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Henry James and the Jacobites

by Maxwell Geismar
Houghton, Mifflin, 480 pp., $7.00

If The New York Times is correct there are or will be thirty-two titles by Henry James in the new all (or nearly all) American library selected for the White House by a committee under the chairmanship of the librarian of Yale University. The question is whether or not this is the author dealt with so authoritatively by Maxwell Geismar in Henry James and the Jacobites. On the whole it would seem to be the same author, even though Mr. Geismar describes his author as un-American, anti-American, and ignorant of America. It would also seem that at bottom, and after all, Mr. Geismar’s James is also the author so many Americans—and others—have written at length and variously about, even though Mr. Geismar thinks that Henry James is a construction by conspiracy out of hallucination. Mr. Geismar admits he knows that there is no “real” Henry James (in the first sentence of his book) and then proceeds to discover a James of his own: a James whom to discover is to expose, and who, once exposed, is no longer the King over the Water and needs no longer to be criticized or read. The affair is problematic. Perhaps one copy of Mr. Geismar would serve the needs and safety of presidential visitors better than the thirty-two titles. Unluckily there is no Committee of the House to determine the matter.

But never mind the White House. Consider the thousands on thousands of people with volumes of James on their shelves who secretly find him either unreadable or, if barely readable, dull, thin, or annoying. Mr. Geismar’s first chapter will alone free them from that hypocrisy in its general form, and the succeeding chapters deflate many of the novels, stories, and nouvelles pretty much in the order in which they were written, together with the plays and the autobiographies, and one travel book The American Scene. The relieved reader will need only the first chapter for himself, but the further chapters will make him a vade mecum—a ready weapon—with which to cut down the pretensions or delusions of his friends both about James and the critics of James, except Mr. Geismar. A book as serviceable as all this does not need also to be a good or an understanding book, and indeed if it were, it would be less serviceable. It has instead the vehemence that passes for conviction, a hustling air that passes for urgency, and a bully boyishness that passes for candor—and over all a very knowing eye indeed.

This perhaps exaggerates Mr. Geismar’s prevailing virtues; his more critical readers will cut them down for comfort and for size. Mr. Geismar underestimates himself. At the end of his first chapter he says modestly, “I have no intention of ‘destroying’ or even ‘debunking’ Henry James himself—that would be too easy, in a sense, and too cheap.” One smiles at the understatement till the smile freezes. Does not the man know what he has done? As Fortinbras says at the end of Hamlet, looking at the heap of slain that had been the Court of Denmark half an hour since: “This quarry cries on havoc.” Let us look at the havoc—the indiscriminate slaughter—that makes Mr. Geismar a quarry in his first chapter. The quarry is James the institution and those who made him an institution by discovering and rediscovering and overdoing justice to him: to him “the self-acknowledged pariah and literary outcast of his own period”; this “esoteric orchid”; this “major entertainer” (as opposed to major writer) of a “rare and exotic sort, a cross if you like, between the master magician which James used to describe himself, and the kind of literary monster which he really was.” The range of his work was narrow, and his area “completely artificial and fanciful.” His vision was “adolescent or pre-adolescent” of a “spurious nobility” and “a few proletarian butlers.” His function was to teach the rich how to spend their money, and his role was that of “the complete Veblenian ‘artist’ (though Veblen neglected to use him) of conspicuous display and ostentatious consumption in the arts.” Function and role were exercised in a style “for the sake of style; a style which was intended to deceive or mislead the reader quite as often as to inform him.” His vision of sex was voyeuristic. His dramatic method “removed all possibilities of freedom in the novel itself.” He neither knew nor cared for the life of his time; his work was all vision and no life. He knew no history, had no psychology, and was ignorant of his own motivation. Naturally, then, The Ambassadors is “one of the silliest and most uninformed novels about American business and French art alike.” Finally: “The great writers start first of all from self-knowledge, while James reveled in self-ignorance.” That he should be thought otherwise is the work of the Jacobites (your reviewer is slashed as a minor example), those who have written favorably about him, although, in Mr. Geismar’s account, they were either self-deluded, cynical, or cleverly bent on their own careers, and also ignorant of the man they wrote about as entrenched and powerful professors, scholars, and journalists.

This is the opening general account specified in repetition through the body of the work: e.g., the last sentence of the chapter on The Sacred Fount: “But let us note in passing that Henry James had a dirty mind.”

The reader who subscribes to Mr. Geismar’s method will find his conclusions irrefutable. The reader who cannot accept the method would, if it were not for the method, agree that there has been too much written about James, much of it exaggerated, much of it perverse, much of it inflated, often as much blind by ignorance or fashion as by long study and great love. We cannot all be Dantes and there are not enough Virgils to go around. It is also an acceptable notion that one Henry James is enough and that it is our good fortune that his gross imitators have not emulated him. It would be good, though, to know what it is that persists in Henry James, and how it is that if he is not a major writer, he is yet a “major entertainer” and why in this case they cannot be the same thing. It is our misfortune that Mr. Geismar’s method prevents him from telling us, but compels him rather to reject as incompetent, immaterial, or irresponsive anything put in evidence by his predecessors or his contemporaries. At least in his book he nowhere quotes with approval anything favorable to James; and surely it must be his method alone which prevents him. Or, as he might say, saves him. It is with a horrified delight that one contemplates what would happen to literature if Mr. Geismar’s method were generally applied. Minor easy victims would be Stendhal, Balzac, Flaubert, and Proust. Mark Twain, Melville, and Whitman would be cinches. There is nowhere the mind stops. Any author about whom there has been set up the combination of a cult and an industry is a possibility for destruction and debunking by Mr. Geismar’s method. By using your own eyes it is always possible to see your author’s special vision or psychology as his permeating weakness—like what was wrong with Hitler—and his defects as the characteristic traits which reveal him; and to complete the slaughter you find silly the praises of others. Great men are, as Confucius’ proverb says, national calamities because the rest of us cannot follow them. A dozen lifetimes could not exhaust the possibilities if your author were Shakespeare, on whom there are a thousand fresh publications a year. Luckily no man has even the great fraction of one lifetime at his disposal for a method where the quarry cries only on havoc.


More Jacobiting October 31, 1963

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