Many colleges and universities start their semesters by assigning a book for everyone to read as an entire group. Sometimes it’s the freshman class. Sometimes it’s students in a standalone college, or within a single college in a university system. The goals vary. Sometimes the goal of the reading assignment seeks to promote intellectual community through a shared reading experience. Other goals might include the ubiquitous, if ill-defined, aspiration to promote “critical thinking skills,” or to challenge students to get outside of themselves and the ostensibly narrow confines of their upbringing.
The irony today, though, is students have typically been challenged since kindergarten with experiences aimed to get them out of themselves and to liberate them from their narrow upbringings. So prevalent is the inclination that many students come to university with a crying need to get something into their selves before it makes any sense at all to try to draw them out of themselves or break them out of the confines of their upbringing. One cannot invite students to break out of the mold, after all, if they were never molded in the first place.
But I come to praise rather than to bury. If schools are really interested in challenging students with readings that invite them to get outside of themselves and the narrow confines of their upbringing, I’ve long thought few novels would prove more bracing to the sensibilities of today’s college students than Henry James’ novel, The Bostonians.
The Bostonians was a reactionary novel even in the day it was written. And is only more so today. I’d wager the vast majority of modern day conservatives (American conservatives are all Whigs these days) would recoil at the substantive political preferences of the novel’s protagonist, Basil Ransom. But that’s one reason to read it today. James provides us with a rich description of a bygone world in which gender equality was an honest-to-goodness open question.
But the surface level political opinions of the novel’s protagonist, is not the reason for suggesting the novel be read today as part of a common reading experience (or individually as well).
The story, set in the 1870s or 1880s, circles around three characters. Basil Ransom, a political and social conservative from Mississippi. Olive Chancellor, a distant cousin, who is affluent, a thorough-going New Englander and Bostonian (in every sense of those terms), and who is passionately committed to women’s equality, if not indeed to their superiority. Finally, Verena Tarrant, a beautiful young women with a talent for public advocacy, albeit from a marginal familial background and sketchy parents.
Basil and Olive make strong characters. Verena not as much. In some ways, the supporting characters make the novel. Of particular note is Miss Birdseye, an aged abolitionist who had the misfortune of achieving her life’s work a bit too early in her life. Her subsequent life has been devoted to the “new thinking” and the winds of radical reform. Indeed, Miss Birdseye steals almost every scene in which she is a part, and her demise toward the end of the book almost kidnaps the entire story.
The most conservative aspect of the novel isn’t really the reactionary politics of Basil Ransom, although those are, at times, interesting enough. Basil holds a hard Augustinian view of humanity, at least as a collective, and is thoroughly Madisonian in being anti-democratic, at least in the sense offered in Federalist 10. Nonetheless, while pining for a world that no longer exists, he moved to New York City in pursuit of personal success and the almighty dollar.
Rather, the most conservative aspect of the novel is its commitment to the ultimate victory of nature over politics. This is most clear in the case of Verena. She is a gifted advocate of women’s rights, of women’s social, economic, and political equality. While women’s suffrage is certainly a part of the picture, the social and economic equality of women is more in view in the novel. That women can and should be full, public participants in the market and in social life.
It’s the publicness of economic and social life around which the dramatic, political and dramatic tension circles in the novel, as opposed to a life centered on the household and domesticity.
Verena falls in love with Basil. But it’s not simply a matter that she become willing to sacrifice her professional career as a public advocate to her love for Basil. It’s that despite being torn between her varied longings, she realizes that she wants what Basil offers. A real part of her wants to be a wife and mother; the domestic life holds a real attraction for her. The other men who romantically pursue her in the novel offer themselves as helps to her career and public life; Basil offers her a life the others do not.
The novel depicts the choice offered Verena as a stark dichotomy. All one or all the other; life in public or life in the household. Basil is unbending; Verena cannot have both, even for a moment. The rigid dualism aside, however, the issue of “balancing” career and household, of balancing the desire for both, for children and motherhood in particular, if not domesticity more generally, continues to be a central struggle today in the personal lives of women and men, both individually and as couples. The two poles pull in different directions.
But the starkness of the dichotomy, Basil’s advocacy of domesticity, and the attraction that domesticity has for Verena, is a useful dramatic foil for the broader topic. Indeed, if one desires, one can approach the story with the more subversive question, asking whether the choice James pictures in the novel is truly one of nature versus politics: whether nature truly exists as portrayed in the novel or whether the characters’ desires merely reflect social constructs.
The Bostonians can open up sympathetic readers to a world and thoughts strikingly different than subsists today in the often monochromatic world of modern academia.