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 …

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More Jacobiting October 31, 1963