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Henry James's Europe

Dennis Tredy
Annick Duperray
Adrian Harding

VI. Authorship and Self-Representation

22. From Copying to Revision: The American to The Ambassadors

Paula Marantz Cohen

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1More than thirty years ago, Leo Bersani challenged the conventional psychological approach to Henry James’s work. He argued that in James’s writing ”human relations implied what we call human feelings into existence” but that these feelings were ”the elaborations of surfaces— they have no depth” (Bersani A Future… 148). In my own 1991 book, The Daughter’s Dilemma: Family Process and the Nineteenth-Century Domestic Novel, I supported this view by applying a family systems-theory approach to The Awkward Age: tracing patterns of interaction among characters rather than digging for psychic depths in characters. Since then, critics like Christopher Lane and Eric Savoy have explored Jamesian surfaces from the angle of queer theory. This essay is yet another attempt to trace surface patterns in James’s writing by looking at how the processes of copying and revision contributed to the evolution of his work.

2My point of departure is James’s relationship to his older brother William. I wish to use that relationship, not as Leon Edel did as the way into some sort of primal scene, but, rather, as the basis for a set of surface coordinates. For I see the position of Henry to William as a temporal gap that would become a spatial one: a difference in age that would become a separation in space, and that would have repercussions for James’s late fiction.

3These coordinates—of younger brother and of expatriate American— are, I contend, connected to the processes of copying and revision. ”Copying” involves the representation of an antecedent exterior element, seen as more authentic, more ”real” than the copy. ”Revision,” by contrast, operates with the idea of reworking what is already within the arsenal of representation. The move from copying to revision in James’s work describes the development of complexity in his artistic design, which is to say, the development from his earlier to his late style.

4Copying is the starting point for Henry James’s art insofar as it arose out of his initial position as William’s younger brother. There is no mystery, no secret in this relationship as I am considering it here. William, by the simple virtue of being older, was situated as a logical vehicle for emulation. In an often cited passage from A Small Boy and Others, James described how he perceived his early position with respect to his brother: ”I never for all the time of childhood and youth in the least caught up with or overtook him. He was always round the corner and out of sight” (9). The phrasing here suggests a competitive pursuit, as so many critics, including Edel and Howard M. Feinstein, have argued. But I want to read the line in a somewhat different way—to see the pursuit as a desire initially to copy the older brother. In this context, the gap in age becomes the gap between the original and the copy; the older brother ”around the corner and out of sight” becomes the space where projection can happen, where the imaginative life can develop.

5The second part of my idea is derived from another anecdote that James describes toward the end of A Small Boy and Others: that ”most appalling yet most admirable nightmare of my life” of being chased by ”a dimly-descried figure” in the Galerie d’Apollon of the Louvre, then finding that the chase has been reversed and he is pursuing the figure that had initially pursued him (349). If, in the original statement about his brother, Henry can be understood to be pursuing William in order to copy him, in the dream, he describes a shift in the order of creativity: from a drive to copy a real sibling, to a back and forth process with the self and a ghost—or, as I see it, with a past self and a present self.

6The first anecdote, significantly, is a recollection; the other is a dream (or an alleged dream). One is about a relationship to a real sibling; the other is about a recursive process, only possible when time and distance had separated James not only from his brother but also from a body of his own work that he could return to.

7Just as the conceit of the copy was grounded in the relationship to the older brother, so one can say that the distance between them, initially simply one of a gap in age, became translated concretely into the real distance between America and Europe. This distance, of course, grew out of copying: James copied his brother first, in choosing an artistic career; then, in moving to Europe after his brother had left and come back to America. Still, only when James settled in Europe did he acquire sufficient material to make possible the next stage in this pattern—that of his returning on his own work for the purpose of revision, and by so doing, creating the density of the major phase.

8I want to illustrate this idea by looking at two novels, The American and The Ambassadors, written more than 25 years apart, which, with a certain neatness (admittedly, for my purposes, an over-neatness), define the process I have in mind.

