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The Ambassadors

The Ambassadors by Henry James
By: (1843-1916)

Henry James considered The Ambassadors his best, or perhaps his best-wrought, novel. It plays on the great Jamesian theme of Americans abroad, who finds themselves in an older, and some would say richer and more sophisticated, culture that that of the United States. The protagonist is Lambert Strether, a man in his fifties, editor of a small literary magazine in the manufacturing town of Woollett, Massachusetts, who arrives in Europe on a mission undertaken at the urging of his patron, Mrs. Newsome, to bring home her son Chadwick. That young man appears to be enjoying his time in Paris rather more than seems good for him, at least to those older and wiser. The novel, however, is really about Strether's education in this old world. One of his teachers is the city of Paris and its society, in which Chad Newsome has become so immersed. Yet for all its beauties and attractions, this is a real Paris, not an idealized one, a Paris with its own superficialities and dangers. From it Strether has much to learn, and its lessons are perhaps not always those that Chad himself has drawn, pleasant as they might at first seem.
Had Strether his life to live over again, knowing what he has now learned, how different would it be?

NOTE: The Gutenberg text, from which this is read, is that of the 1909 New York edition of James's works, and includes his own long Preface at its start. This is less a conventional preface than an essay by James on the novel and its making, and indeed assumes some familiarity with the work. A listener, therefore, might prefer to start right away with the first chapter, saving the Preface for later.

First Page:

The Ambassadors,


Henry James.

New York Edition (1909).

Volume I


Nothing is more easy than to state the subject of "The Ambassadors," which first appeared in twelve numbers of The North American Review (1903) and was published as a whole the same year. The situation involved is gathered up betimes, that is in the second chapter of Book Fifth, for the reader's benefit, into as few words as possible planted or "sunk," stiffly and saliently, in the centre of the current, almost perhaps to the obstruction of traffic. Never can a composition of this sort have sprung straighter from a dropped grain of suggestion, and never can that grain, developed, overgrown and smothered, have yet lurked more in the mass as an independent particle. The whole case, in fine, is in Lambert Strether's irrepressible outbreak to little Bilham on the Sunday afternoon in Gloriani's garden, the candour with which he yields, for his young friend's enlightenment, to the charming admonition of that crisis. The idea of the tale resides indeed in the very fact that an hour of such unprecedented ease should have been felt by him AS a crisis, and he is at pains to express it for us as neatly as we could desire... Continue reading book >>

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