The Ambassadors

The Ambassadors Study Guide

The Ambassadors is divided into twelve sections called "books." In 1903, these sections were published, in serial form, in a journal called The North American Review. Later that year, the novel was published as a whole, though there were significant edits. Additional revisions were made in the 1909 edition of the work, as part of the New York Edition of James' collected writings. Furthermore, the 1903 novel was published in both the UK and in the US - and there are variations between these works as well. In sum, James' incessant revisions and versatility of published form have produced a novel with over 200 "editorial notes." These range from the dramatic to the subtle. Whole sections of books are rearranged or added (for example, the first chapter of Book Eights is completely omitted in The North American Review). Within this section, James uses the word "relief" in his UK and US 1903 editions - only to replace the word "relief" with the word "justice" in 1909. Some of the changes are rather laughable when considered outside of their narrowest narrative context - are these the corrections of typographical errors (Newcome becomes Newsome), or has James changed his mind (unjust becomes just), or has James become meaner in his older age (bad becomes American)?

Consider a few others: She was frank becomes She appeared to have no reserves; a present becomes a sacrifice; inbred becomes ascetic; and funny becomes queer.

The Ambassadors displays Henry James as an author writing at the full height of his powers. By this time, James had already established a name for himself in literary circles, both in the US and in Europe. Daisy Miller, written in 1879, was a publishing success and it established James as a writer of the transatlantic "international" sort. The principal character of The Ambassadors, Lewis Lambert Strether, is named for a character in a novel written by Honor? de Balzac in 1833. The "Balzac" period of James' writing was already complete by 1903 however, stretching from the 1880s to the early 1890s. In The Ambassadors, James makes a nominal reference to Balzac, but in these earlier works, James was closer to Balzac in a stylistic sense. James' "Balzac" novels include Washington Square (1881), The Bostonians (1886), The Princess Casamassima (1886), and The Tragic Muse (1890).

James is known for his intensity of detail and the deep penetration into the psychological interior of his characters. Reading The Ambassadors, we might ask ourselves: How much of what is narrated actually occurs? - And how much occurs only in Strether's mind? The bulk of the narration is interior psychology even though the plot involves multiple characters who are, in fact, quite active. Strether, the central figure, stands out among the characters of the novel as the imbalanced one: he thinks far more than he acts. In this sense, The Ambassadors represents Henry James' "late period."

Literary critics usually describe "late Henry James" or "late James" in reference (or perhaps, deference) to the sometimes unbearable syntactical structure, the endless and relentless nuance, the refinement of narrated thought, and the thematic investigation of remorse, regret, and self-reflection through broader themes like youth, age, truth, and beauty.

The Turn of the Screw (1898) and The Awkward Age (1899) preceded the three novels understood to be James' greatest: The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904). That these novels could be written in such a narrow span of time, tripping on each others' heels, as it were, makes the feat all the more remarkable. Each particle of pattern and structure is meticulously organized in each of these three novels, as James' penchant for editing would suggest. As a consequence, the narrative ending - the resolution of the plot is often predictable by the midpoint of the novel. This is not the case in a work like The Turn of the Screw or The Princess Casamassima.

In The Ambassadors, suspense comes not in the detail of what happens, but in the details of how happenings occur, why they have occurred as they did, and what might have happened in a different scenario. In an autobiographical sense, James' Strether is like a number of other older gentlemen who appear in late James. The self-evaluation, nostalgia and regret experienced by Strether recalls Spencer Brydon, a character in James' short story "The Jolly Corner." And both characters resemble James' self-depiction in his non-fictional travel narrative The American Scene.

Henry James is generally considered to be among the best American writers, though his erudite, foreign subject matter and his complex style make him more inaccessible than would be "politically correct." As for the political angles in contemporary literary criticism, The Ambassadors tends to escape most of it. Increasingly, many of James' works are read with a look at gender roles, sexual _expression and repression, almost always against a backdrop of James' vague autobiography: private personal life, unmarried, questionable sexuality, etc. An entirely different angle explores James' rather unpleasant opinions on language, immigration, race, and culture. The Ambassadors, perhaps because it is set in Paris, is more difficult to situate within an American political context. Moreover, of James' late works, The Ambassadors is perhaps the most elaborately constructed. This is a novel where form truly dominates context, without disservice to theme. Philip Fisher, a professor of English at Harvard, describes the novel as "one of the master texts of a whole generation of American study [and] ?perhaps from an academic point of view, the most perfect book ever written by an American."?