Sunday, April 10, 2016

"The Story of a Year" (1865)

The second story published by Henry James appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, and this one had a byline. It's a Civil War story, or at least one key character, John Ford, is a lieutenant in the Union army. In the first section of the story (which has five parts and covers a year's time) Ford declares himself to Elizabeth Crowe, who declares herself back. It's something less than a formal engagement because Ford's mother disapproves of Lizzie, as she is called. Ford's mother thinks she is shallow, which he argues makes her ideal for a wife. Even this early, the concerns and themes of making matches are front and center. As a character study of Lizzie, however, it's nicely shaded for such a young writer, only 22. Lizzie is indeed shallow, or perhaps "immature" is the better term for our sense. She's young—she doesn't know herself well. She wants to be able to make commitments, but doesn't understand what it entails. She's easily distracted, as we see after Ford goes marching off back to war. Lizzie meets another man who pursues her—everyone in the story agrees she's attractive. Then Ford turns up with serious war wounds. He may be near death. He stays like that, off stage, for most of the rest of the story, worsening and rallying as the story needs. Lizzie is obstructed by Ford's mother from seeing him. She won't let Lizzie visit him in the faraway military hospital and she won't read Lizzie's letters to him either. I think Lizzie may have been intended to be less sympathetic, fickle and maybe empty-headed—"shallow," as charged. But that's not clear to me. Maybe it's a case of different times, but Lizzie is young and it doesn't seem surprising or anything against her that she would back off in the face of such ferocious resistance from the mother, with John in and out of coma. So in some ways I'm a bit confused about what's intended here, though for the most part, in its language, it's clear and straightforward, which I must say I always like to find in James. Here I am retreating to some of his early pieces, even as I'm getting closer to reading his later novels.

"interlocutor" count = 0 / 52 pages

In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)

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