In The Tragic Muse, Henry James has a character, a Mr. Carteret, of whom he writes, “Life, for him, was a purely practical function, not a question of phrasing.” For James, life was not entirely but in good part precisely a question of phrasing. Phrasing is the crucial art of capturing experience in the net of words. Over the course of a lifetime, James wove the most finely meshed net in all of Anglo-American literature. He required such a net, for he was, from the very beginning, out to capture the most subtle of human experiences.

“I take for granted the maximum attention,” James wrote, apropos of the intricacy of his own fiction. Blink in a Henry James novel and you may well have missed its meaning. He knew what his novels and stories required, and knew, too, that it was in the possession of fewer and fewer readers. He wrote to William Dean Howells in 1902:

The faculty...

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