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Daisy Miller by Henry James: Americans are gross, but also maybe not?

Henry James is one of the most maddeningly frustrating authors I've ever encountered. I also keep coming back to his writing, so I'm inclined to think there's something there that I'm just missing. I have read and not really enjoyed or understood the following:

Daisy Miller
Washington Square
The Ambassadors
The Golden Bowl (half of it -- found my freshman year copy with "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here" scrawled on the title page)
The Turn of the Screw

I feel like that's a pretty good representation of his works, although I'm willing to try The Golden Bowl again, because I was 14 when I tried it and it's entirely possible my brain was pretty garbagey then.

this is another possibility

My main issue with James is that he decides what he's going to say in his book, and then he shrouds it in a fog of vagueness and ambiguity. His BFF was Edith Wharton, who did not do this. Her books were also far more successful than his. COINCIDENCE?

But then you get into a reasonable debate: Are Wharton's books better because they're more easily accessible? Intellectual prigs would automatically say no, and that question's even phrased in a leading way, so let's put it differently: Should a good author be able to clearly communicate their point, or should they make the reader work for it? Are both an option, or is there one that people should err on the side of? 

As I'm getting older, I'm appreciating James more -- partially because he doesn't just give you the answer. He's still maddeningly frustrating, and his sentences can give you almost nothing to work with, but it's not "HERE IS MY POINT, JUST TO MAKE SURE YOU GET IT." 

Cue Daisy Miller. Daisy Miller is a 90 page novella published in 1878, which is pretty early for him, and it's almost astonishingly accessible at first glance. Washington Square, another early James that's good if you want to ease into him, was published two years later. The intro to the 1929 edition of Daisy Miller basically says "Daisy Miller? Yeah, it's popular. You can like it. I mean, I guess. You're probably just not a Real James Fan, that's all. No no, totally fine. Totally. You go ahead and like it and its easy easiness. Noo one's gonna judge you. Except for all the aforementioned Real James Fans, a group of which you are not a part."

Henry James fans when you say
you think Daisy Miller's great

James was an American expatriate and spent a ridic amount of time in Europe, so most of his books are set there. In Daisy Miller, a young man named Winterbourne is visiting his aunt in Switzerland and comes across a young American girl named Daisy Miller (like the title!). The main thrust of this book is that Daisy doesn't pay enough attention to what American Society Abroad wants her to do. She goes out alone with men all the time, her mother doesn't seem to mind it, she won't listen to warnings from others, BUT she also projects a complete air of innocence regarding her behavior, so maybe it's ok, except probably not. 

The whole book is spent with Winterbourne wondering if she's really innocent or not, and also kind of whether he can hit that. 

Hopefully with something as smooth as this, although good luck, sir

Apparently the novella caused something of a kerfuffle when published, as people debated whether American girls were really like Daisy Miller or not. Since the United States lives with a centuries-old inferiority complex regarding Europe, I'm fairly sure they wanted to say most American girls were not, which echoes the sentiments of the American expatriates in the novel, who rushed to tell their European friends that she was not an accurate representation of their country.

Resonance of this sentiment lingers on! Imagine being in some European metropolis, trying to look like you fit in, and all of a sudden you see some Americans being, as comedian Maria Bamford tactfully puts it, "loud and charming."

You'd totally want to disassociate yourself from those loud gross people who are not even trying to fit in. "ACCEPT ME, DO NOT ACCEPT THEM" you would cry while sitting at a cafe in Paris, your beret tipped at a jaunty angle, smoking a cigarette and holding a baguette under your arm.


Is Daisy Miller representative of ladies in America! Should you go with what feels right to you in accordance with your own values, or should you bow to society! Who do you identify with in the book? Is it censorious but well-intentioned Mrs. Walker? 

"My dear young friend," said Mrs. Walker, taking her hand, pleadingly, "don't walk off to the Pincio at this unhealthy hour to meet a beautiful Italian"

Randolph Miller, who just wants some good candy and is eternally thwarted because all of Europe has none

"Can you get candy there?" Randolph loudly inquired."I hope not," said his sister. "I guess you have had enough candy, and mother thinks so too.""I haven't had any for ever so long—for a hundred weeks!" cried the boy, still jumping about.

Winterbourne, even though he views Daisy through a kind of manic pixie dream girl lens? 

Daisy, on this occasion, continued to present herself as an inscrutable combination of audacity and innocence.

And why does Winterbourne think sitting in the Colosseum will give you "Roman fever"? (I have googled this and can answer that question) 

Daisy Miller and Daisy Miller, you are both mysteries to me. But I'm inclined to feel that there was more going on with you than could be seen through the lens of this 20something young man.


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