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Carl Van Doren (1885–1950).  The American Novel.  1921.


Page 213

type, the individual brought up in a limited community who discovers too late, or almost too late, what richness, what content, what joy might have awaited him in some fuller existence. “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to,” Strether says in a speech which Henry James himself pointed out to be the essence of The Ambassadors. “It doesn’t so much matter what you do in particular so long as you have your life. If you haven’t had that what have you had?” With some such precepts Pater had talked of the counted number of pulse-beats and had counseled a life lived at the flame. And in that transcendentalist New England which James partially inherited, Emerson and Thoreau had constantly urged the need of fullness and intensity of life. Strether’s situation flawlessly fits James’s idea. To get the largest value from them James had of course to make Strether another of his exquisite intelligences—rather too exquisite for his upbringing; he had, too, to make this abundant life into which Strether is initiated a life of lovely line and color, of gorgeous vesture and sweet, subtle, intoxicating atmosphere. All James’s old powers came in upon him, with his new freedom. The execution of The Ambassadors, which he thought his most perfectly constructed novel, is as richly imaginative as it is deliberate.
  James had annually increased the distance between his art and improvisation. He built novels now as architects do cathedrals, planning every stone in advance, testing every material, calculating every stress, visualizing every “elevation.” Without any impetuous drive of narrative to carry him on, or the clashes of melodrama, he peculiarly needed anxious prevision and conscientious workmanship.



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