Thursday, 26 November 2015

Ralph Waldo Emerson and Isabel Archer

In Portrait of a Novel, Michael Gorra examines the sources of inspiration for Isabel Archer. 
1 is George Eliot, of course, specifically her heroines Dorothea Brooke and Gwendolen Harleth. The Portrait of a Lady is Henry James being inspired by but resisting and reacting to Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda.
Another is James's cousin Minny Temple. Intelligent, natural, playful, free-spirited, "modern", vivacious, audacious, mischievously irreverent, frank, reckless... Look at this passage I found in James's Notes of a Son and Brother
"She was absolutely afraid of nothing she might come to by living with enough sincerity and enough wonder; and I think it is because one was to see her launched on that adventure in such bedimmed, such almost tragically compromised conditions that one is caught by her title to the heroic and pathetic mark. It is always difficult for us after the fact not to see young things who were soon to be lost to us as already distinguished by their fate; this particular victim of it at all events might well have made the near witness ask within himself how her restlessness of spirit, her finest reckless impatience, was to be assuaged or 'met' by the common lot..." 
That sounds like Isabel, and at the same time reminds one of another character by James: Daisy Miller. 
More interestingly, Gorra argues how Isabel can be seen in terms of Emerson, in the sense that Isabel's insistence on independence and the freedom to choose, even to choose wrongly, seems to echo Emerson's ideas of self-reliance. She isn't as free as she imagines herself to be, and she isn't free because she's a woman, because she inherits a fortune, which is both a blessing and a curse, because she is theoretical and fancies herself heroic, because she knows what she doesn't want but not what she wants, because she doesn't know enough about the world. Her idea of her own freedom is abstract. 
Here I have Henry James's Selected Literary Criticism. Look at this passage from his essay "Emerson": 
"The plain, God-fearing, practical society which surrounded him was not fertile in variations: it had great intelligence and energy, but it moved altogether in the straightforward direction. On 3 occasions later- 3 journeys to Europe- he was introduced to a more complicated world; but his spirit, his moral taste, as it were, abode always within the undecorated wall of his youth. There he could dwell with that ripe unconsciousness of evil which is 1 of the most beautiful signs by which we know him. [...] He knows the nature of man and the long tradition of its dangers; but we feel that whereas he can put his finger on the remedies, lying for the most part, as they do, in the deep recesses of virtue, of the spirit, he has only a kind of hearsay, uninformed acquaintance with the disorders..." 
Later in the same essay, writing of Emerson's insensibility to the works of great novelists, James says: 
"... Hawthorne's vision was all for the evil and sin of the world; a side of life as to which Emerson's eyes were thickly bandaged. There were points as to which the latter's conception of right could be violated, but he had no great sense of wrong- a strangely limited one, indeed, for a moralist- no sense of the dark, the foul, the base. There were certain complications in life which he never suspected. One asks one's self whether that is why he did not care for Dante and Shelley and Aristophanes and Dickens, their works containing a considerable reflection of human perversity..." 
I can see how Isabel Archer, who shows the problems with self-reliance, can be read as James's response to Ralph Waldo Emerson.


  1. Di,

    Is there any commentary on Emerson's view of Shakespeare? In any listing of authors whose characters are mixtures of good and evil and where the good do not always win, Shakespeare must be at the top, or very nearly there.

    I haven't read _Daniel Deronda_ yet, but the linkage between Isabel and Dorothea is very striking.

    1. Uhm, no, I didn't see any mention of Shakespeare in James's essay on Emerson.
      George Levine has an essay called "Isabel, Gwendolen, and Dorothea". Have you read it?

    2. Di,

      No, I haven't read the essay. If it's accessible, I might take a look at it.

    3. Here's the link:
      If you can't read jstor, tell me, I have a pdf file and can send you via email.

    4. This comment has been removed by the author.

    5. Is your email address

  2. Yes, the Emerson idea is good. I hadn't thought of that. Like Emerson, James is at that point highly conscious of or is thinking about it means to be American. Emerson's ideas would have to be a part of that process. And of course, then, he is interested in Emerson's trips to Europe.

    Emerson did have a vision of sin and evil. I have seen it with my own eyes. But that was in Emerson's Journals, which James could not have read.

    1. What's Emerson's vision of sin and evil? I've read very little of his writings.
      I'm not sure if James's right about Emerson. I mean, he expresses surprise at how a genius like Emerson is not touched by works of art, and then suggests the reasons, but (after the sentence that ends with "human perversity") adds "But that still leaves the indifference to Cervantes and Miss Austen unaccounted for."
      I think Gorra is right about seeing Isabel in terms of Emerson, however.

    2. I do not believe I could successfully describe Emerson's sense of evil. But the Journals are the place to go for it. They are also where I discovered, to my surprise, that Emerson had a sense of humor.

      The persona of the Essays is an artistic creation, a performance. The passages you present of James on Emerson seem like insightful responses to the public Emerson.


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