At the time of its release, untold millions were talking about Henry James's masterpiece, but how many read it?
AMBASSADORS, The. ‘The Ambassadors’ is often spoken of as enjoying the doubtful distinction of being the most talked about and least read novel in the English language. It holds first place in the affection of most people with whom the love of Henry James is a literary cult; it is the author's own favorite among his works. He calls it “quite the best ‘all round’ of all my productions.” Yet, in spite of the fact that it was published in 1903, 25 years after ‘Daisy Miller’ and ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ had created an audience for their author's work, half of the first edition remained on the publisher's shelves for years.
It requires something more than the fact that ‘The Ambassadors’ is written in James' “later manner” and is full of subleties of character, situation and expression to account for these extremes of admiration and neglect, and that something is undoubtedly the age of the hero. Middle age has never been popular in fiction, and 'The Ambassadors,' through Lambert Strether — probably the finest character James ever created — is the mirror of New England middle age beside the youth of Paris.
The essence of the story, according to Henry James' preface to the New York edition (the best analysis of the work), is contained in the words of Strether to the friend of the New England boy whom he has been sent to save from the clutches of Paris and whom he finds “disobligingly and bewilderingly not lost.” “Live all you can; it's a mistake not to. It doesn't so much matter what you do in particular so long as you have your life. If you haven't had that, what have you had?”
Encyclopedia Americana, 1920