9The American, James’s second published, self-standing novel, was written just before his move from Paris to London. Hence, it stands as a transitional work between a looking back and a looking forward—a looking to the older brother and a looking to his own work for inspiration.

10Christopher Newman, the protagonist of The American, is the sort of character that a younger brother might create in an effort to produce a copy of a revered older brother. Here is part of the opening description of Newman: ”Decision, salubrity, jocosity, prosperity, seem to hover within his call; he is evidently a practical man, but the idea, in his case, has undefined and mysterious boundaries, which invite the imagination to bestir itself on his behalf” (The American [1971] 4). Add to this, the following descriptive passage, which evokes William even more distinctly:

He had turned his hand, with his brain in it, to many things; he had been enterprising, in an eminent sense of the term; he had been adventurous and even reckless, and he had known bitter failure as well as brilliant success; but he was a born experimentalist […]. His most vivid conception of a supernatural element in the world’s affairs had come to him once when […] misfortune was at its climax; there seemed to him something stronger in life than his own will. But the mysterious something could only be the devil, and he was accordingly seized with an intense personal enmity to this impertinent force (19-20).

11This is a wonderfully simplified rendering of William’s famous existential crisis, a ”copy” of that early struggle as a hero-worshipping younger brother would tend to see it.

12If The American thus sets forth a simplified copy of William James in Christopher Newman, the novel as a whole lays out the coordinates of the international theme as simply as one is likely to see it in James. The opening scene in the Louvre gives these to us in the terms I have been using:

’I have bought a picture,’ announced Christopher Newman to his friend Mr. Tristram.
’Bought a picture?’ said Mr. Tristram, looking vaguely round at the walls.
’Why, do they sell them?’
’I mean a copy.’
’Oh, I see. These,’ said Mr. Tristram, nodding at the Titians and Vandykes, ’these, I suppose, are originals?’
’I hope so,’ cried Newman. ’I don’t want a copy of a copy’ (14).

13The idea of the copy is thus introduced and placed wittily before the reader. The question of what is copy and what is original is raised in this scene, but it is a mild, transparent paradox when compared to how complex the issue will become in late James where the emphasis will indeed shift to the copy of a copy—and beyond, in a prolonged series of iterations. For the paradoxes at work in The American are still traceable to a simple binary opposition with a clear emphasis on one side. The novel begins by appearing to elevate Europe at Newman’s expense: the site of great art in the face of which Newman looks gullible and naïve—”an undeveloped connoisseur,” as he is referred to:

He had looked […] not only at all the pictures, but at all the copies that were going forward around them, in the hands of those innumerable young women in irreproachable toilets […] and if the truth must be told, he had often admired the copy much more than the original (1-2).

14James is making fun of Christopher Newman here—younger brothers can do that so long as the basic hierarchy remains intact—and, of course, it does. As Richard Poirier observed: ”In no other novel is James’s comedy so insistently at the service of his hero, even when, as in the early scenes, it affectionately makes fun of him” (Poirier xi). Newman’s inability to value the original over the copy in the paintings around him is not only connected to his appreciation of the young women doing the copying, but also—and extending from this—a more fundamental authenticity. As we are told: he ”was a powerful specimen of an American. But he was not only a fine American; he was, in the first place, physically, a fine man” (2).

15The loyalties of the novel are here made explicit. For the paintings in the Louvre, even though they are masterpieces by Titian and Van Dyke, are indeed copies of originals, the originals being the actual flesh-and-blood people they portray. And in this context, it is Newman who is the original: indisputably, ”a fine American and a fine man”— much finer than the furtive, artificial types that will come to surround him from among the French nobility.

16James thus spells out the emphasis he has in mind here, which reflects the position of himself to his brother: the American, the original man, is superior to the European copy, which is, in this context, the copy of life. The older brother at home in America remains the original to the younger brother living abroad and using him and America as an artistic resource.

