Henry James Week: On Point with Tom Ashbrook and Michael Gorra

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WBUR-FM Boston, 11 September 2012
Presented by Tom Ashbrook, this 45-minute long programme comprised a discussion with Michael Gorra, author of the revisionist work Portrait of a Novel (2012), looking at the creation of Portrait of a Lady, interspersed with readings from the Tantor Classics unabridged version of the novel.
Gorra's book is fascinating, as it draws a parallel between Isabel Archer's fate in the novel and the fate of modern America.  Isabel begins the novel with a firm belief in American exceptionalism; as a rich woman visiting Europe, she thinks she is somehow blessed - with money, status and/or influence.  Through her marriage to Gilbert Osmond, and her subsequent discovery of Madame Merle's treachery, Isabel discovers that she is no different from anyone else; she has to understand the importance of relating to others, as well as trying to understand their motives in greater detail.  Her sojourn in Europe becomes a voyage of self-discovery.
By relating the story to the context in which it was produced, Gorra argues that this kind of voyage is one that all American have had to discover, and continue to discover in the present day.  This runs counter to a prevailing strain in American political discourse attesting to the power of American exceptionalism (the programme ran a recording of a recent speech by ex-Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, making precisely this kind of claim).  Perhaps Gorra's point of view is a more accurate one - particularly at a time when the United States' diplomatic relations with many other countries have been subject to severe scrutiny.  The programme clearly suggested that Portrait of a Novel was an allegory for our time, while demonstrating at the same time the enduring significance of James' text.