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A Bundle of Letters

A Bundle of Letters

"A Bundle of Letters" is a comic short story by Henry James, originally published in The Parisian magazine in 1878, which is also when the story takes place. The story is one of James' few ventures into epistolary fiction. As he did so often, especially in the early stages of his career, James made the tale part of his international theme: his letter-writers represent a number of different countries. Although some of the characters look like well-worn stereotypes — the wolfish Frenchman, the pedantic and aggressively nationalistic German, the snobbish upper-class English siblings — James manages to endow most of them with enough twists and turns of personality to interest the reader. One character has even been taken as a sly satire on himself.

Several residents of a Paris boarding-house write letters to their friends and family back home; their primary subject is their reaction to each other. The main character is Miranda Hope, an angular but likeable Yankee Miss from Bangor, Maine who, quite bravely for a young woman of that era, is traveling in Europe alone. In her letters, she chatters to her mother about seeing the sights in Europe but doesn't like the Old World's treatment of its women, "and that is a point, you know, on which I feel very strongly." Her expressions of petulance with William Platt, who we realize must be a (so far luckless) suitor of hers back in Maine, are so offhand as to be amusing. Although she is in general the least affected and most sympathetic character in the story, her unawareness of the disdain in which most of the characters hold each other (including herself) makes her seem somewhat naive.

Meanwhile, society girl Violet Ray of New York writes to a friend that Miranda, who she sees as provincial, is "really too horrible." Another boarder, wannabe aesthete Louis Leverett (quite possibly a self-satire by James) gushes in his letter that "the great thing is to live, you know," amid much precious verbiage about the good, the true and the bee-a-u-tiful. An English boarder, Evelyn Vane, pens a scoffing note that Louis is always talking about the color of the sky, but she doubts if he's ever seen it except through a window-pane; and the German sees Leverett's "decadence" as further evidence that the English-speaking world is weak and ripe for takeover.

The Frenchman Leon Verdier almost drools in his letter about the charms of ces demoiselles among the boarders, and focuses primarily on their appearance. The rather threatening German professor is the only character both cynical and intelligent enough to realize how disdainful all the English speakers are of each other. However, he's also the least sympathetic character in the story. (James had little use for Germany and its culture.) While the other characters despise each other mostly on personal grounds, or from cultural misunderstanding, Herr Professor despises them all based on their national traits and general sub-human status (he calls the Frenchman "simian"). In a letter to his German friend, he simultaneously brags of his erudition and predicts that the weakness of these other nationalities augurs a bright future "for the deep-lunged children of the Fatherland!"

Author:Henry James

Tag:A Bundle of LettersHenry James

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