notes of a Son and Brother (1914). James’s preoccupation with business is tied to his sense of failure, in particular his family’s ineptitude in business. As James confesses in A Small Boy and Others, ”our consciousness was positively disfurnished, as that of young Americans went, of the actualities of ’business’ in a world of business. As to that we all formed together quite a monstrous exception; business in a world of business was the thing we most agreed […] in knowing nothing about” (Autobiography [1956] 35).

16In his oscillation between literal and figurative meanings of ”business” in The Ambassadors, James employs a discourse central to the myth of America and enters an historic debate over the meaning of American statehood. Both Emerson and Thoreau in their now-classic works of American literature transpose ”business” from its literal to its figurative sense to stage a polemic against the fusion in American culture of the sacred and the secular going back to John Winthrop’s sermon ”A Model of Christian Charity,” given as the Arbella sailed into Boston harbor in 1630, followed by Crevecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer and Ben Franklin’s Autobiography. Franklin uses the word ”business” no less than 130 times in his short autobiography, most famously in the first instance of American public relations and advertising, as he discloses ”to show that I was not above my business, I sometimes brought home the paper I purchased at the stores through the streets on a wheelbarrow” (77). Franklin, in fact, connects virtue not only to industry but also to wealth, deftly mixing American success with piousness through his compendium of aphorisms known as Poor Richard’s Almanac that he filled, ”with proverbial sentences, chiefly such as inculcated industry and frugality, as the means of procuring wealth, and thereby securing virtue; it being more difficult for a man in want, to act always honestly” (163).

17Thoreau challenges this unholy American obsession with business in Walden (1854), where he parodies Franklin’s industriousness by using the discourse of American business for his life in nature. With implicit reference to Franklin, Thoreau repeatedly uses the word ”business” in the opening chapter entitled ”Economy,” another word he uses ironically as for him it signifies understanding ”the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it […]” (28). Thoreau writes ”How many mornings, summer and winter, before yet any neighbor was stirring about his business, have I been about mine!” Rather than ply the usual trade of farmer, lawyer, or merchant, Thoreau was ”anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too”; or was ”trying to hear what was in the wind, to hear and carry it express”; or ”was the self-appointed inspector of snow storms and rain storms, and did my duty faithfully.” Making fun of the small-town bureaucrats already in existence in 1854, Thoreau concludes ”I went on thus for a long time […] faithfully minding my business, till it became more evident that my townsmen would not after all admit me into the list of town officers, nor make my place a sinecure with a moderate allowance” (16). Thoreau continues in this vein, using the words ”trade,” ”enterprise,” and ”capital” ironically, culminating in his assertion,

Finding that my fellow-citizens were not likely to offer me any room in the court house, or any curacy or living anywhere else, but I must shift for myself, I turned my face more exclusively than ever to the woods, where I was better known. I determined to go into business at once, and not wait to acquire the usual capital […] (17).

18Counter to the example of Boston worthies who engaged in the famous New England-China trade in ”some small counting house on the coast, in some Salem harbor,” Thoreau ”thought that Walden Pond would be a good place for business” (18).

19In The Ambassadors, James re-enacts Thoreau’s parody of Franklin by his metaphorical use of the word ”business” and classic business nomenclature, situating his late novel in the tradition of radical American resistance literature and connecting his own work to that of his father’s contemporaries in the Transcendental movement. James employs the word ”business” no less than fifty times in The Ambassadors, like Thoreau using the word as an implicit critique of Franklin’s reductive mercantile mode of existence and its more strident manifestations in James’s own Gilded Age. James alerts his reader to the significance of the metaphorical versus actual meaning of ”business” in his Preface to The Ambassadors by calling his vocation ”the business of my tale” and specifying that The Ambassadors, as opposed to The Wings of the Dove, is ”this other business” (34-5). He goes on to define his art through this figurative use of the word:

No privilege of the teller of tales and the handler of puppets is more delightful, or has more of the suspense and the thrill of a game of difficulty breathlessly played, than just this business of looking for the unseen and the occult, in a scheme half-grasped, by the light or, so to speak, by the clinging scent, of the gage already in hand (36).