17The American is James’s most accessible novel, beautifully uncluttered in its humor—one of the few novels, one could say, capable of being read and appreciated by his older brother. It is, in short, a novel written at a point before the older brother had been rendered obsolete—or, rather, had been assimilated so fully into representation as to become so. Yet reading the novel, we can see how this is poised to happen. Newman’s heroism, though never compromised, leads to disappointment for him and tragedy for the woman he loves. It is a scenario that we see could be revised with a different emphasis—as it will be in later novels. In other words, the potential for recursiveness in the design is already present. With the completion of The American, James would move from Paris to London, and this, in my admittedly simplistic genealogy, would begin a revisionary process—that copying of copies, to use Newman’s terminology—that would reach its apotheosis in The Ambassadors.

18In James’s Preface to The Ambassadors he invokes but immediately revises the advice that Strether gives to Little Bilham inside the novel: He cites the lines which begin ”Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to,” as constituting the ”grain of suggestion” that got him writing the novel. James cites the lines, ending as they do with: ”Do what you like so long as you don’t make [my mistake]. For it was a mistake. Live! Live!” (The Ambassadors [1909] v). He notes Strether’s reference to his own ”mistake,” only to proceed with a revision of this viewpoint when he says that Strether was ”perhaps after all constitutionally qualified for a better part […] so that the business of my tale and the march of my action […] is just my demonstration of this process of vision” (vi, emphasis mine). James here makes explicit the shift that has occurred since the writing of The American and, indeed, a shift of the position stated by his character inside The Ambassadors. He sidelines the idea of Strether’s ”mistake” in not ”having his life” and moves to assign him a ”better part,” which is to say, Strether’s ”reparation” for his ”mistake” through a ”process of vision.” The ”original” has been definitively superseded by the ”copy.” Life may seem the paramount value to Strether, but to his creator, the belated ”process of vision,” Strether’s—and his own— re-vision makes reparation, indeed, more than rectifies any past mistake by providing a ”better part.”

19By the time we arrive here, significantly, revision is occurring on multiple, interconnected levels: There is the revision of Strether’s idea with respect to his mission: the desire to bring home the young American, Chad Newsome, becomes a determination to make him stay in France. And there is the revision of that idea as articulated in the Preface—the call to ”live” superseded by a ”better part,” which is not related to Chad but to Strether in his acquisition of a ”process of vision.”

20These various forms of revision pertain to my larger idea, namely that The Ambassadors is a revision of The American. This can be understood in the following respects: Chad Newsome is a revision of Christopher Newman as spelled out in his name alone: Not Christopher for the great original explorer but a vogue-ish Chad; not a new man, but ”new-some”—the product of existing materials revised to produce something ”somewhat new”—the recycling of what exists in a new context. In the dream that James tells in his autobiography, the apparition chasing him is suddenly being chased by him. But the point seems to me not a simple reversal but a metaphor for recursiveness: how the past self becomes incorporated into the new self in an endless, revisionary cycle. In The Ambassadors, Strether comes to Europe to retrieve the wayward Chad Newsome to American values only to find himself converted to European ones (and hence, in a sense, turned on and pursued by Chad). Then, once converted, Strether is transformed into a pursuer again, determined to keep Chad in Europe. Yet he returns to America likely to continue in this back and forth motion as his imagination works in the service of a new ”process of vision.” Chad is the younger Jamesian self re-imagined not as the pursuer of the idolised older brother but as an apparition that serves the imaginative elaboration of the older self, the mature artist. The very slightness of Chad in the novel underlines his role as a shadow self—a ghost serving the Jamesian surrogate in his initiation into a ”better part”—making the novel not only a revision of The American but an allegory of artistic development as well. Again, to cite James in the Preface: ”There is the story of one’s hero, and then, thanks to the intimate connexion of things, the story of one’s story itself” (The American [1971] x).

