Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Joseph Epstein teaches Henry James - I did at least grasp that Henry James was serious stuff

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).


  1. What a well-conceived, diabolical list (at least from my perspective of sitting at 70% on the Amateur Reader scale), given that James really lets his hair down with The Ambassadors. Everyone must have been dreading the final, but I'll bet that three nights before it, when they finally started reading the book, at least a few of them started to anticipate the wicked fun that might be in store.

  2. My opinion of Princess Cassimassima was this: "If I'd wanted to read a novel by Dickens, I'd have read a novel by Dickens." - Mind you, you could get a fair few posts out of that, I dare say.

    I've read some of the shorts (and might have read others), and others I'm not sure about. I might have read The Europeans. Is that the one where some Europeans are a bit more immoral than some Americans? - Oh no, that's every Henry James novel!

    So there you are, I reckon I've read somewhere between 40-90% of that list. I've definitely not read The Art of Fiction.

    I'm "reading" The Tragic Muse, which is pretty good (for a more obscure James novel). What it's about? Oh, some Americans go to Europe and...

  3. Epstein says the relative failure was The Princess Casamassima. The level of attention slipped. Even with students that dedicated, two big novels at the end is too much.

  4. Yes, that's The Europeans, as I remember it. There is a shocking scene in which the Europeans (who are actually Americans) decorate a room with scarves.

    Let's see what Epstein says about Casamassima: chapter 3 "is as good as anything Dickens ever did in the same line." obooki scores!

  5. It's not such a remarkable deduction: you only need to read it to see why.

    My recommendations from my limited reading would be: (novels) The Bostonians, What Maisie Knew, The Ambassadors (shorts) The Private Life (great Jamesian existentialism).

  6. I was at Northwestern at that time, but I didn't have Epstein until a year later--and that was for a muchsofter class in writing the personal essay (at which, I should be clear, I was terrible). This sounds like it would have been a lot of fun, especially because, one assumes, between Epstein's reputation as a conservative and the daunting reading list, the class would have probably self-selected into a batch of almost exactly the sort of students he seems to have been looking for: students who just want to read the books and talk about how they work.

    (That reading list, in pages though not in density, is eclipsed by the one for the class on Dickens that I took from one of Epstein's colleagues, the late Lawrence Evans. In a nine-week course, we read Barnaby Rudge, Martin Chuzzlewith, Dombey and Son, Little Dorrit, and Our Mutual Friend.

  7. I like that reading list. I stand very low on the Amateur Reader scale. I've read Washington Square, Turn of the Screw and The Aspern Papers, that's it. I have started The Golden Bowl and Portrait of a Lady before, only to give up a few pages in before my will to live ran out. Almost for that reason I am hoping to read along with you occasionally (as you can't legally prevent me). But I couldn't do that chronological thing: too anal. When your reading coincides with my bookshelf, I will hope to tag along.

  8. Oh, and I should say that Joseph Epstein was consistently a gracious and interesting teacher in the one class I did take with him. (Despite my aforementioned lack of personal essay writing skill.)

  9. Not a fan of that list. Too easy up front, and too hard at the end. That's probably a common problem in doing a James course, which must be all but impossible. Haven't read Casamassima, but it seems deadly, especially as in intro to Ambassadors. I'd be curious to read The Pupil, and I don't know the Europeans, but might look into it. I think I read The American after reading Portrait of a Lady, which seemed a good piece and intro to early James, and I only read Washington Square and Daisy Miller later. I like the former a lot better, but I could be selling Daisy Miller short. The Washington Square movie (The Heiress) is much better I think--reminds me that I still haven't dug out The Bostonians movie! How is that possible?

    So my approach would be 1. Washington Square 2. Portrait of a Lady 3. Ambassadors, with other (manageable) "filler" which could be early/middle, or one other late novel.

  10. Levi - when I was in Chicago I would always ask Northwestern grads if they had taken a class with Epstein. The response was always "Who?" which was a mite depressing. They missed an opportunity.

    I believe you are correct about the self-selection in this particular class.

    A fat Dickens novel every two weeks in an upper-level class sounds just about right. English students are supposed to read.

    The funny thing, litlove, is that like you, and like me, so many of us who have not read much James have in fact read a fair amount of James. The three you mention are a fine, substantial sampling. But then there is so much else. The proportions are all awry.

    I agree, zhiv, the big books should be moved to the middle, and at the end the prof should just show movies. That last bit was a joke.

    I have actually seen three film versions of James novels that I have not read, but those count as films, not books. And they hardly count as films. That was also a joke, just barely.

  11. I had mixed reactions to James as an undergrad, so I look forward to you persuading me--or not persuading me--that I should hurry up and give him another try. For the time being, Rise's contention (well, I think it was Rise...) that Javier Marías has seemed James-inspired on occasion is the strongest motive for me to bump James up the queue ahead of so many of my already-owned TBR candidates. Is that a sufficient motive? I'm not sure at the moment.

  12. Mixed reactions are common, and for good reason. James himself is pretty mixed. I expect minimal persuasion.

    I was thinking Proust with Marías, but only because I know Proust better. James, yes - late James. Everyone should at least look at late James. An example, the third sentence of "The Jolly Corner" (1908), picked almost at random:

    "He was talking to Miss Staverton, with whom for a couple of months now he had availed himself of every possible occasion to talk; this disposition and this resource, this comfort and support, as the situation in fact presented itself, having promptly enough taken the first place in the considerable array of rather unattenuated surprises attending his so strangely belated return to America."

    It starts out clear enough.

  13. Epstein's early essays -- before his conservative hobbyhorses and fake humility became, respectively, annoying and cloying, -- were delightful. This one suffers from the same flaws -- as well as an underlying contempt for his students that sells well to his usual readership. I have no doubt of his personal charm and skill as a teacher.

  14. AJ, I am a member in good standing of the "usual readership," and fail to see any contempt.