20Continuing with what approaches an extended metaphor or ”conceit,” James likens his expansion of the original germ of his tale to ”the business that can least be likened to the chase with horn and hound. It’s all a sedentary part—involves as much ciphering, of sorts, as would merit the highest salary paid to a chief accountant […] He sows his seed at the risk of too thick a crop; wherefore yet again, like the gentlemen who audit ledgers, he must keep his head at any price” (38).

21For James, as for Strether, the ”business” of America is the ’errand into the wilderness,’ which would be defined by James as art and life itself, not the errand chosen by Mrs. Newsome to return Chad to the Woollett mills. James had a lot at stake in The Ambassadors, enacting therein the struggle in America over the essential meaning of its creed and the parallel struggle for James to prove the validity of his family’s mode of existence. Establishing the dialogic relation between Louis Lambert and The Ambassadors, we travel along three parallel strands of Kristeva’s ”synchronic literary corpus,” that of the European Künstlerroman, the non-fiction American autobiography that includes Franklin, Thoreau, and James, but also, more fundamentally, the psychic autobiographies of Balzac and James imported into their works on the symbolic level, where literature happens. Kristeva’s concept of intertextuality thus allows us a deeper reading of James’s text as it speaks across vertical literary space to his French master Balzac.


1 ”This event, under his father’s roof and to his own knowledge, when Louis was nine years old, contributed largely to his belief in Swedenborg’s miraculous visions, for in the course of that philosopher’s life he repeatedly gave proof of the power of sight developed in his Inner Being.” This and subsequent translations are taken from the 2005 edition of the story, translated by Clara Bell and James Waring.

2 See, for example, Sheila Teahan’s ”My Sculptor/My Self: A Story of Reading.” In The Henry James Review 23: 3 (Fall 2003), 246-54; Hazel Hutchison, ”James’s Spectacles: Distorted Vision in the Ambassadors.” In The Henry James Review 26: 1 (Winter 2005), 39-51; and Bill Brown, ”Now Advertising: Late James.” In The Henry James Review 30: 1 (Winter, 2009).

3 Yet, Tintner contradicts her assertion, stating, ”In view of James’s great attention to the nuances of the names of his characters, we cannot view [that Marie de Vionnet and Maria Gostrey share the same first name] as accidental” (Tintner Book World 306). James W. Gargano, ”The Ambassadors and Louis Lambert.” In Modern Language Notes 75 (1960), 213; and Hazel Hutchison, ”The Other Lambert Strether: Henry James’s The Ambassadors, Balzac’s Louis Lambert, and J. H. Lambert.” In Nineteenth-Century Literature 58: 2 (September 2003), 230-53, concur with Adeline Tintner. For example, Hutchison argues that ”In choosing a slight, unadmired novel, James underlines Strether’s marginality and the bad taste of his hometown” (237). Hutchison’s argument is more nuanced, however, than Gargano’s as she asserts the complexity of the connection with Balzac, for ”it is not possible to dispose of the Balzacian mysticism in The Ambassadors as swiftly as Gargano might wish. […] Part of Balzac’s appeal was that James felt that the line between the concrete and the abstract, the material and the spiritual, should be constantly blurred” (238).

4 With a canny sense of verbal play, Henry James Sr. must have realized that ”Garth Wilkinson James” simply reversed his great friend’s own name ”James (John) Garth Wilkinson.”


Kathy Lawrence is a professor at George Washington University, where she teaches a wide range of courses on American literature and art, including Emerson and his Circle, Henry James and his Family, American Romanticism, Literature and Film of American Suburbia, and Hollywood in the American Imagination. Her research interests focus on Henry James and his relation to his American past, on missing members of the Transcendental movement, and on the intersection of fiction, sculpture, and painting in 19-th century American culture. Her most recent work has uncovered the art of transcendentalist Caroline Sturgis as well as that of sculptor Waldo Story and painter Julian Story, and their relation to Henry James’s memoirs and his late style.


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