March 28, 2008

The CCLaP 100: "Washington Square," by Henry James

(Over the next two years, I am writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this title. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)

Washington Square, by Henry James

Washington Square (1880)
By Henry James
Book #10 in this essay series

(Sorry for the last-minute change in schedule; I know that Love in the Time of Cholera was supposed to have been this week's book under review, but I'm having just the hardest time actually tracking down a copy through the Chicago public library! In fact, I just learned this week that Oprah recently added the book to that ubiquitous club of hers, which means that it might be a long time indeed before I'm able to finally track down a copy; I've postponed it a month for now, but may need to postpone it again when that month is up.)

The story in a nutshell:
Agreed by most to definitely be one of his minor works, Washington Square is in reality not much more than a novella, written between major novels in the late Victorian Age as James often did throughout his career. And there's not much of a plot either, to tell you the truth; it's primarily the story of Catherine Sloper, a pleasant but rather dim-witted and plain-looking young woman living in the ritzy old-money New York neighborhood of Washington Square, along with her father who she shares a large house with, Austin Sloper, a typical middle-aged business-focused white guy who sorta laughingly condescends to all the people around him who aren't middle-aged business-focused white guys. In fact, this is the crux of the problem between the two of them, the conflict that fuels almost the entire storyline; it seems that Catherine has met a good-looking charmer named Morris Townsend who wishes to marry her, but her father deems him a simple-minded dreamer who's most likely after her money, and Catherine herself as just too much of a blockhead to be able to make a realization like this on her own, which is why he forbids the two to wed for her own good.

The father and daughter then whisk off to Europe for a year, as upper-class Americans so often did at the time; but instead of Morris heroically coming to the rescue and bringing his true love back, it turns out that her father was right all along, with Morris turning out to be a kinda skeevy loser who actually was kinda after her money, and who sorta slinks off in this weasely way once she gets back into the country and declares that her allowance will be cut off if they wed. Instead of this making her grateful to her father for seeing the light, though, Catherine just ends up pissed at both of them, eventually growing into a matronly middle-aged old maid who becomes the buddy of the younger crowd in the neighborhood, but who never experiences love for herself even once.

The argument for it being a classic:
The argument for Washington Square being a classic is not a strong one, truthfully, and seems to most concern what the small novel is not -- it's not one of James' ponderous epics, not one of his later experimental works, but rather a simple and entertaining little story in the spirit of Jane Austen, told in about the most straight-ahead fashion possible. This is why people become fans of James in the first place, after all; he's considered by many to be the godfather of the modern realistic novel, the kinds of no-nonsense, clearly-written stories that comprise most Pulitzer winners and other academically-revered books. Certainly there are a lot of other novels in James' ouevre that are better-written, better-known, more historically important and a much better argument for being a classic, even this book's fans would say; it's just that Washington Square is one of his most accessible novels, a great way to ease yourself into his larger and denser pieces, and thus should be included in "The Canon" as well.

The argument against:
As mentioned, the argument against Washington Square being a classic is clearly the stronger one, and consists mostly of what we've been talking about; that it is simply too slim and obscure to be considered a classic, certainly a good beginning for people new to James' work but definitely not something to be held up against early-career trans-Atlantic sagas as The Portrait of a Lady and The Bostonians, nor the proto-Modernist experimental stylings of such late-career novels as The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl. It may be a good introduction to James, critics argue, but that comes with a price; it is also a frothily light novel, its plot so wispy as to almost not exist, and not something that will give you a good idea of why James fans are so nuts for his work in the first place.

My verdict:
So I have to confess, this was the very first book of James that I've ever tackled, and I picked it deliberately because I was a little intimidated by his larger and more well-known ones; James has a certain reputation, after all, especially among academic intellectuals who enjoy thick and challenging books, and I've also heard that his larger novels can sometimes get extremely bogged down in their middles. Ah, but like everyone else, I've discovered the problem to starting with a classic author's lighter and less-important work, which is the same thing mentioned in the criticisms above; that you just really can't get a sense from work like that about why people love that author so much to begin with, of why their work got so famous and respected in the first place. Washington Square comes and goes with the reader barely noticing; just when you think the story's about to get ratcheted up and interesting, suddenly it's over, and you realize that the entire point was to provide not much more than a trifling and amusing afternoon of diversion*. It was decent enough for what it was, and I'm definitely looking forward to checking out the 1997 movie adaptation with Jennifer Jason Leigh, but I certainly can't say that I "know" James' work in any kind of significant way because of reading it, nor can I in good conscience declare Washington Square a classic.

Is it a classic? No

The next four books scheduled to be read:
Next Friday: The Republic, by Plato
In two Fridays: The Gods Themselves, by Isaac Asimov
In three Fridays: Dracula, by Bram Stoker
In four Fridays: Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Read even more: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

*And by the way, some final proof of just how lightweight this novel is -- James himself, when doing a retrospective of his ouevre late in life and putting together the revised 24-volume "New York Edition" of his work, actually left Washington Square out on purpose, reportedly because he couldn't even read through it again as an older man, disgusted as he was with the frivolity of the story. When the author himself is disgusted with one of his own books, it's usually not a great sign that it'll be making the canon list anytime soon.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:34 PM, March 28, 2008. Filed under: CCLaP 100 | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |