Smith College professor’s biography of Henry James nominated for National Book Critics Circle Award

Last modified: Wednesday, April 03, 2013

NORTHAMPTON — It was as a student at Amherst College that Michael Gorra first discovered Henry James’ seminal novel “The Portrait of a Lady.” That marked the beginning of a love affair with the book for Gorra, who has since gone on to teach the novel for years as a professor of English language and literature at Smith College.

Now Gorra has turned his knowledge of “The Portrait of a Lady” into something else. His most recent book, “Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece,” has been nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award in the biography category.

Speaking of the nomination in a phone call from his Northampton home, Gorra said, “I’m a little bit flabbergasted. This is the kind of thing you hope for but you really don’t expect ... but I’m certainly pleased.”

“Portrait of a Novel” is an unconventional biography of James, one of the leading American literary figures of the late 1800s and early 1900s, in that it examines his life through the lens of “The Portrait of a Lady,” first published in 1881.

James published a considerably revised version of the book more than 20 years later to reflect his experiences and his expanded view of the novel’s central character, Isabel Archer.

Gorra examines James’ expatriate life — he spent most of his adulthood in Europe — by traveling to places James lived to see how they shaped his views and writing. Gorra also revisits the novel itself to shed light on James and the experience of other expatriate Americans of the time.

“I wanted to find a way to turn (literary) criticism into more of a narrative, to fuse the two in some way,” said Gorra, who has published other books of literary analysis and also reviews books for various publications. “I thought that might be a means for attracting a larger audience.”

Gorra’s book has won widespread praise for bringing a fresh look to both a well-known book and an oft-studied writer.

The Wall Street Journal called it “masterly and evocative,” and said, “Gorra also offers an exemplary approach to what remains a complex and fascinating subject.”

“Portrait of a Novel” shares a Books Critic Circle Award nomination for biography with four other titles, including “The Passage of Power,” Robert Caro’s most recent volume of his massive study of Lyndon Johnson.

Another contender is “The Black Count,” a biography of French general Alex Dumas, the father of novelist Alexandre Dumas, who used his father as the basis for some of the characters from his famous novels like “The Three Musketeers.”

The other two entries are “All We Know: Three Lives” by Lisa Cohen and “Robert Duncan, the Ambassador from Venus: A Biography” by Lisa Jarnot.

“It’s kind of a quirky list,” Gorra joked of the nominated biographies. “But I’m very happy to be part of it.”


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