Document Type


Date of Award



James, Henry, 1843-1916, Criticism and interpretation, American literature

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


English, General Literature, and Rhetoric

First Advisor

William B. Stein

Second Advisor

Mario A. Di Cesare

Third Advisor

Sheldon Grebstein




My thesis takes a view articulated ten years ago by an English biographer of James: "Most wrong views of James are the result of insufficient attachment to his text, and to the habit of abstracting from it themes and morals instead of responding to its tone. The tone of his later books is the tone of the emotional and imaginative life, and it can only be caught by attention to the language” (Jefferson 71). Additionally it is the judgment of this inquiry that art is James’s first subject; the evidence for this line of argument is the language he created in a period of exceptional activity for him, the decade of the nineties. I have chosen to examine four novels of this period to demonstrate what I mean, The Spoils of Poynton, What Maisie Knew, The Awkward Age, and The Sacred Fount. The choice is governed by a feeling that the remarkable books of the so-called “major phase,” for which James is perhaps best known, have their origins in the varied exertions of the preceding ten years. These four books are a representative bridge between the years of failure in the theater and those of his greatest success as a narrative artist. And, apart from occurring at a convenient point in his professional life, they exhibit characteristics that have drawn attention to them increasingly since 1958. However, the most promising recent book, Experiments in Form, subject these novels only to conventional paraphrase, while their experimental nature has remained obscure.

Each of my chapters treats a single book. The order is chronological, since the developmental and cumulative aspect of the experimentation is important to my thesis. Each essay rests on the assumption that the key to meaning in the deepest sense is language–its texture and technique–especially as it is used figuratively. If the experimental nature of the art is to be found, the path to the discovery must begin here. These considerations integrate other facets of the particular work since the language indicates how one should “read” the plot. Thematic and “moral” aspects are in this way clearly organic parts of the “search for form” as James put it in “The Art of Fiction.”