The voice of the Gilded Age: Why we can’t get enough of Henry James

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Why we can’t look away from Henry James
The acclaimed 19th-century writer — considered one of the greatest novelists ever — has become a staple of the Western canon and, perhaps unexpectedly, of the movies. What explains his continuing appeal?
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Some 150 (and counting) film and TV adaptations of Henry James novels have been produced. Even if you haven’t read his books, you’ve likely watched his plots.
Although he was published before movies were popularized, Henry James anticipated our viewing interests: aristocracy, romantic entanglements and psychological weirdness.
He was writing at a time of changing gender roles, and struggling with his own homosexuality.

James was an early expatriate writer, perhaps the first to glamorize writing about America from abroad, and influenced many subsequent expat writers.
You may not have read anything by Henry James, but you’ve likely seen his work on the silver screen. His writing has been adapted for film and television over 150 times, from miniseries to movies, starring luminaries like Marlon Brando, Cybill Shepherd and Nicole Kidman.

At first glance, his books, which follow the romantic entanglements and inner lives of turn-of-the-century aristocrats, seem like an odd fit for modern Hollywood.

A portrait of Henry James
John Rowe has written several books on Henry James, as well as books on American literature and culture. (Photo: Courtesy of John Rowe.)

Maybe not, says John Rowe, USC Associates Chair in Humanities and professor of English, American studies and ethnicity and comparative literature at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, who has been teaching students about James for nearly 50 years. He explores why James has remained so influential long into the new century, documenting his findings in his latest book, Our Henry James in Fiction, Film, and Popular Culture (Routledge, 2022).

Rowe was partially inspired by a USC Dornsife course he teaches on Henry James, in which he asks his students to examine the reasons for James’s popularity.

“My work with them has led me to a rather odd conclusion for a scholar who has spent much of his life celebrating James’s genius. James does not always rely on ambiguity as a strategic device to encourage the reader; he is often inconclusive because he does not know how to end his story,” writes Rowe. James’s hesitancy around cultural problems, rather than an ability to write universal truths, may best explain his enduring reputation.

He fuels our love of historical romance

The usual reason given for James’s continued relevance is our ongoing obsession with the grand historical ?poque the “Gilded Age.” Spanning 1870 to around 1900, it was an era marked by a booming, industrializing economy that made some families hugely wealthy. It saw the rise of the Astors, the Carnegies and the Vanderbilts, marked by their lavish parties and grand estates.

James’s novels were centered in this social milieu, one filled with elegant manners, parlor room romances and elaborate dresses. Many of James’ books, like The Bostonians, have been adapted into popular period films, with decadent sets and costuming. They continue to feed our seemingly endless appetite for historical romance, as exemplified by popular TV shows like Bridgerton, Downton Abby and, of course, The Gilded Age.

“James represents what many people want to be a part of: the high culture, drinking fine wine surrounded by oil paintings,” says Rowe. “He exemplifies a high-culture standard of taste, refinement and education for which people today are nostalgic.”

He was as confused about sexuality and changing gender roles as we are

During The Gilded Age, gender roles began to change. Women worked outside the home more and attended co-educational colleges, and the Women’s Suffrage Movement gained considerable steam. This left James, like many of his peers, rather confused.

“James didn’t really know how to cope with the changing sexual and gender codes of the era,” says Rowe. Also, James was probably same-sex attracted, a sexuality that was deeply frowned upon in his time. He was never married and likely never had an intimate relationship.

His uncertainty about changing social roles and his discomfort with his own homosexuality are expressed in his handling of intimate relationships. James’s novels, while exploring emotional entanglements, leave few clear moral lessons and plenty of space for conjecture.

In The Portrait of a Lady, the free-spirited Isabel Archer is charmed into marriage by a conman seeking her inheritance. When the marriage sours, Archer is given considerable opportunity to leave her husband and strike out with her fortune, but James leaves her fate uncertain. For readers who believe she leaves her husband, the book is a feminist rallying cry. For others, who see her returning to her loveless marriage, it’s a reconsideration of women’s liberation.

The uncertain ending was likely due to the fact that James himself wasn’t exactly sure in what direction to go — stick to tradition or embrace women’s liberation?

“There are lots of places where James just doesn’t have a clue how to end it. James doesn’t tell you what to think. The ambiguity prompts us to make our own decisions,” says Rowe.

Much for Hollywood to play with

A movie poster for ‘The Bostonians’
A 1984 adaptation of James’ The Bostonians received two Academy Award nominations. (Image Source: Wiki Commons.)

His uncertainty has allowed his writing to become a cipher through which we explore our own ongoing issues in coming to terms with sexuality, relationships between the sexes and gender roles. It’s a flexibility that has made it an excellent medium for Hollywood creativity.

James’ gothic ghost story The Turn of the Screw, in which a governess becomes convinced the children in her care are possessed, is perhaps his most famous tale. Like most of his work, it leaves much unsaid — including why one of the governess’ charges is sent away from his boarding school at the start of the story.

In a 1961 adaptation of the book, The Innocents, script writer Truman Capote used this ambiguity to imply that the boy was expelled for being gay.

“This is in the years leading up to the change of movie censorship rules, so writers slipped in coded expressions. Capote inserts the possibility that this young man knows that he’s gay by having him say [he was expelled] because he was ‘different,'” says Rowe.

A powerful influence on subsequent writers

James’ longevity in the canon has meant that each generation of American writers has felt compelled to respond to his work. This is particularly true for American expatriate writers who, like James, moved to Europe and contemplated the American experience from abroad.

James Baldwin, who moved to Paris from New York City, wrote his novel Another Country in many ways as a response to James. The book begins with an epigraph from James and, like James’s work, explores romantic passions and their ripple effects among a small circle of friends.

It’s a decidedly updated take, however: Its main character is Black, bisexual and involved in an interracial relationship. Baldwin’s book is both an appreciation of James and his way of calling James to task for his flaws. “Baldwin doesn’t reject James — he’s woven into the novel — but he’s also delivering a firm reproach to James for missing racial and sexual conflicts,” says Rowe.

James may have lingered long into the modern era, but Rowe isn’t sure he will live on indefinitely. Unlike Shakespeare’s universally appealing love sonnets, or Dante’s memorable depictions of hell, James’s appeal is rooted specifically in the social churn of our current era.

“Henry James’s enduring reputation has something to do with our inability to overcome the gender and sexual hierarchies, the class divisions and the racial stereotypes of nineteenth-century America and England,” writes Rowe. If we’re able to progress pass this, we’re likely to see James fade into the rearview mirror.

We don’t seem bored of him yet, however. In 2020, his work was yet again on the television screen, with the Netflix miniseries The Haunting of Bly Manor, an adaptation of The Turn of the Screw.

The post The voice of the Gilded Age: Why we can’t get enough of Henry James appeared first on USC News.

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