31 December 2008

19. Hawthorne by Henry James

Henry James critiques Nathaniel Hawthorne.

I read this book for my class, and hadn't heard of it at all before this. I haven't read any of James's longer works (in fact, I've only read one or two short stories), so it was interesting reading something by him that is non-fiction and about another author.

I think I learned as much about James as I did about Hawthorne. Mixed with some praise is James's scorching criticism of American Literature as it stood in 1879. James had moved to Europe by then in an attempt to reinvent the American novel as something of World Lit and not merely American. James felt that because America was still relatively young, and that the land hadn't been fully civilized, that no American literature could be any good: even Hawthorne, who James thinks basically invented American literature, is a provincial upstart. Because he has nothing to say about America, Hawthorne is forced to write allegorical tales that speak about the human condition more than they speak about a place and time, so Hawthorne's literature fails to even be uniquely American - it isn't essentially American.

This is a good book if you have read just about everything by Hawthorne and have a good understanding of what James was attempting to be/do. Knowing what James's aims were is essential because it gives his criticisms context.

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