Friday, March 16, 2012

A Problem

Henry James (1843–1916)
From Henry James: Complete Stories 1864–1874

In June 1868 twenty-three-year-old Moorfield Storey, whose multifaceted career would eventually include becoming the first president of the NAACP, exclaimed in a letter to a friend, “I have just finished a most delightfully trashy story in the Galaxy by my friend or acquaintance, Henry James. Just the sort of dish-water which suits one in June.” The tale in question “is extraordinarily uncharacteristic of its author as he came to be known,” adds Storey’s biographer in a footnote. Readers may well be surprised that this “trashy” story, which is this week’s selection, is from the same hand that gave us Daisy Miller, Washington Square, The Wings of the Dove, The Portrait of a Lady, and The Turn of the Screw.

Only twenty-five years old when he wrote “A Problem,” James had already been publishing stories for four years, beginning with the anonymous “A Tragedy of Error” in the February 1864 issue of
Continental Monthly. As one critic put it a half century ago, “James’s struggle between realism and romanticism is clearly working itself out” in his early fiction. James’s stories from this decade are “carefully written and constructed, but rather prim and pale,” notes Robert Emmet Long. “They have a French lucidity, an accuracy of psychological observation, and all are concerned with social relationships.” Most of the stories have a Civil War setting, highlight interactions between the sexes, or feature supernatural elements, and several of them show especially the influence of Nathaniel Hawthorne. James later published the literary biography Hawthorne (1879), and few authors—and certainly no other American author—influenced James’s writing to such an extent. As literary scholar Richard Brodhead contends, “although James’s writing life is fifty years in length, there is no time in it so early that Hawthorne is not already a part of it, as there is no time so late that we can confidently say that Hawthorne’s influence is definitely outgrown.”

While writing and publishing his early stories (many of which he never republished), James was the first to acknowledge that they were apprentice work, created to satisfy popular taste. The year “A Problem” was published, he wrote, “I write little and only tales, which I think it likely I shall continue to manufacture in a hackish manner, for that which is bread. They
cannot of necessity be very good; but they shall not be very bad.” Still, even when the young James was slumming it, his tales have an atypically breezy appeal and are of interest to anyone intrigued by the development of one of America’s greatest authors.

Note: In Catherine Maria Sedgwick's novel Hope Leslie (1827), Magawisca (p. 309) is the daughter of a Pequod chief.

September was drawing to an end, and with it the honeymoon of two young persons in whom I shall be glad to interest the reader. They had stretched it out in sovereign contempt of the balance of the calendar. That September hath thirty days is a truth known to the simplest child; but our young lovers had given it at least forty. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.

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