The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.XII. Henry James
§ 9. Earlier Novels
The threefold grouping of his novels already suggested was in connection with the treatment of American themes. In reference to form and method a more illuminating division would be one of two periods: first, Roderick Hudson to The Tragic Muse, 1875–1890; and second, The Spoils of Poynton to The Sense of the Past, 1896–1917.
In the novels of the first group, he includes, in general, more material than in the later ones, more incident, a greater number of characters, a more extended period of time; and he treats his material in the larger, more open, more lively manner of the main English tradition. He also chooses, in the earlier period, what may be considered more ambitious themes in the matter of psychology. In Roderick Hudson, for example, he undertakes to trace the degeneration of a man of genius, a young American sculptor, when given the freedom of the artistic life in Rome. This evolutionary—or revolutionary—process of character, suggestive of George Eliot, is a “larger order’ than he would ever have taken on in the later period. In The Tragic Muse he reverts to the theme of the artistic temperament—this time in disagreement with the world of affairs; and he develops it by means of two great interrelated stories, one dealing with an actress, one with a painter. In the later years he would not have undertaken thus to tell two stories at the same time; and perhaps the artistic temperament itself would have seemed to him too ambitious a theme. In the earlier period, again, we find him sometimes treating subjects touching on political or the more practical social problems, though indeed his interest was never primarily in the problems. The Bostonians is a somewhat satirical study, at one and the same time, of the Boston character and of feminism; while in The Princess Casamassima the leading persons are revolutionary socialists, and political murder lurks in the background. Probably the best, as well as the best liked, of the earlier novels is The Portrait of a Lady (1881), which records at length the European initiation of a generous-souled American girl.