- Series: Oxford World's Classics
- Paperback: 512 pages
- Publisher: Oxford University Press; Reissue edition (September 28, 2009)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0199538549
- ISBN-13: 978-0199538546
- Product Dimensions: 7.6 x 0.9 x 5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 19 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #416,846 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Ambassadors (Oxford World's Classics) Paperback – September 28, 2009
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About the Author
Henry James (1843-1916), son of Henry James Sr. and brother of the philosopher and psychologist William James and diarist Alice James, was an American-born author and literary critic of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He spent much of his life in Europe and became a British subject shortly before his death. He is primarily known for novels, novellas and short stories based on themes of consciousness and morality.
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Other comments have summarized the plot and described the characters of The Ambassadors. I won't duplicate them. But I would like to make a point or two about what I believe James was trying to do in The Ambassadors and why it doesn't quite work. This is not in any sense to disparage James, but to note that what he was attempting to do cannot be done well in the manner he chose -- and perhaps at all. There are limits, after all, to every art form.
Let me acknowledge first that Henry James was a superb craftsman, and his literary canon is unsurpassed by any American writer before or since. The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl are the three major novels of his later period, and The Ambassadors is the work he thought his masterpiece. In a sense, everything he wrote is a masterpiece, or near. But the novels of his late period differ markedly in style and narrative quality from his earlier works, in which he experimented with the novel as a literary form in a way that many readers do not find altogether successful. Some scholars refer to James in his late period as "the Great Pretender." I tend to side with them.
Specifically, his later style is overly elaborate, often deliberately obscure, so that the reader must work with the protagonist to understand fully the significance of what is happening. Wading through successive dependent clauses of nuanced meaning, unclear references, elaborate metaphors, and inverted sentenced structure (some simply will not parse) is not the casual reader's cup of tea. At the same time, the story or plot is stretched so thin it is almost rendered a nullity, since what happens to the various characters is secondary to what goes on inside the head of the hero, Lambert Strether. For James, that was the whole point. The meager plot is framework within which James examines the nuances of relationships and the discontinuities that arise when cultures clash (American values meets those of Europe, in this case.) Often, it is not altogether clear what has happened at the end of the book, although the ending of The Ambassadors is less cryptic than that of the other two novels mentioned above. In a word, the novel turns on fine gradations and distinctions that often seem much ado about nothing and leave many readers more puzzled than enlightened.
For that reason, I view the experiment with form as less than wholly successful. For the sake of comparison, the same can said for the experimental novels of James Joyce and nearly all of Marcel Proust's massive novel (Dans La Recherche du Temps Perdu). James, Joyce, and Proust are as unlike as can be, but their separate and very different efforts to refine and reinvent the novel form seem, with the benefit of long hindsight, valiant, but misguided, efforts -- at least insofar as the point of writing is to communicate with reasonably educated readers. Like Finnegan's Wake and Guermantes Way, only pedants read The Ambassadors with pleasure, and then only on the third or fourth reading. In that regard, the novels of James's middle period -- The Portrait of A Lady and Washington Square -- are still challenging, but far more successful.
Having described the warts, let me quickly add that James's literary reputation as a craftsman is deserved and justifies reading anything he wrote. He had the delightful knack of saying things in a way that no one else ever has, before or since, and there is an intellectual core to all of his works that few American writers ever attempt. No serious writer or reader can afford to ignore his legacy, even if it describes an avenue that most writers will choose not to follow. And with those caveats, I heartily recommend the book.