Reviews for Portrait of a Novel : Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece

Book News Reviews
Editor and literary critic Gorra (English, Smith College) describes this work in his preface as the story of a Henry James novel, rather than a biography of James himself; but his clear and engaging narrative manages to do both, illuminating the author's life, working methods, and subtle creativity through the lens of one work. The novel under scrutiny is Portrait of a Lady, with particular focus on the character of Isabel Archer. Liveright Publishing is an imprint of W.W. Norton. Annotation ©2012 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

Kirkus Reviews 2012 June #1
Gorra (English/Smith Coll.; The Bells in Their Silence: Travels Through Germany, 2004, etc.) blends a focused biography of Henry James (1843–1916) with the story of his composition of The Portrait of a Lady (1881). Throughout this work of astonishing scholarship, Gorra directs our attention to the quotidian life of James (and his remarkable family), his composition of the novel (which first appeared in serial installments in the Atlantic here and Macmillan's Magazine in England), the significance of the events and characters in the story, and the influence of the novel on the subsequent fiction of James and others. Gorra also blends accounts of his own visits to important James sites in America, England and elsewhere. After a brief introduction to James' life and to the novel, the author establishes his narrative pattern: chapters about the novel followed by others about James' activities, family, friends, typists, contemporaries and so on. We read about his relationships with Atlantic editor William Dean Howells and with James' gifted brother William. We follow his travels to England, France and Italy; we visit his final home in Rye; we view his intimate relationships with Constance Fenimore Woolson and others--including Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (Gorra does not accept the suggestion that Holmes and James had sexual encounters). We also see him, near the end of his life, visiting and comforting hospitalized World War I soldiers. But most of Gorra's book examines Portrait--its creation, significance and revision (for the New York Edition in 1908). The author argues that chapter 42 of the novel, Isabel Archer's reverie, is "one of James' greatest achievements and a turning point in the history of the novel." Not for all readers, but Gorra's approach will appeal to scholars, fans of the James family and lovers of important novels and those who create them. Copyright Kirkus 2012 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.

Library Journal Reviews 2012 June #1

Every portrait has a subject and a background. In this work, Gorra (English, Smith Coll.; After Empire: Scott, Naipaul, Rushdie) not only provides the expected creation story behind Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady but also scrutinizes James's life, the state of the novel in the late 19th century, and literary history as it influenced and was influenced by Portrait. This novel was a turning point for both James's career and the novel form itself, and Gorra incisively tracks its repercussions throughout fiction. In addition--like Michael Anesko in Monopolizing the Master--Gorra literally follows in James's footsteps by visiting the same places as the master and inserting himself as a character into the background of his portrait. VERDICT Gorra's detailed yet expansive examination of all factors relating to the creation and import of James's masterpiece makes this obligatory reading for James fans and scholars, though Gorra assumes a familiarity with other period writers that some James readers--such as the many college students assigned to read Portrait each year--may not have. Strongly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, 1/30/12.]--Megan Hodge, Chesterfield Cty. P.L., Richmond, VA

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Publishers Weekly Reviews 2012 May #1

In this innovative biography, written with flair and unostentatious erudition, Smith College English professor Gorra (The Bells in Their Silence) tells the life of Henry James through the story of the composition of his novel, The Portrait of a Lady. First published in 1881, the novel was a landmark work: James's scrupulous devotion to craft led him to dramatize the interior life of his heroine, Isabel Archer, in unprecedented fashion. Instead of transparent plots and clear moral conflicts, James opted for subtle clashes of personality and morally ambiguous stories in which action was character and character action. Analyzing James's letters, journals, stories, and travelogues, Gorra traces the author's life and literary milieu, alternating a reconstruction of his travels with extensive attention to the novel's composition and reception. The book reads like an exciting voyage of discovery, beginning with James revising his novel 20 years after it was written, and later depicting his blooming consciousness as an author torn between an American and a European identity. Gorra's highly engaging introduction to James will be most attractive to lovers of literature who want to learn more about the craft of novel writing and will likely send readers back to the shelves to discover James all over again. Agent: Steve Wassermann, Kneerim & Williams. (Aug.)

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