The Aspern Papers Background

The Aspern Papers Background

Henry James first published The Aspern Papers in the Atlantic Monthly over the course of several issues in the spring of 1888. Later that same year it was released in book form. The novella has been universally praised as another manifestation of singularly idiosyncratic brilliance of James in composing stories of great depth through the utilization of the unreliable narrator. In addition to being highly regarded by critics and scholars, The Aspern Papers also holds the distinction of being considered a superior achievement in the art of fiction to James more widely known masterpiece The Turn of the Screw by a critic whose judgment should be roundly considered: Henry James himself.

Perhaps not coincidentally, The Aspern Papers itself features certain elements familiar to the gothic tradition of horror which James explored to a greater degree in his famous ghost story. The tale turns on a mysterious lost manuscript and even features a once glorious manse now fallen into decay which would be right at home in a horror novel. The narrator is unreliable primarily by virtue of his utter anonymity; a character about whom so little basic information is known cannot help but be a character that is tantalizing to the reader who lets his guard down and allows himself to be drawn into the tangled web that character pursues.

That anonymity serves to reinforce what ultimately becomes the central theme of the tale and it is nothing less than another choice which reveals how much Henry James stands apart from his fellow literary giants in the arena of subtlety. The anonymity of the author becomes a powerful metaphor the act of critical engagement with the work of a creative artist. The Aspern Papers leads inexorably to a single, overriding admonition on the part of the writer to his readers: judge the art, not the artist.

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