Henry James’s “Washington Square” wasn’t a particular favorite of its author. James called the short novel “poorish” and, in a letter to his daunting older brother, William, wrote, “The only good thing in the story is the girl.” Near the end of his life, when he selected work to revise for his culminating New York Edition, he didn’t pick “Washington Square,” dismissing it as one of his “unhappy accidents.”
But we pick it, again and again. Among posthumous readers, “Washington Square” is a pronounced favorite, both with James connoisseurs, (who don’t often return to “Daisy Miller,” James’s most popular book during his lifetime) and the wider public. “Washington Square” has inspired many adaptations. (The playbill of the recent “The Heiress” attributed the play to Ruth and Augustus Goetz, with no mention of “Washington Square.” There’s a Jamesian irony to this omission: in the eighteen-nineties, the writer had hoped to revive his reputation and replenish his income by writing for the theatre, but was hissed off the stage, and shortly thereafter left London for Rye, which was cheaper.)
James wrote “Washington Square” to complete a trilogy, for Cornhill Magazine, which began with “Daisy Miller,” and its blithe accessibility no doubt partially explains why the book is so often assigned in courses. But I’d venture that it’s the passion of James’s excavation that sustains our interest. Reading this hundred-and-thirty-year-old book, we still feel the intensity of James circling an obsession. His great subject, beneath, between, and everywhere around his characters’ complicated tricks and liaisons is the terrible condition of being unable to love.
We don’t read James for his stories. Despite their formal symmetries, they feel jerry-rigged. He borrows from melodrama, but lops off that genre’s gratifications, going realist on us at exactly the wrong moment. If Americans want a tragedy with a happy ending, Henry James delivers something more like a comedy with a haunting close.
We don’t return to James for his characters, either. It’s not quite possible to love them the way one may love Leopold Bloom or Mrs. Dalloway or even Lily Briscoe. They don’t feel real, exactly, though they’re the opposite of cardboard—a term suggesting characters made of appearances. James’s characters are all soul; they’re closer to ideas than to bodies. We know their sensibilities but not their details. One would have a hard time describing what any of the central characters in “Washington Square” look like, despite how much is made of Catherine’s clumsy lack of beauty. James has already strayed from classical realism, which depends on a belief in an ordered and materially stable world. In a narrative about attraction, looks, and charm, those qualities are never definite. They waver. As internal as the narratives of “Ulysses” and “To the Lighthouse” feel, there’s no doubt as to the vibrancy of the characters in those modernist masterpieces of the generation that followed James. We believe in their characters more than we believe in real people. In James, we believe in the characters a little less. While you could venture a guess as to what Mrs. Ramsay would eat for breakfast, (a jam sandwich, standing up) one can hardly imagine John Marcher eating at all.
We read James not for his stories or for his characters but for the one thing that can’t be adapted: his mind. We know it, in its arguments with itself, its endlessly refining discernment, its flickering shifts and glints of wisdom. We know those details the way we know Bloom’s love of organ meats and Mrs. Ramsay’s tendency to slough off her beauty with haphazard clothes.
No one else has given such fine attention to personal life as it’s thought, that wave and flutter in consciousness. Our stray wishes, our abiding hopes, our shame and constant fears—James attends to all the component parts of what we loosely call love, if only to show his characters coming up against their limitations.