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Digging James

In response to:

Henry James and his Cult from the February 10, 1972 issue

To the Editors:

It is too bad that Mr. Rahv has used Leon Edel’s final volume of James’s biography to attack the James cult [NYR, February 10]. This unfortunate displacement of focus is unfair to what may be the greatest literary biography of the century, the last volume of which seems to use an original and possibly unique method of orchestrating multiple biographies quarried out of a mass of data. But I am leaving to others the championing of Edel’s masterly synthesis. I am here concerned only with questioning Mr. Rahv’s “fairly specific” objections to the “grave faults” of James’s last three novels that violate “our sense of reality,” and the evidence he advances for James’s snobbery and lack of popularity with the young.

  1. Mr. Rahv asks, “Is it really likely that a woman as…attractive, sophisticated, and aristocratic as Mme. de Vionnet of The Ambassadors would fall in love with a young man as callow as Chad Newsome from Woollett, Massachusetts?” By asking this question Mr. Rahv shows that he has not read James’s self-confessed master, Balzac, although he claims that unlike James, Balzac has become “an intimate possession of the West.” The precedents for Mme. de Vionnet’s affair with young Chad Newsome are the classical liaisons that abound in La Comédie Humaine in which aristocratic mature women take under their wings attractive young men from the provinces. Béatrix de la Rochefide has her Calyste de Guenac, Lucien de Rubempré has his Mmes de Bargeton and de Sérizy. Diane de Maufrigneuse has her Victurnien d’Escrignon who is much more of an ass than Chad.

The young men are callow and very few become distinguished, Eugène de Rastignac being an exception who through his liaison with Delphine de Nucingen, a banker’s wife, rises in the world. Claire de Beauséant, Eugène’s cousin and a very superior woman, is abandoned by two lovers for the ineluctable marriage with young heiresses If Chad is inferior to Mme. de Vionnet, what about the glamorous Mme. Firmiani’s young lover and future husband, that well-born nobody, Octave de Camps? Balzac knew that this is the way of the world. Actually, the pattern of the liaison in The Ambassadors is unquestionably James’s tribute to La Comédie Humaine.

  1. Kate Croy’s attraction to Merton Densher is the attraction of opposites, the passive intellectuality of Merton being a complement to Kate’s healthy sexuality and providing a necessary condition of the assault on Milly’s fortune.

  2. How can Mr. Rahv call Prince Amerigo “all ornamental being with no chance of becoming,…of growth and transformation,” when the point of The Golden Bowl is how Maggie forces him to involve his consciousness with hers and to realize how the complex interrelation with his wife is an experience superior to his adultery with Charlotte? A purely ornamental character would not be able to evaluate experience as the Prince is shown to do.

  3. As for Maggie’s “inveterate frigidity,” James clearly indicates (New York Edition, XXIV, p. 28) that it is nonexistent. Maggie is shown to be so sexually responsive to her husband that she fears his effect on her will ruin her plan to solve her problem. His “bending towards her…had the effect of simply putting her…in his power. She gave up, let her idea go, let everything go; her one consciousness was that he was taking her into his arms.” How is this for frigidity? She knows, too, that Amerigo is aware of how he affects her. “He had been right…as to the felicity of his tenderness and the degree of her sensibility, but even while she felt these things sweep all others away she tasted of a sort of terror of the weakness they produced in her. It was still for her that she had positively something to do, and that she mustn’t be weak for this, must much rather be strong” (p. 29).

  4. As for the old canard about James’s snobbery, it is simply not true that James “could never make himself understand that the aristocrat is a type in whom subtle manners…can easily go hand in hand with the crudest moral practices and presumptions.” Isn’t the selfishly ambitious although exquisitely beautiful Princess in The Velvet Glove shown up as a shameless asker of literary puffs? Isn’t Lady Wantridge’s favor purchasable in Mrs. Medwin? Isn’t Lady Beldonald in The Beldonald Holbein a jealous and vindictive woman, attempting to destroy her social inferior? James’s cracks at the aristocracy are not only confined to these late stories. Mr. Rahv misreads An International Episode of 1878, for Bessie Alden thinks the Duchess of Bayswater’s “manners were not fine”; she resents that lady’s coming “to look at me”; and she refuses to marry her son, Lord Lambeth. In The Siege of London, 1884, James takes a poke at the landed aristocracy by allowing the barely respectable American, Mrs. Headway, to marry into Lady Demesne’s family. The important index to James’s snobbery is located in his fiction, not in his untaped conversations.

As for the literary taste of today’s young, I, as a mother of college students, find that they read all of James (including Alice James’s Journal) with fascination but never get beyond Du Côté de chez Swann by Proust.

