Who the heck is Henry James?


henry james
Henry James

I’d like to thank everyone who attended the First Lincoln Literary Society Meeting. I learned a lot that day. Especially that I am very, very ignorant. 🙂

Can you believe I had never heard of Henry James before? There you have it. I didn’t know the guy ever existed. I can, however, say on my behalf that unfortunately Mr. James wasn’t part of the curriculum at the English course my mom took me to every week, in Rio de Janeiro, where I grew up.

Yes, I’m playing the Brazil card. In my little English Language school in Brazil, I was required to read William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe and Oscar Wilde, among very few others. I was, however, a Portuguese-speaking kid terribly confused by Shakespeare’s archaic writing. Today I can barely remember what his books are all about. (Yes, I added them to my “required reading” list a long time ago, which is probably a thousand books long at this point and growing.) But despite my Shakespeare mishap, I fell in love with the dark and passionate atmosphere of Poe’s and Wilde’s work, and developed an infatuation for gothic literature.

Anyway, back to my ignorance, I went online and read some stuff about Henry James. It seems the guy was extraordinary. I was intrigued. But many report his books are an acquired taste, hard to read, with little action and a lot of thoughts streaming over pages and pages and more pages.

Right there I got terrified of him and decided not to take even a quick peek at his stuff  before I read at least one more book by Edith Wharton. (Who by the way I didn’t know about either, until a month ago, when I read “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand” by Helen Simonson, who mentioned Wharton was her favorite writer at the end of the book. As you can see, I’m educating myself backwards. But, hey, better now than never, huh?)

I just can’t get enough of Edith Wharton. She was such a vessel of creativity, cleverness and knowledge. I just finished “The Custom of the Country,” a very unique book that made me feel a torrent of bad stuff like anger, desperation, indignation and despise for the protagonist. Some people told me, yeah, you hate Undine Spragg but you can’t help but like her. Nope. I hate her. But I neeeeeeeeded to know how the story ended, and I hoped she would die a slow death of skin infection that would make her ugly and her teeth fall off.

I am, of course, not going to reveal the ending, but let me say Edith Wharton surprised me, and I couldn’t be happier about what the future brought to despicable Ms. Undine Spragg. I wonder if Margaret Mitchell was thinking of Undine when she created Scarlett O’Hara. The difference is I couldn’t keep on reading “Gone With the Wind” for more than 30 pages, as opposed to devouring “The Custom of the Country.” I tried really hard but it just annoyed me. I’ll try again some other time. (Yep. On the list.)

Now I’m reading “Ethan Frome” by my dear Edith (now I can be on first-name terms with her, since I’m reading a second book she wrote). What a neat little book! Edith outdid herself with imagery of nature especially. I keep going back to reread my favorite passages, just like I do with poetry, and never seem to be able to reach the end of the book, which is only 77 pages long. I think Edith made it short on purpose, so us slow-readers-who-love-poetry can feel happy and safe.

Anyway, I chose “Ethan Frome” for three reasons. Edith wrote it. It takes place in New England, my home now, which I love very much. And, most importantly, I found it at the dump.

In Lincoln, we have the most interesting dump. There we have a little magic house, just like the ones I dreamed of when I was a little girl living in an apartment complex in Rio. It’s not on top of a magic tree, but it’s a cosy 8 x 10′ room behind our slightly bigger Swap House, where residents dump whatever they don’t want and pick up whatever they find slightly interesting or useful.

I started volunteering there to help my beloved town, and part of my job description is to lug into the little house all the books people drop off at the transfer station. One day I found myself hypnotized by all those books. Big books, small books, water-damaged books, tattered books with yellow pages, full of moth eggs and mold. Coffee table books, how-to and self-published books. I couldn’t help but bring some home and hope I’d have time to at least browse them.

Me, the Kindle fanatic. Yes, I hate not having an online dictionary one click away while I read. But I just couldn’t resist all those books with vaguely familiar names and titles that somehow I know I should be reading.

And here I am. Founder of The Lincoln Literary Society. Who didn’t know who Henry James was. Or Edith Wharton. And I keep wondering who else I’ll get to know about in February, at our next meeting. Embarrassing. Deeply embarrassing. But also very exciting.

~~ Daniela Caride



2 thoughts on “Who the heck is Henry James?

  1. Daniela – – I loved your post about Henry James and your literary adventures with Edith Wharton. I admired your tackling some difficult books not written in your native language.
    I am a James freak – – but if you want to attempt reading him, I recommend “the turn of the screw ” A very short novel and a creepy ghost story. Several televised versions have been made of it, but I have always been too scared to watch them. I can tell you more about what I think about the book when we get together soon. Less creepy, but with an interesting twist, and fairly short is “the spoils of poynton” — you might enjoy that one too.

    1. Ah, Cathy, it’s good to have your guidance here! I will definitely go for those books first when time comes, and I think Judy might enjoy them too, as she’s into ghost stories. 🙂

      I will be completely terrified, and probably not be able to sleep, as I do most of my reading at night, before going to bed. OMG!!! 😀

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