Henry James: The Treacherous Years 1895-1901
From Rye, where he has taken up residence in Lamb House, Henry James wires to London: “Are you utterly absent or can you dine with me Friday at seven to go afterwards with three others to the theatre?” James has passed his pale bescribbled paper across the counter toward the visible half of the clerk; he has paid, and paid by the word (a fact which could not fail to impress an author, since it was so perfectly the reverse of his own manner of making a living); he has pondered, as he had more than once before, the exposure of his message to a stranger, and wondered at the clerk’s opportunities to observe and construe these brief pieces of privacy.
The clerks, it seemed to him, were quite closed in, enmeshed; they worked in every way in narrow quarters, inconveniently cornered in some conveniently local grocery; their relation to the public was wholly disinterested and practical; and yet they were in possession of so many bits of the public’s personal property, bits usually of the better off who lived in a wider, freer world, presumably, than these servants who handled their telegrams did, that the novelist could not help but inquire of himself just what they made of these messages; or rather, what, if the right consciousness were caught in such a cage, it might compose from the words slid over the counter, the sounds sent out on the wire.
No doubt it is important to consider why Henry James was so predisposed to see his small scene in this way rather than in some other, but the reasons are not difficult to find. The arts of conversation which his circle cultivated were, in great part, the gossipacious arts: that of making much out of little, of displaying your wit and inventive facility, your ability to amuse, without boring your listeners with too many ideas, or unpleasantly stretching their minds on the rack of an “issue.” It was a world which took an intense but mainly anecdotal interest in people, and which was therefore also on its guard against just the same exposure of itself which it so assiduously sought to gain against others.
Telegrams often had that quality of being cryptic and secret, and certainly, from the clerk’s station, had to seem like the shards from vessels which in their wholeness could never be observed. Henry James could not fail to see here another instance of a parallel he had drawn several times already, and was to draw again, to draw out even to infinity in The Sacred Fount: the ultimate worthlessness of the social exchanges he regularly participated in, the weak and unreal interest of people in one another, the guarded, protective nature of their social speech, and the greed of the novelist for the same material—the need in that role to reach through and beyond all tea-talk to the selves it hid, to whatever real life moved like the mole was believed …