Adeline R. Tintner

New York City

Philip Rahv replies:

In writing my review of Leon Edel’s biography of James, I was well aware that the cultists would be up in arms against me for presuming to raise certain questions concerning their idol, whom they take to be the image of perfection both in his personal and literary life, the most brilliant jewel in the treasury of American culture. Hence I was not at all surprised by the insinuation of lese majesty in Mrs. Tintner’s letter—not surprised but somewhat irritated by her tone of outraged piety. After all, in my own way I, too, am an admirer of James, and in the past I have written extensively about him not in denigration but mostly in praise. However, in literature as in politics I have always found piety to be offensive, debilitating in like measure to the sensibility as well as to the critical faculty. It is a stance that finally permits the most arrant philistinism to flourish. And now let me turn to the specifics of Mrs. Tintner’s letter.

She begins by characterizing Edel’s work—whose principal fault, to my mind, lies precisely in its egregious piety—as possibly “the greatest literary biography of the century.” This is a very rash statement. Offhand I can think of at least three literary biographies—Richard Ellmann’s biography of Joyce, George Painter’s biography of Proust, and Henri Troyat’s biography of Tolstoy—that in point of organization of relevant detail and intellectual as well as social sophistication are far superior to what Edel has accomplished in all of his five volumes. For one thing, the authors of the three books I have cited manage to keep clear of the hagiographical note that Edel so frequently sounds and that blunts his discriminations; and, for another, those three authors have the decided advantage of dealing in their biographies with creative writers who can certainly be said to have “lived” in a sense quite inapplicable to James (unless, that is, we accept his fervent self-delusive notion of equating “perceptions and impressions” with experience in the full sense of the term). The poignancy of his case becomes evident if we keep in mind that he himself more than once defined his role as that of an “observer” of life. Actual participation was too minatory to attempt, a phantasmagoria he managed to ward off throughout his life.

At this point I might mention that not all the responses to my James piece have been as adversary as Mrs. Tintner’s. A Southern correspondent, who is himself engaged in literary work and who is familiar with the literature by and about James, writes to me in a vein quite dissimilar from that of the cultists. I will permit myself to quote one of his remarks: “Among the most telling points you make concerns Edel’s failure to deal adequately with James’s loneliness. He promised to do so in volume IV but apparently mentions the theme only in passing in volume V. Edel is good in dealing with the commonplace social life, but he doesn’t deal with the subjective or inner life of James in a convincing way and the same is true of his presentation of literary relations.”

As for The Ambassadors, Mrs. Tintner seems to me to be quite unperceptive in her reading of that novel. Chad Newsome can in no way be compared to Balzac’s Rastignac or Lucien de Rubempré, for the simple reason that Balzac, in his voluble role as omniscient author, tells us so much more about them than James, adopting a different narrative method and with a different end in view, was ever prepared to tell us about Chad. In fact, we are never allowed to share in Chad’s mental processes, so that we see him, and only very intermittently at that, only through Strether’s consciousness. It is the latter who is the real hero of the novel, as James plainly indicates in his Preface when speaking of the work as “the picture of a certain momentous and interesting period…in the history of a man no longer in the prime of life.” The germ of the novel is in a remark that William Dean Howells is said to have made to Jonathan Sturgis in Paris to the effect that one must really try to “live all one can.” Chad may in a sense be regarded as “a young man from the provinces,” but let us not forget that he is a scion of a wealthy family in Massachusetts and that, unlike Balzac’s ambitious young plebeians, he has not come to Paris to make a fortune and a career. Lured by the advertising “game,” he deserts Mme. de Vionnet to return to America.

His presence in the novel is, in the last analysis, no more than a requirement of the plot, which hinges on Strether’s “embassy” and his striking response to the charm and relaxation of Paris; and for this reason Chad is just as much a mere ficelle as Maria Gostrey. Moreover, no critic of note has ever found Balzac’s aristocratic figures in the least plausible; they merely provide his highly romantic but robust imagination with a kind of leverage for his melodramatic tales of “making it” in the newly bourgeoisified French society of his time. The actuality of his aspiring and opportunistic young plebeians is incontestable, whereas his duchesses are mere conjurations of his fantasy life, which is far from immune to the charge of vulgarity.

