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.
The Good Ol' American Internet
This full-text version of Daisy Miller is completely searchable and has a nice pic of James scowling at you from the corner. Can't go wrong.
For the Weak of Heart
Here's another one, sans scowling James. Just in case.
The Henry James Resource Center
Your one-stop shop for everything James: e-texts, scholarship, essays, articles, photos, a detailed biography, you name it.
"You were ground in the very mill of the conventional" (And other Jamesian insults)
Look no further for a concise collection of James gems. Use them to impress friends with your wisdom and/or burn enemies at public gatherings.
Cybill Shepherd Looking Like She Has to Pee for 91 Minutes
The costumes and sets in this 1974 film adaptation are pretty great, and it remains impressively faithful to the plot of the original. Unfortunately, it has next to no zing due to an utter lack of chemistry between Shepherd and Barry Brown—wait, who? Exactly. It was not a huge hit with critics.
Semi-Unrelated Episode of the Classic Television Masterpiece Gilmore Girls
This episode is called "Goodbye Daisy Miller." We're guessing the reference has to do with Rory's loss of innocence after sleeping with Dean. Also, she goes to Europe. Well done, CW. Well done, indeed.
Daisy Goes to the Theatre by Henry James
James wrote a dramatic version of the story that was published in the popular and well-respected magazine the Atlantic Monthly and is available in its original form online.
Hypertext Daisy (with pictures!)
Like to look at footnotes but hate page flipping? This is for you. Plus it has the original color illustrations that accompanied the volume publication of the text.
Awesome Blog Post Rant about Daisy's Name
This writer dislikes the obviousness of "the headline 'WINTER KILLS FLOWER!'"
"Yes, sir. It's the American lady from that magazine."
Cynthia Ozick imagines interviewing James from beyond the grave—and takes him to task for some of his regrettable misogyny.
The Castle at Chillon
This photo makes us want to go there in a steamboat, too!
The Colosseum at Night
Pretty nice for a malaria-infested sports arena…
This looks like an ideal place to go for a public walk with two young men, don't you think?
HJ: Up Close and Personal
Sometimes he reminds us of Marlon Brando. Sigh.
Watch this ridiculously awkward clip of Giovanelli singing in the film version.
Listen to Daisy for Free While You Use the Elliptical or Drive Down the Coast
A complete, free audio book of the James novella. Unfortunately, the reader kind of sounds like a GPS.
Pay to Listen to Daisy While You Use the Elliptical or Drive Down the Coast
There are several good recordings available on audible.com in the range of seven dollars. We like this one because the narrator sounds like a delightful English inn-keeper.