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Henry James and his Cult

If James is a great writer—and I believe he is one—it is strictly on a national scale that he can be most highly appreciated. In the literature of the world he is not a figure of the first order. European readers lacking a deep background in American or at least Anglo-Saxon culture of the Victorian age make very little of him. He is one of those writers, like the Russian novelist and storyteller Nikolai Leskov, the Austrian novelist Adalbert Stifter, and the Swiss Gottfried Keller, who have proven themselves incapable of readily crossing their own language frontiers. Indeed, nearly every literature counts among its luminaries writers of this special type. Though some of the works of Leskov, Keller, and Stifter are available in English, the response has been inconsiderable. The same can be said of the attempted translations of James, who is indissolubly at one not only with his language but with the determinate circumstances of his culture and background.

In German, for example, you find any number of elaborate scholarly and critical studies of Keller and Stifter (the latter was a favorite of Nietzsche). Yet without a broad knowledge of the cultural, social, and historical assumptions governing their mode of expression there is no way of comprehending their significance to German readers. Like James, and unlike such writers of fiction as Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust, Mann, Joyce, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov, Keller and Stifter have not become an intimate possession of the West.

Whereas American writers like Melville, Whitman, Poe, Faulkner, and Hemingway have attained international renown, James remains only a “name” even to the more cultivated Europeans, in spite of the best efforts of many foreign specialists in American letters. One can hardly conceive of Albert Camus, for instance, writing a highly laudatory essay about him, as he did about Melville in 1952, after reading him in a French translation. Camus put great stress on the following sentence in Melville: “To perpetuate one’s name, one must carve it on a heavy stone and sink it to the bottom of the sea; depths last longer than heights.”

Now though James sometimes liked to refer to the “abysses” of the artist’s mind, it was mostly the heights, and those of a very selected kind, that struck him with wonder and excited his admiration. The depths only benumbed him. His work, for all its high refinement and felicity of style, is far too idiosyncratic to elicit universal assent; and the very special temperamental quirks and oddities of James the man sometimes spilled over into the products of his imagination, depriving them of the necessary “aesthetic distance” and the crowning effect of “objective” inevitability.

Moreover, for all his fond talk of “exquisite economy” in composition, in his later phase particularly his prose is frequently wrenched out of focus by undue loquacity in some places and undue reserve and restraint in others. As Yvor Winters once observed, at times James attempts to make “the sheer tone of speech and behavior carry vastly more significance than is proper to it,” with the result that in novels like The Awkward Age, The Sacred Fount, and The Sense of the Past he pushes his feeling for nuances and discriminations to an unworkable extreme. James cannot be considered to have created a novum organum for encountering the richness, the depth, and the ultimately terrifying gratuity of man’s being-in-the-world.

What is at times disturbing about him is his disposition to equate sheer naïveté or crudity of manners with innocence, which is a quality of a different sort altogether. We believe in Prince Myshkin’s innocence, but can we really say without serious reservations that the Ververs, with their bought-and-paid-for prince, a costly morceau du musée, are truly innocent? Their wealth, so concretely and almost piously dwelt upon, cannot as easily be conjoined with innocence as James assumes.

James took the social order of his time too much for granted, a position that is wholly contrary to the spirit of modern literature. This literature is inherently so radically suspicious of man as to make little of innocence, least of all the innocence of the rich and proud, American or not. Moreover, this literature is mainly concerned with ideas relating to the crisis of values by which the modern world is afflicted, while in James you find almost no awareness of this theme. His sense of history is static. One might sum up the peculiarities of his consciousness by saying that it is both intellectual and simultaneously indifferent to general ideas, and systematically unattached to any open philosophical theme. James made a metaphysic of private relations, giving the impression that they are immune to the pressures of the public and historical world.

The Americanness of his rich innocents and “passionate pilgrims” is by no means so decisive a factor in their characters as he is inclined to believe. Europe is to him romance, reality, and civilization, yet he cannot finally abandon his conviction that the spirit resides in America. Hence his notion of Old World corruption, which, as he sees it, can only be cured of its “taint of evil” if penetrated and cleansed by the New World conscience, inwardness, and, yes, innocence. This idea strikes us today as preposterous—a transient historical fantasy generated by an exaggerated sense of national security and a buoyant self-interpretative grandiosity from which at this late date one recoils with bewilderment.

In my view, James tended to confuse the genuine inwardness and good faith of his immediate family with the American character in general. As he himself pointed out, “downtown” was always strange territory to him; he only felt at home “uptown,” where ladies of leisure sometimes read what he wrote. The consequence is a certain fond abstraction in his conception of the national character; and this unrealistic postulation led him to read too much meaning into his theme of “transatlantic relations” and to a variety of artificial complications in the plotting of his novels and stories.

