Joseph Epstein wrote an account of teaching a class on Henry James in 1990.* Epstein was at Northwestern University, so his students were ace. His reading list, in order:
1. “The Art of Fiction”
2. “The Figure in the Carpet”
3. “The Aspern Papers”
4. Washington Square
5. “Daisy Miller”
6. “The Pupil”
7. The Europeans
8. “The Turn of the Screw”
9. The Princess Casamassima
10. The Ambassadors (to be read for the final exam)
I would like to pause for a moment to savor that parenthetical description. The Ambassadors is in James’s thick late style, and is over 500 pages long in the Penguin Classics edition. Now that, I say, that is a university education – “for the final exam!”
This would be as good a way to get to know James as any, except that most of us would want to take more than ten weeks to get through the list, and I also, for health reasons, will have to reschedule the final. I claim, accurately, to not know James well, but I have read 40% of that list. I was at 30% twenty years ago.
Epstein titled his essay “Selling Henry James,” and he meant it: “I wanted converts.” Converts not to any particular view of James, but to the idea that reading James was still worth the time of a 20 year-old. He thinks he succeeded by the way; the article is an account of a class that went well.
Epstein’s introduction to James was in a class at the University of Chicago, where he was assigned a “novel about furniture,” as the protagonist of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty calls it, The Spoils of Poynton:
How much of the novel I could be said to have comprehended I cannot say. Yet I came away with respect for it, which was in part owing to the respect I had for the respect in which my teacher [Morton Dauwen Zabel] held it. I did at least grasp that Henry James was serious stuff…
I read “Daisy Miller” in American Lit II – I think that was my first James – but did not learn the same lesson, not too strongly. “Daisy Miller” is stiff but light and elegant. I hate to press the word “serious” against it too forcefully. I learned to respect James later by reading good readers of James, readers like Edmund Wilson and Joseph Epstein.
A few other lessons. Be alert for James’s comedy. Easy enough for me, since I think Dostoevsky and Wuthering Heights are hilarious, but valuable advice for others. No, for me, too, since much of the comedy is created by minute shades of phrasing: “for Henry James not entirely but in good part life was a matter of phrasing.” Actively look for the meaning in James. He will not do the work for the reader: “He had a positive horror of generalization.” Read James not in one particular way but in many ways.
I think I knew all of that. Still, how pleasant to eavesdrop on Epstein’s class without having to take the final.
* Epstein’s article originally appeared in The New Criterion, 1990 (here 'tis). I found it in the Epstein’s essay collection Pertinent Players (1993).