July 15, 2013

Review: "Roderick Hudson" By Henry James

While Roderick Hudson was Henry James's second published novel (Watch and Ward being the first and serialized in The Atlantic Monthly in 1871), he always considered Roderick Hudson his "first novel".  James also freely admitted that Roderick Hudson was his take on Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Marble Faun (1860). 

I went into this book with my eyes wide open and ended up loving it.  This is early James and is completely accessible to any and all readers.  It is, in my humble opinion, a bit of a Byronic--and an almost Gothic--tale that hits on several themes.  First, there's the comparison and contrast between the Old World cultural values of Europe and the New World values of the American expatriate community.  Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, this novel felt very autobiographical in that both the eponymous 'Roderick Hudson' and the novel's other primary protagonist, 'Rowland Mallet', seem to represent the author at various times in his literary life.  This novel really seemed to be the story of the battle--the constant tension--between the Artist and the Muse; and I have to really wonder if this really isn't Henry James pouring his heart and soul out upon every page.

We've all known artistic people like 'Roderick Hudson', and we care for 'em to the very best of our ability.  Sadly though, artistic geniuses like them burn 'hot', and there's just not much that can be done; whether its a Kurt Cobain, a Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, Vincent Van Gogh, Egon Schiele, Lizzie Siddal, John Keats, or even a Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  The candle burns hot, gutters, and then its out.  Roderick Hudson is just such a story.  Strange as it may sound, this novel pulsed and throbbed with passion and emotion like that found in the fiction of one of the Bronte sisters or even Mary Shelley.

For a 'first' novel--at least from James's perspective--this is an engaging and durable plot that completely hooks the reader.  The novel also serves as a terrific travelogue as the protagonists travel throughout much of Europe highlighting the experiences of the American nouveau riche and brashness among the Old World European sensibilities.  Who's right?  Who's wrong?  Well, you can gain some perspective on this question through reading about the experiences of Rowland Mallet and Roderick Hudson in this wonderful example of Henry James's early fiction.  If you're just coming to the fiction of Henry James, Roderick Hudson is truly an excellent novel to start with.


Roderick Hudson
By Henry James
Penguin Classics Edition
Softcover, 398 pp.

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