The truth is that James differs so drastically in his creative contradictions from other great writers that numerous readers, not merely Europeans, are baffled by him. His attitude to experience especially mystifies them. They are put off by the tension in him between the impulse to consent to experience and the impulse to withdraw from it, by his dread of approaching it in its natural state, particularly love and marriage where his “confounded renunciations” seem to them cerebrally calculated and too contrived to carry conviction. It is a sphere in which his scrupulosities, whatever their cultural, social, or psychic origin, are far too readily pressed into service.2

It might be said of James that though he protested more than once against the Genteel Tradition of the age he lived in, in the matter of sexual relations he coped with it all too successfully. My feeling is that he was deeply and irretrievably offended by the grossness of the flesh, and that in his novels he resorted to exploiting this very limitation, thus submitting himself to egregious self-exaggeration, the principal manifestation of which is his obsessive refinement, a veritable delirium of refinement. This may well be among the considerations that prompted his brother William to write about him to his wife Alice:

Harry is a queer boy, so good and so limited, as if he had taken an oath not to let himself out to more than half his humanhood in order to keep the other half from suffering, and has capped it with a determination not to give anyone else credit for the half he had resolved not to use himself. Really it is not an oath or a resolve but helplessness.

Admittedly Henry always remained “powerless Harry” to William, who had no eye for his brother’s masterful side, which was noted by many of his friends. Still, his observation is too perspicacious to be dismissed. The “poor sensitive gentleman” who appears again and again in Henry’s fiction is not a mere narrative device. He is that too, but he is also a projection of his author’s innermost sense of helplessness which he tried to conceal from himself.

Among the bad habits contracted by the James cultists is that of reading the famous prefaces he wrote for the New York Edition entirely too literally, that is, without a trace of skepticism, as if their highly suggestive and illuminating ideas of dramatic method, structure, design, point of view, scene, and picture were in actual practice fully substantiated in his fictional texts. But that is by no means the case. While dismissing the work of the great Russians as “large, loose baggy monsters” (which they certainly are not), he fails to notice that at least some of his high-falutin’ talk about the art of the novel is little more than a defensive maneuver on his part—largely unconscious no doubt—a maneuver designed so firmly to fix our attention on the architectonics of the novel that we are apt to lose sight of the requirements of the hard stuff of experience it contains. How does he manage to accomplish that feat? By submitting his favorite theme, “the sacred mystery of structure,” to an intensive process of idealization and sublimation. Yet we, as critical readers, are under no compulsion to play his game.

One question we ask, which James seldom pauses to ask himself, is whether the plotting of his last three “great” novels does actually come off so far as his choice of character, scene, and action is concerned. In my view each of these three novels has its fascination, but that does not mean that they are without grave faults. In fact, in all three novels the author asks of us a “suspension of disbelief” that is so broad and inclusive, and so violates our sense of reality, that in the end we are forced to accept their basic situations as mere données—and that procedure, in view of the claims made for these works, is simply not good enough. After all, these works were written in the realistic convention, not as romances or fantasies.

The objections I have in mind are fairly specific. For instance, is it really likely that a woman as delightfully attractive, sophisticated, and aristocratic as Mme de Vionnet of The Ambassadors would fall seriously in love with a young man as callow as Chad Newsome from Woollett, Massachusetts? In a perfunctory way James does try to persuade us, to be sure, that Chad has changed, that he is no longer the boy the “ambassador” Lambert Strether knew back home. The change, however, lacks the specifications that would be really convincing, and the effort on the author’s part soon turns into sheer legerdemain when Chad, opting for the advertising “game” in America, prepares to desert his love while she puts a good face on it in her last interviews with Strether. Clearly, James has lost his touch here, proceeding in an arbitrary and manipulative fashion.

The same arbitrary manipulation is to be found in The Wings of the Dove. It is improbable that the handsome, hard, worldly, and ambitious Kate Croy—one of the very few women in James who strikes us as a truly sexual being—would love the “longish, fairish, leanish” journalist Merton Densher, of whom even Edel says, “For all his disguises as an active and even coercive lover, Merton Densher is in reality the classically passive, renunciatory Jamesian hero.” One might accept Milly Theale’s love of Densher, because her wealth gives her the inner security to permit any choice in love. But why should Kate Croy, lacking that security and intent on making her way in the world, accept the vague and passive Densher? And when Ford Madox Hueffer asked James why he left out the last scene of Milly’s confrontation with Densher, his reply was that he was afraid the novel might turn into a sentimental romance—surely an evasive reply in which there is more sophistry than truth.

