Jay Parini

The Inheritance of Isabel Archer

Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece


W W Norton 384pp £20 order from our bookshop

I’ve despaired for the art of criticism in the past few decades, losing hope at times. Perhaps the advent of theory is to blame, with its formulaic thinking and tendencies toward opacity and stale jargon. In any case, it seems difficult for critics to get a purchase on actual texts in ways that don’t dampen the interest of readers. Despite this state of affairs, it seems that biographical writing has come to life again, creating small bonfires of language that warm us, keeping hope alive. Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel is a fine example, taking us deep into a major novel through aspects of a writer’s life.

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