Daisy Miller might just be the most widely read and studied work of Henry James, an American novelist so great he eventually had to leave America—it wasn't big enough for the one of him. Despite all of this great greatness, the novella was initially rejected for publication. (Keep this in mind next time you go on a job interview.)
The problem was, the American publisher thought the story would anger American readers. Instead, James had to sell the story to the English, who were delighted by the charm and wit of their newest import. According to the journalist, editor, and critic William Dean Howells, English readers were reportedly split between "Daisy Millerites and anti-Daisy Millerites"—those who adored the main character and those who deemed her the harbinger of all of the tackiness and classlessness of American culture to come. Maybe now you're starting to get why an American publisher would be wary.
Daisy represents a lot of things that were then, and maybe still are now, associated with being an American: youth, vigor, enthusiasm, idealism, and flash. James himself had a complicated relationship with the nation of his birth. He came from a moderately well-to-do but highly respected family of American intellectuals.
When little Henry James became cynical adult Henry James, he started to feel like America was getting overrun by the stupid and the materialistic. So he moved to England in 1876, when he was 33. He never came back, except for one brief visit in which he wrote a sad book that's basically about how the country looks from the window of a train (The American Scene).
Daisy Miller is the first book that started what became a minor obsession for our friend Henry James: comparing the New World (America) to the Old World (Europe). People liked reading about this contrast in the 19th century, but James might be even more famous now than he was then. Maybe that's because we're still trying to figure out what defines American culture.
On the surface, Daisy Miller is just a story about a guy who's interested in a somewhat lively and charismatic younger woman who may or may not be interested in him. Turn on the TV or spend a few hours in the parking lot at your local high school, and you'll find plenty of stories just like it.
The difference here is Henry James, one of the most brilliant social critics to ever write a ton of novels. This is not American Pie, but a deceptively simple tale that, for once in our lives, causes us to rethink what we know without obnoxiously proposing to teach us something.
Frederick Winterbourne has come to Europe to "study," according to his friends. We never see him do so much as sharpen a pencil, so we can only assume that the object of his study is Daisy. After a few pages of watching Winterbourne watch Daisy, we start to wonder: Who is this Winterbourne? How can we trust his reactions to his new young friend? And if we can't, how can we form our own?
As layers of opinion begin to stick to the beautiful Daisy like batter on some deep-fried food product at a fair, we start to realize that even though what we're eating is delicious, we have no idea what it is. Corn? Cheese curds? A stick of butter? All of this is an unnecessarily trans-fatty way of saying that James's game is to filter all of our information through someone else so we see how difficult it is to know someone on their own terms.
Sure, it's normal to take a friend's word about their friend's friend, or to believe said friend when he says he's "totally not the kind of person who would ever judge." After reading Daisy Miller, though, you may begin to question not only how information comes to us, but also the biased ways in which we ourselves process that information. Most novels make it clear who we're supposed to love (the main character, of course!) and who we're supposed to hate (the bad guy, duh!), but James messes everything up for us.
While you may never be sure what you think of Daisy, you'll be intrigued by her mysterious behavior and the still-more difficult-to-parse reactions she provokes. This may sound like it will drive you crazy, but it actually has the effect of making you feel saner when you return to the world around you.
We end up learning a lot about what not to do from reading Daisy Miller: care too much about what others think, bite our tongue about how we feel, and forget to take our malaria medication.