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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Being Henry James

Colm Tóibín’s The Master is a biographical story of Henry James and captures four years of James’ life, beginning with the humiliating failure of his play Guy Domville in 1895 and ending with his brother’s stay in Rye in 1899. Sponsored by the Creative Writing Program, the English Department, the Irish Studies Program and the Watermark, the reading of The Master was held at UMass Boston on October 6, featuring himself author, Colm Tóibín’s.

Visiting UMass from across the pond, Tóibín’s is an internationally acclaimed Irish writer who has lived a very busy and interesting life. He was born in Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Ireland in 1955. He went to the Christian Brothers School in Enniscorthy and then, for the last two years, to St Peter’s College Wexford. In 1972, he attended University College, Dublin where he studied History and English. After earning his B.A. in 1975, he traveled to Barcelona for a three-year stay in which he closely followed the surrounding political development. Tóibín’s returned to Dublin in 1978 and began work on his M.A. in Modern English and American Literature. Later, in 1981, he became a feature editor of In Dublin and a year later he was offered a position as editor at Ireland’s main current affair magazine Magill. However, after three years he left Magill and to travel around South America, ending up in Argentina to attend the trial of Galtieri and other generals in Buenos Aires. His first novel The South, about an Irish artist in Spain, appeared in 1990 and won The Irish Times Literature Prize in 1991. Before this publication, Tóibín’s had published a travelogue Homage to Barcelona (1989) and a selection of his journalism The Trial of the Generals (1990). The Master (2004) is now short listed for Man Booker Prize 2004. From The Master, Tóibín’s read a scene where Henry James visited Venice after the death of Constance Fenimore Woolson, a novelist and one of James’ most intimate friends. Woolson killed herself in 1894 during a particularly bleak Venice winter. As Tóibín’s read the pages, he created a scene with his calm, heavy voice giving the audience an image of a dark and quiet winter sky before a snowstorm. His dialogues flashed like lightning captivated the audience in the crowded room. Along with his reading, Colm Tóibín’s also expressed the difficulty of recreating James’ life. One of the obstacles came from the abundance of resources about Henry James. There are countless letters by Henry James, his relatives and his friends. This has given many authors the chance to publish a biography on James’ life, and Tóibín’s comments about his selective process of, “choosing what to use” among so much to interpret. Although The Master is a biographical story, Tóibín’s could choose what to present in his story and how to express it. For instance, he said, “I can’t do happy going stuff. I can’t do happy”. Tóibín’s also says that he, rather than making analyses of James’ left behind processions and writings, attempted to compile details in order to keep the image of a mystery surrounding his subject.

After his reading, Tóibín’s commented that while he was writing The Master, he “lived in the language [of Henry James]”. It was as if James came back to life, via the lyric Tóibín’s language, and it was his breath during the reading of The Master. The novel is certainly a tempting way for us to be Henry James and explore his life, which is uniquely colored by Colm Tóibín’s.