The case seems to be, rather, that as James grew older his approach to the making of novels grew more and more artificial and self-willed, for he had lost his earlier intuitive feelings for the human combinations possible in fiction. As T. S. Eliot once put it: novelists need not necessarily understand people better than most of us, but what they must be is exceptionally aware of them. It is precisely this exceptional awareness that is missing in The Golden Bowl, especially in its last “Book” where rich little Maggie Verver gets the upper hand, emerging as the real master of Prince Amerigo, her husband. Here James appears to be unaware that the prince, an idle aristocrat (all ornamental being with no chance of becoming, that is, of growth and transformation) who married Maggie for her money and has little to do except play billiards at his club, is highly unlikely to remain faithful to his American wife, who in any case conveys the unmistakable impression of inveterate frigidity.

Even if we grant that Maggie has succeeded in shipping off Charlotte, her stepmother and her husband’s mistress, to the Siberia which the latter takes America to be, James fails to consider that there are other Charlottes, any number of them, awaiting the prince’s pleasure, and that therefore Maggie’s triumph, so gloatingly rendered, is only temporary. For, lacking anything else to engage his full attention, adultery is the prince’s real métier. After all, it is an occupation of sorts. That James fails to take this glaring fact into account is a consequence of his illusion of “the world, the beautiful world!”

Another bad habit of the James cultists is to overlook his snobbery; perhaps some of them have been so affected by it as to have wholly absorbed it. But of course snobbery, if accompanied by superior imaginative powers, is not necessarily as odious a trait as it is usually made out to be. It is a kind of idealism manqué. To use a Jamesian analogy, it might be likened to zero in a number: its significance depends on the figure preceding it. If we compare James’s snobbery to Proust’s, we can see how little it helps him. Proust started with the ambition to penetrate the highest social circles; aristocratic names enchanted him; yet he ended by turning his fiction into an exposure of the “worldly world” and the renunciation of it in favor of the artistic vocation.

What is really at stake here is the question of innocence. Proust was never innocent, while in some important ways James remained innocent to the very end. He was inclined to equate the sensibility of culture with aristocracy, yet unlike Proust he could never make himself understand that the aristocrat is a type in whom subtle manners and beautiful displays of consideration can easily go hand in hand with the crudest moral practices and presumptions. Hence we cannot imagine James writing the episode of “the red slippers” in which the Duc and Duchesse de Guermantes are shown up by Proust for what they really are. Like his heroine Bessie Alden in his early nouvelle, An International Episode, James himself was oversensitive to “the mementoes and reverberations of greatness in the life of noble families of ancient lineage.”

The values of aristocracy bulked so large in his mind that he hated to be told that he belonged to the middle class, being the grandson of an impoverished Irish immigrant who succeeded in making a small fortune in Albany, New York. E. S. Nadal, a secretary at the American Embassy in London in the 1870s, relates in his memoirs that James often spoke to him: “of the rudeness encountered from the London social leaders,” and one time he told him that some lady of the English middle class has said to him: “That is true of the aristocracy, but in one’s own class it is different,” meaning, said James, “her class and mine.” Rather than endure such insults, James declared, he preferred to be regarded as a foreigner. This incident is very expressive of James’s social insecurity and snobbish preoccupations. He did, after all, belong to the middle class and his indignant reaction to the English lady is fully indicative of his staggering pretensions.

In spite of the innovations in the art of the novel that James can undoubtedly be credited with and a certain kind of psychological lyricism of a very high order, it is still true that he cannot be regarded as a truly modern writer. The Victorian strain was too strong in him. Fundamentally he belongs to the American nineteenth century, and hence he, too, is a queer duck, essentially an outsider, like all the important American creative writers of that era. Aside from freewheeling quasi-philosophical preachers like Emerson, there are actually very few of them—Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, Poe, and James (Mark Twain and Emily Dickinson are borderline cases). All five are outside the mainstream of the society of their time, which was so single-mindedly devoted to the practical tasks of completing the conquest of the continent and industrializing its economy that it left virtually no room for the disinterested pursuits of the imaginative faculty and its seemingly irrelevant, if not downright dangerous, exuberances and dejections.

America was as yet in no position to sustain their gifts, and in their isolation each one of them either tried to overreach or suppress himself, thus developing certain outré tendencies. Hawthorne was at one and the same time fearfully inhibited and ridden by sex fantasies; the latent homosexuality of Whitman and Melville was a constriction of a singularly insidious sort in their milieu; Poe was sexually impotent and a dipsomaniac; and James found a way out by expatriating himself. His genius could not have come to fruition in his native land. He did succeed in saving himself, but at no small price.

Letters

Digging James April 6, 1972

  1. 2

    According to Edel, in his last years Henry started to refer to carnal love as “the great relation”—a euphemism typically Jamesian. Is the adjective “great” really appropriate? It is a fundamental relation, inescapable for most people, as tender and demonstrative as it is torturous and recurrently brutal.

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