Portrait of a Novel

Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece

Michael Gorra (Author, Smith College)

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Overview | Formats

A revelatory biography of the American master as told through the lens of his greatest novel.

Henry James (1843–1916) has had many biographers, but Michael Gorra has taken an original approach to this great American progenitor of the modern novel, combining elements of biography, criticism, and travelogue in re-creating the dramatic backstory of James’s masterpiece, Portrait of a Lady (1881). Gorra, an eminent literary critic, shows how this novel—the scandalous story of the expatriate American heiress Isabel Archer—came to be written in the first place. Traveling to Florence, Rome, Paris, and England, Gorra sheds new light on James’s family, the European literary circles—George Eliot, Flaubert, Turgenev—in which James made his name, and the psychological forces that enabled him to create this most memorable of female protagonists. Appealing to readers of Menand’s The Metaphysical Club and McCullough’s The Greater Journey, Portrait of a Novel provides a brilliant account of the greatest American novel of expatriate life ever written. It becomes a piercing detective story on its own.

Book Details

  • Paperback
  • August 2013
  • ISBN 978-0-87140-670-5
  • 5.6 × 8.3 in / 416 pages
  • Sales Territory: Worldwide

Other Formats

  1. Book CoverPortrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece


Endorsements & Reviews

“Masterly and evocative… offers an exemplary approach to what remains a complex and fascinating subject.” — Colm Toibin, Wall Street Journal

“It’s hard to imagine, indeed, that there is much illumination still to offer on this particular author, or this particular book. Yet Gorra has produced a welcome new addition to the shelf.” — Nicholas Delbanco, Chicago Tribune

“Takes the rare but wise decision to approach James through the channel of a single work... In deference to James’s brilliance, Gorra has assumed the role of a professional prismatist. He peers at the book from multiple angles—those of biography, geography, publishing, textual variation, and mild erotic sleuthing, among others—as if hoping to catch it at an unfamiliar slant.” — Anthony Lane, New Yorker

“The author’s encyclopedic understanding of not only James, but also his influences and contemporaries, offers a thoroughly illustrated and appropriately tumultuous picture of fiction’s awkward adolescence between stilted Victorianism and modernistic messiness. The reader does not have to love or even be particularly familiar with James’s work to enjoy this book; this is as much a story about the creative process itself, or the function of genius, as it is about any particular product.” — Nicholas Mancusi, Daily Beast

“Both personal and profound. Michael Gorra’s intense focus on a single work reflects his deep curiosity about this novel and displays his loving scrutiny of it. Gorra’s study, while keeping The Portrait of a Lady, its heroine Isabel Archer, and the years of its creation (1880-81) at its center, roams gracefully through James’s life and art.” — Barbara Fisher, Boston Globe

“Incisive, informative and hugely entertaining. ... [N]ot only instructive and a pleasure to read, but (as Gorra doubtless intended) it also sends us back to James with a deeper appreciation for his literary technique, his painstaking approach to language and style, and above all, the genius and profundity with which he portrayed the characters who continue to populate our imaginative world and accompany us, at home and abroad.” — Francine Prose, The Sunday Times (UK)

“In this innovative biography, written with flair and unostentatious erudition, Gorra tells the life of Henry James through the story of the composition of his novel, The Portrait of a Lady. ... The book reads like an exciting voyage of discovery. . . . Gorra’s highly engaging introduction to James will be most attractive to lovers of literature who want to learn more about the craft of novel writing and will likely send readers back to the shelves to discover James all over again.” — Publishers Weekly

“Starred review. Gorra’s approach will appeal to scholars, fans of the James family and lovers of important novels and those who create them.” — Kirkus Reviews

“A revelation: charming, fresh, capacious, a surprise and a delight.” — Brenda Wineapple, author of White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson

“Michael Gorra—one of the finest critics at work today—paves a way in this study for a new era in literary criticism, one that combines travelogue, memoir, intellectual history, close reading, and—above all—a profound sympathy for the world summoned by a major author.” — Jay Parini, author of The Last Station

Also by Michael Gorra All

  1. Book CoverAs I Lay Dying


  2. Book CoverThe Portrait of a Lady


  3. Book CoverThe Sound and the Fury

    Third Edition / Paperback