There is, to be sure, an indirect tribute to Balzac in The Ambassadors, but it has an altogether different reference from the one so gratuitously inferred by Mrs. Tintner. I advise her to reread page 71 of Edel’s last volume, where the relation to Balzac is clearly established. He calls attention to the fact that Lewis Lambert Strether is named after the hero of Balzac’s novel Louis Lambert, a novel, by the way, which both Strether and his friend Maria Gostrey speak of as “awfully bad.” Edel writes: “If there is any connection between The Ambassadors and the Balzacian novel it may be in Lambert Strether’s struggle to discover the difference between what he sees and what he imagines….” Edel nowhere even hints at any connection between James’s interest in Balzac and his projection of Chad. If Mrs. Tintner is to take her cue from Edel, she had better read him more carefully.

Also, Mrs. Tintner is quite as much at sea in her “reading” of The Wings of the Dove as she is in her “reading” of The Ambassadors. She imports a rationale—“the attraction of opposites”—for Kate Croy’s love of Densher which is nowhere supported by anything in the novel. From the standpoint of critical method, the imposition of a psychology for what happens in a novel, a psychology not grounded in the specifics of the actual text, is altogether impermissible. “The attraction of opposites” is an explanation which, though commonplace enough, may be right if we are talking about “real” people whom we in fact know, but of the characters in a novel we know nothing except what the author directly or indirectly tells us about them. In this sense the characters are merely words on a page, and to the degree that we arbitrarily depart from these words we arbitrarily “invent” the characters. Densher is clearly a Jamesian standby, a stock “renunciatory” type, and his relation with Kate Croy is presented by James as a donné, not as anything problematical that requires psychological analysis.

What the cultists for the most part refuse to understand about the last three “great” novels is precisely what can easily be gathered from a close scrutiny of James’s Notebooks. It appears that he first thought up the plots of these novels (with the partial exception of The Ambassadors, in which he put much of himself into Strether) and then proceeded to fit in the characters to suit the preconceived plotdesigns. This procedure turns the plots into Procrustean beds in which the characters must lie regardless of the consequences. They are never given their head lest they propel their author into unfamiliar territory. The rationale of the love between Kate Croy and Densher is a necessity of the plot, not of their intrinsic beings. Densher must be poor and Kate graspingly ambitious for money and position if they are to be put to work to deceive Milly Theale. We are faced here with a case of plots rigidly adhered to regardless of the damage to verisimilitude and our sense of the way things happen.

What I have said above also holds for The Golden Bowl. It is naïve to imagine that, given the specifications of Prince Amerigo’s status and background, little Maggie will succeed for long in imposing her provincial American notions of the moral life on her husband. As for her frigidity, this is not something we can learn directly from James, whose sensibility in such matters is too feeble to be reliable. It is rather that the exigencies of his plot compelled him to provide Charlotte Stant with a sensuous aura which puts Maggie at a decisive disadvantage from an erotic standpoint. In this sense she is indeed a pallid figure compared to Charlotte.

Moreover, Mrs. Tintner does not even mention that Maggie is much too close to her father, with whom she can communicate without words, just by looking at him, giving him so much of her time that she furnishes the opportunity for her husband and stepmother to get together in an adulterous relationship. James is indeed a novelist of a pre-Freudian period, still it is astonishing how little psychological intuition he was capable of (in contrast to such novelists as Stendhal and Dostoevsky, who lived also in the pre-Freudian era) in not recognizing that there is something rather “sick” in the way the Ververs, father and daughter, depend on each other. It is the very air they draw on to give them sustenance. In our time we cannot help regarding Maggie as “incest-bound” and thus inept and inadequate as a sexual partner.

In speaking of “the old canard about James’s snobbery” Mrs. Tintner is quite as misleading as if she were to deny that Proust was a snob. It takes a Jacobite unyielding in her piety to deny a fact so obvious. Furthermore, she appears to have misunderstood my remarks about snobbery. The key sentence reads: “But of course snobbery, if accompanied by superior imaginative powers, is not necessarily so odious a trait as it is usually made out to be.” My point was that it helped James far less than it helped Proust to create his fictional world. I was not discussing snobbery in general or even hinting that it is a terrible fault in writers of stature.

So far as the taste of the young today is concerned, I expressly stated in my piece that their taste at present, or at any time for that matter, is no touchstone for me, but that it is none the less worth considering in this period. Mrs. Tintner writes that her children, who are of college age, like James but find Proust unreadable. I congratulate her for her success in communicating her devotion to James to her children, but I don’t quite see what point she is trying to make. I said that the young today value immediacy, spontaneity, and sensuality above all. Proust, though not lacking in sensuality, is entirely deficient in immediacy and spontaneity. Also, he is a far subtler and more difficult novelist than James, and in the long run more rewarding. I am not at all surprised that the young don’t “dig” him. Mrs. Tintner’s children are clearly exceptional, for I find that the graduate students I teach, who are currently studying James, know so very little about him that I am obliged to start from scratch.

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