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Book Review: Henry James: Novels, 1903-1911 – The Ambassadors/ The Golden Bowl/ The Outcry, Edited by Ross Posnock

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The Library of America is an incredible imprint. The non-profit publishing house (now in their 28th year) seeks to preserve classic American literature in affordable hard-cover editions. Their six-volume collection of the complete novels of Henry James (1843-1916) has just been completed with Novels 1903-1911. The three books that comprise this 1216-page tome are: The Ambassadors, The Golden Bowl, and The Outrcry.

The Ambassadors (1903) is considered by many to be James’ final masterpiece. The point is arguable, but the fact that the dark humor of this novel remains as compelling as ever is not. Originally published in serial form in the North American Review, The Ambassadors is a story with many twists and turns, set against the backdrop of the Old World (Paris) against the New (Massachusetts). In broad strokes, our hero Lambert Strether goes to Paris from the U.S. to “rescue” his wealthy fiancee’s son from the woman he has fallen in love with there.

The Golden Bowl (1904) concerns an American woman who marries an Italian prince. Things get interesting when her father (unknowingly) marries the prince’s former mistress. The novel almost obsessively scrutinizes these four characters, and the way they interact with each other. When father and daughter begin to open up and share about their respective spouses, the groundwork is laid for the resumption of the affair between the prince and his former mistress. There is an element of what would later be termed “soap-opera” to the plot, but James’ writing saves the day.

The final novel The Outcry (1911) was originally conceived as a play. When the story went unproduced, James converted it into a novel, which would prove to be the last one he completed in his lifetime. The Outcry is a light comedy about wealthy Americans buying up British art treasures. The title alludes to the patriotic outcry of upstanding Britons, incensed at the idea of these paintings being purchased by outsiders.

Henry James: Novels 1903-1911 contains some remarkable work, from one of America’s finest authors. The Library of America have done all six-volumes a real justice. The final entry is no exception.

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