21I realise of course that I am simplifying egregiously, failing to tackle all that seems so different about the two narratives. My point is a partly metaphorical one. The American partakes of a period ending in the 1880’s, when James had done sufficient ”copying” to have an arsenal established for revision. But there is also a sense in which I believe the two novels can be viewed together, as the echo of Christopher Newman in Chad Newsome suggests. One can do the same with a pairing like Portrait of a Lady and The Golden Bowl, The Bostonians and The Awkward Age, and Washington Square and The Wings of the Dove—of course, these probably could be shuffled into other combinations. The point is that while one may draw a one-to-one correspondence between certain Jamesian works, one can also assume a continual revisionary process, in which James used all that he had done as his stock material once he had reached a certain point in his development.

22What remains to be asked is whether there was any ’new’ material introduced once James had hunkered down at Lamb House and entered his major phase? Everything, of course, depends on what one calls ”new”— and I suppose I would argue that it is only ”new-some.” James often referred to the ”germ” or, as he calls it in the Preface to The Ambassadors, ”the grain of suggestion” ([1909] v) that served as the basis for his fiction. I would call this germ or grain the site upon which his revision of existing themes could be carried out. It must, as he explained, be quickly removed from reality so as to leave room to be imaginatively worked over. It is no longer the copying, then, but the space between that has become central to the creative process. This is borne out by the difficulty James experienced editing William’s letters after his death. Instead of writing a biography to include with the letters, he felt compelled to write his own autobiography instead and to revise his brother’s letters to suit his own vision. As has been noted, the work ”is empty at the center” (Olney 46), where William should have been—or, as James wrote in another context, explaining the development of character in his fiction: ”I had in a word to draw him forth from within rather than meet him in the world before me, […] and [in order] to make him objective, in short, had to turn nothing less than myself inside out” (Autobiography [1983] 455). This turning of the self inside-out seems another configuration for the self-chasing and being chased by an apparition of the self.

23I will conclude by invoking a detail unearthed by Adeline Tintner in an essay some years ago: William James, it seems, had a portrait done in 1863 in the pose of Titian’s Portrait of the Man with a Glove. Henry, no doubt, knew of the portrait and may have had it in mind when he wrote the scene in The American in which Christopher Newman is introduced as a ”fine man,” implicitly more authentic than even the priceless Titians and Van Dykes in the gallery. Significantly, that particular portrait by Titian, whose pose William copied for his own in 1863, appears again in The Ambassadors. Here, it is the one painting that Strether looks at closely during a trip to the Louvre early in the novel, just before he is about to meet Chad Newsome for the first time and register the ”conspicuous improvement” that the young man has undergone. When he does meet Chad, we are told that he is affected ”as he might have been affected by some light, pleasant, perfect work of art.” In Chad Newsome, the copy of the copy is being set before Strether, and it causes him to revise his vision. To spell this out mechanically: We have the original older brother, the copy of the older brother in Christopher Newman, the copy of the copy, or more correctly, the revision of the copy in Chad, and the re-vision of Chad by Strether. Finally, in yet another recursion, we have Strether as re-seen by James in his Preface, not as the failure he professes to be when speaking of his ”mistake,” but as a revised sensibility recouped to a ”better part.” If we go back to the Preface of The American we find James enumerating the problems he sees with the novel, and concluding in the final paragraph that whatever success it achieves must be ascribed to its hero, Christopher Newman. James writes: ”clinging to my hero as to a tall, protective, good-natured elder brother in a rough place, I leave the record to stand or fall by his more or less convincing image” (xxiii). James needed his older brother as a template when he wrote The American, but by The Ambassadors he had worked a revision on that real person that fit the world of romance he had created over the course of his literary career. While he was unhappy with his revision of The American for The New York Edition, he would call The Ambassadors ”quite the best, all around, of my productions” (vii). The later novel was the truly comprehensive revision of the former. In a way, for James, it rendered the former obsolete, much as had been the case for the older brother long before.


Paula Marantz Cohen is Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the author of four nonfiction books and four novels, including, most recently, What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper (2010). She is also the host of the Drexel InterView, a cable TV show broadcast on 300 public television and university-affiliated stations throughout the U.S., and a co-editor of jml: Journal of Modern Literature.


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