The Ambassadors by Henry James

Sunday, May 17, 2009

I often found myself calling out to my junior year high school English teacher while reading The Ambassadors. I can only describe this undertaking as a literary journey in its purest form and frankly it was not one I was prepared to make on my own. Ms Tramontine would have certainly provided the explanations needed to fully appreciate some of the finest uses of the English language I have ever come across.

The journey was the same as one would experience in its more traditional definition with moments of frustration and confusion later disregarded after witnessing glimpses of sheer beauty - in this case a result of a series of sentences written with such fluidity that left me smiling and then rereading the prose out loud.

I have since read a handful of literary reviews on this work that James claimed to be his best. One theme emerging more than once is how it is a difficult book to break into initially. I concur, succeeding only to do so in the last one hundred pages.

The story in itself, is simple in nature especially when comparing it to modern fiction which is constantly being required to push the creative envelope. A young American in the early 20th century is having too much fun in Paris. His concerned mother sends her fiancée to convince the son to return to the States to take over their successful business. However, upon arrival the fiancée is overcome with the beauty and splendor of Paris and its gens. He meets the son and his friends who he finds to be fabulous in all senses. Several different women play vital roles throughout the story yet the book is free of sex and expressions of hedonism. Yet, James' greatest ability is how he enhances the tensions in these relationships using the subtle aspects of human nature often not written about - the longer than usual glance, the words not spoken in that moment.

I do want to read this book again as there is bound to be so much more to be gotten from it. If anyone in my vast blog audience would like to join me on this journey please let me know. I cannot offer to be the guide, per se, but perhaps the role of the scout could be a more realistic and suiting one.


Anonymous June 12, 2009 at 11:56 AM  

I've avoided reading this book for a number of years, mostly because of my academic fathers insistence that it MUST BE READ. however, after reading your post, I've had a look at an excerpt, and think I'm just about at a point in my life where i could enjoy it! That, and the fact that i'm trying to blog about my experiences of reading new books - after many years of going back over the same old favourites!!

I look forward to reading more of your posts!


Dixie June 12, 2009 at 2:31 PM  

Can one really have "too much" fun in Paris...?

Fred June 12, 2009 at 5:02 PM  

_The Ambassadors_ is an excellent work and one of James' more accessible novels. It's been awhile since I read it, but if you're interested in doing something with it, I would like to go along for the ride, as long as the trip is not a short one.

Hinkley June 14, 2009 at 1:54 PM  

Henry James is amongst my favourite novelists of all time and I studied many of his works as part of my dissertation but The Ambassadors is one I have not yet read. I think you have inspired me to make it one of my next reads...

Fred June 14, 2009 at 3:15 PM  

I think you'll enjoy it. Strether reminds me a bit of Isabel Archer, another American martyr who chooses duty over freedom.

TBlaze June 14, 2009 at 4:05 PM  

Thanks for the comments. Hinkley, I would be curious to know how the Ambassadors compares to the other works of James that you have studied.

Peevish June 14, 2009 at 5:40 PM  

You probably already know that several chapters were accidentally juxtaposed by the American publisher and no one even noticed the error for 40 or 50 years because the original narrative was so disjointed. There is something of "the emperor is wearing new clothes" about The Ambassadors that makes me smile while cringing.

calcuttaliterati June 15, 2009 at 6:41 PM  

I will read this book.You are developing a worthy site.Don't stop writing.More you read, more your readers gain. Pinaki Lahiri from

Christian June 16, 2009 at 8:37 PM  

I recently did attempt this book. It was near the top of a list of "literary greats" that I compiled from both Random House and TIME Magazine.

I found a TXT copy on the Gutenberg Project and e-mailed it to my Kindle 2. I think that was the downfall, as some structural thing was lost in the conversion from novel to TXT file.

And I read it on the bus home from work, plugging away at it, day after day. Just when I thought I hadn't understood a damned thing, I summed it up for my wife and was amazed by how much had come across. That was a magical moment, certainly.

