... or the apotheosis of the American Romance! "Roderick Hudson" was Henry James's second published full-length novel and his last, I would say, in the shared literary idiom of his 19th predecessors. His final tribute, if you will, to the 'Gothic' romances of the Brontes and above all of Nathaniel Hawthorne. I don't believe many critics have linked "Roderick Hudson" to Hawthorne's "The Marble Faun", but the linkage is tight, even if James didn't intend any connection. I would include Herman Melville's grand dismal romance "Pierre" in the linkage, except that I'm doubtful James ever knew of it. Even though most of the narrative takes place in Roma, "Roderick Hudson" is a New England novel at heart.
Published in serial in 1875, "Roderick Hudson" was not received with any great plaudits, and it hasn't been treated with the most ample respect by later literary critics. It's unquestionably true that James 'survived' -- luckily for us -- to write a dozen better novels than this one, beginning with his next, "The American". And yet "Roderick Hudson" is a very fine piece of writing! If James's next ten novels had been just as good but no better, he would still rank as one of the masters of the genre. What falls short for this reader in "Roderick Hudson" might ironically be exactly what could make it most enjoyable for other readers; it's a tale of drastic Passion, in which the characters are Larger Than Life. The excitement I find in reading James's more mature novels is that the characters are never dramatically exaggerated. They may be exceptional, but only in a manner well grounded in their ordinariness. The dramatis personae of "Roderick Hudson" are as sculptural as the intertwined and tormented figures of the Laocoön. The story portrays an anguishing Love Quadrangle:
Roderick is a young self-taught sculptor of Genius ... the most meteoric genius-to-be of the Age, and the most insufferable narcissist ever bent on self-destruction.
Christina Light is 'the most beautiful woman in Europe', raised by her odious mother to become literally a Princess. And a 'princess' she is, in the current derogatory American sense of the title! I might wonder if James's earliest readers found her credible, but I have no doubt that readers today will know what to expect of her. She is the Britney Spears or Sharon Stone of her epoch. She will reappear, by the way, as a character in a later James novel, chastened by experience but no less destructively alluring. Roderick of course is infatuated with her to the point of obsession.
Mary Garland is the New England girl par excellence, the finely spirited and spiritually fine abandoned fiancée, whom the unworthy consider 'plain' but the worthy recognize instinctively as 'handsome'. Our Principal Character is one of the worthy.
That Principal Character is Rowland Mallet, a wealthy American with no calling of his own except to be reliable and generous. His spontaneous recognition of Roderick's 'genius', and his decision to support Roderick's development by transporting him to Europe and subsidizing him there, is the launching point of the novel. Rowland is not a first-person narrator but nonetheless the focal lens of the narrative and the catalyst of most events. He is of course hopelessly in love with Mary Garland but incapable of self-interested disloyalty to his protegé. Almost colorless, he is nonetheless "the most interesting man in the world" in any interpretation of this novel.
Henry James wrote "Roderick Hudson" under the spell of Italy, upon his first visit there, and the descriptive settings in Roma and Firenze are spellbinding. The whole story is operatic in its emotive lushness; stripped of its rich vocabulary and nuances of description, it could easily be rewritten as a Danielle Steele tear-jerker. I don't mean that as dispraise, but rather as the highest praise, that James could take such an 'excessive' drama and write such subtle psychological insights into it.
This novel is included in the Library of America volume "Henry james: Novels 1871-1880" , along with 'Watch and Ward', 'Confidence', 'The American', and 'The Europeans'. I've already reviewed the last two. Some readers/reviewers have mistakenly suggested that Henry James is 'difficult' dry intellectual fare. I hope to persuade "you" of the contrary; James is juicy fun to read.