But his grammatical deviation and abstract meanderings and side-tracks proved too much for me. Maybe in the future when I'm a stronger reader I can try it again, but my Kindle shows me I was 21% into it when I quit.

TBlaze June 16, 2009 at 8:55 PM  

Christian, you deserve bonus points for reading this book on a Kindle on the bus! If I didn't have absolute silence when reading I missed everything and could not concentrate.

Hannah, give it a try. I think the time is right for you. However, find some Buddhist temple high in the mountains and don't follow Christian's example.

Jessica June 19, 2009 at 11:29 PM  

I always have difficulty with Henry James. And I love him for that. His the best fought literary battle I ever encounter. I will add this too my list of must-reads.

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PhotoMan July 11, 2009 at 7:54 PM  

I am sure most of you will consider me a Philistine, but I have some opinions about Henry James quite contrary to what people have expressed here. I have given him a good try -- have read The Ambassadors (twice), The Golden Bowl (twice), The Turn of the Screw (only once), and probably one or two other works with titles I have repressed.

When I made one or two disparaging remarks about James' work, a professor at Columbia, an e-mail acquaintance, said that he found James' style and the way bit-by-bit he reveals characters' realizations about each other and events to be one of the most brilliant accomplishments in literature.

James' subject and style were determined by his life. I am not the only person to observe that having been born into money and his social milieu, he never really did anything. In this respect he resembled a modern college student who desperately wants to write, but has nothing to write about. James, however, was brighter than that, and the result is that he concentrated on the revelation of human character and events in a very skillful, though mannered, way. Or, to put it another way, he made something out of nothing.

I have often speculated about what his writing would have been like had he done SOMETHING. Suppose, for instance, instead of just having tea with a duchess he had sailed up the Congo as captain of a small, struggling trading vessel the way Conrad did early in his career. Suppose he had been plunked down in the middle of a culture that was utterly incomprehensible to a "Western" newcomer. Suppose on a ship in the Pacific he had been met by canoes of Polynesians, heard drumming from the distant atoll. Suppose in a canoe he had approached the palm-fringed shore where hundreds of locals waving spears and shouting challenges awaited him. What might his subsequent writing have been like then ?

Imagine my delight after years of wondering about this when I came across some critical writing by R. P. Burnham, whom I consider to be one of the sharpest, no-nonsense literary critics around. Burnham edited a magazine called "The Long Story." In an editorial in one of the magazine's issues, Burnham expressed a dislike for James' works and stated the same thing that I had noted: that James' lack of experience boxed him in. I don't know if James and the magazine "The Long Story" are still around, but in my dodderhood (71) I must check.

Fred July 12, 2009 at 1:53 AM  


I really enjoy James, and I don't go around name-calling those who don't.

I also try to avoid making disparaging remarks about writers because those sorts of comments really say more about the one making them than they say about the writer.

I find your comment, quoted below, rather perplexing.

James "concentrated on the revelation of human character and events in a very skillful, though mannered, way. Or, to put it another way, he made something out of nothing."

I have to disagree that "revelation of human character and events" is making "something out of nothing."

It's one of the great tasks and strengths of literature.

If you consider the "revelation of human character" to be making something out of nothing, and therefore unimportant since it is really nothing, then just what do you consider to be important in literature?

PhotoMan July 12, 2009 at 10:04 PM  

Fred, I'll get back to responding in detail to your post in a while -- today or tomorrow -- but I would urge you to read what I have written once or twice more, and this time more carefully. Maybe my writing was unclear, but I don't think so. It just seems to me that you have not understood what I said.
PS: It is good to see the emergence of a little heat and light in this blog. This makes the discussion much more interesting.

Glimmer November 29, 2009 at 7:04 PM  

I would love to be in a Henry James-only book club. I'm in three, but so far, no H.J. interest at all. You would think in the Washington, D.C., area, I might find someone with that interest.

But then I am a hopeful sort. And patient.

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