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Lessons of the Master

Henry James: Literary Criticism Essays on Literature, American Writers, English Writers

The Library of America, 1484 pp., $27.50

Henry James: Literary Criticism French Writers, Other European Writers, The Prefaces to the New York Edition

The Library of America, 1408 pp., $27.50

On the evening of January 12, 1905, President and Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt held a reception for the Diplomatic Corps. After the reception, a limited number of grandees were given a dinner; among those so distinguished was Henry James, who was staying across the street at the house of Henry Adams. The reception had been boycotted by Adams himself, who found it impossible to finish a sentence once the voluble President was wound up. But Adams sent over his house guests, James, John La Farge, and St. Gaudens.

The confrontation between Master and Sovereign contained all the elements of high comedy. Each detested the other. James regarded Roosevelt as “a dangerous and ominous jingo” as well as “the mere monstrous embodiment of unprecedented and resounding noise” while Theodore Rex, as the Adams circle dubbed him, regarded the novelist as “a miserable little snob” and, worse, “effete.” As it turned out, snob and jingo were each on his best behavior that night; and James, in a letter to Mary Cadwalader Jones, noted that the President was “a really extraordinary creature for native intensity, veracity and bonhomie.” What TR thought of his guest on that occasion is not recorded; but he could never have been approving of James, who had settled in England, had never roughed it, had never ridden, roughly, up Kettle Hill (to be renamed San Juan, since no one could be the hero of anything so homely as a kettle).

But the true high comedy of that January evening was that the two great men were meeting not as literary lion and president but as book reviewer and author reviewed. Seven years earlier, James had given Roosevelt (an indefatigable writer of echoing banality) a very bad review in the English paper Literature. Although reviews were not signed in those days, concerned authors could almost always find out who had done them in, and if the wielder of the axe were a writer of James’s fame, the secret could never have been kept for long.

James begins, blandly,

Mr. Theodore Roosevelt appears to propose—[the first verb is a hint of fun to come] in American Ideals and Other Essays Social and Political—to tighten the screws of the national consciousness as they have never been tightened before. The national consciousness for Mr. Theodore Roosevelt is, moreover, at the best a very fierce affair.

James then suggests that this approach is not only overwrought but vague.

It is “purely as an American,” he constantly reminds us, that each of us must live and breathe. Breathing, indeed, is a trifle; it is purely as Americans that we must think, and all that is wanting to the author’s demonstration is that he shall give us a receipt for the process. He labours, however,…under the drollest confusion of mind.

All in all, TR was saintly to put such an unAmerican reviewer at his dinner table, separated from his own intensely American self by a single (American) lady. Of course, in April 1898, James could not have known that the author, a mere assistant secretary of the Navy, was glory-bound. Yet if he had, the Jamesian irony (so like that of his friends John Hay and Henry Adams, and so deeply deplored, in retrospect, by the President) could not resist serving up such quotes as,

The politician who cheats or swindles, or the newspaperman who lies in any form, should be made to feel that he is an object of scorn for all honest men.” That is luminous; but, none the less, “an educated man must not go into politics as such; he must go in simply as an American,…or he will be upset by some other American with no education at all….” A better way perhaps than to barbarize the upset—already, surely, sufficiently unfortunate—would be to civilize the upsetter.

For James, whatever useful insights that politician Roosevelt might have are undone “by the puerility of his simplifications.”

The Library of America has seen fit to publish in one volume all of James’s book reviews on American and English writers, as well as a number of other meditations on literature. To read the book straight through (1413 pages of highly uneven book-chat) is to get to know Henry James in a way that no biographer, not even the estimable Leon Edel, the present editor, can ever capture. Here one can study the evolution of James’s taste and, yes (pace, T.S. Eliot), mind. Incidentally, I have never quite understood Eliot’s wisecrack that James had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it. In James one is always aware of a highly subtle intelligence with all its (changing) biases and viewpoints as it considers everything from communism to D.H. Lawrence. I, on the other hand, have never detected much in the way of “ideas,” as opposed to moods or prejudices, in Eliot’s curious neurotic commentaries. But then, Eliot ended a mere Christian; James ended an artist.

As a critic, James began far too young. From age twenty-three to twenty-five, he was reviewing everything that came to hand for the North American Review and The Nation. He was still an American resident: he did not set out from the territory for old Europe until John Hay, then at the New York Tribune, sent him to Paris as a general correspondent (1875–1876). By 1878 he was settled in England, his domicile to the end.

In London, he wrote French Poets and Novelists, and a long study of Hawthorne. In 1878, “I had ceased to ‘notice’ books—that faculty seemed to diminish for me, perversely, as my acquaintance with books grew.” Fortunately for the readers of this volume, in 1898 James became a householder. In need of money, he went back to book reviewing for a year or two, and produced some of his most interesting pieces. Finally, in 1914, he wrote The New Novel, in which he threaded his way, as best he could, among the young Turks—H.G. Wells and Arnold Bennett and (they meet at last! the great tradition) D.H. Lawrence, whose Sons and Lovers James remarks “hang(s) in the dusty rear of Wells and Bennett.”

There is a lifelong prejudice in James against the slice-of-life novel as opposed to the consciously shaped work of art. (Yet, paradoxically, he is enthralled by Balzac, on whom he was lecturing in 1905.) In that sense, he is the snob that Theodore Rex called him. Although he is most comfortably at home in fairly high society, his true subject is displaced, classless, innocent Americans with money, at sea in old Europe which, at the beginning of his career, he saw as beguiling and dangerous and, at the end, quite the reverse: old Europe was no match for young America’s furious energy and ruthless, mindless exertion of force. But the milieu of Sons and Lovers depressed him, as did that of Thomas Hardy, whose village oafs he quotes at length in a review of Far from the Madding Crowd.

James, justifiably, hated dialect novels, American or English. Hardy’s “inexhaustible faculty for spinning smart dialogue makes him forget that dialogue in a story is after all but episode….” The book “is inordinately diffuse, and, as a piece of narrative, singularly inartistic. The author has little sense of proportion, and almost none of composition.” Worse, the book is much too long (this from James the First not yet Old Pretender), thanks to the tradition of the three-volume novel. “Mr. Hardy has gone astray very cleverly, and his superficial novel is a really curious imitation of something better.”

Yet with George Eliot, whom he admires, he notes of Silas Marner, “Here, as in all George Eliot’s books, there is a middle life and a low life; and here, as usual, I prefer the low life.” This is James, aged twenty-three, indicating that Eliot does not feel quite at home in middle life much less high life. But twenty years later, a wiser James sums up the great novelist:

What is remarkable, extraordinary—and the process remains inscrutable and mysterious—is that this quiet, anxious, sedentary, serious, invalidical English lady, without animal spirits, without adventures or sensations, should have made us believe that nothing in the world was alien to her; should have produced such rich, deep, masterly pictures of the multiform life of man.

In the notorious case of Walt Whitman one can observe James’s evolution from disdainful, supercilious, but observant youth to mystified, awed admirer. Of Drum-Taps he writes (1865),

It has been a melancholy task to read this book; and it is a still more melancholy one to write about it…. It exhibits the effort of an essentially prosaic mind [and] frequent capitals are the only marks of verse in Mr. Whitman’s writing…. As a general principle, we know of no circumstance more likely to impugn a writer’s earnestness than the adoption of an anomalous style. He must have something very original to say if none of the old vehicles will carry his thoughts. Of course he may be surprisingly original. Still, presumption is against him…. This volume is an offence against art.

He scolds Whitman for crowning himself the national poet: “You cannot entertain and exhibit ideas; but, as we have seen, you are prepared to incarnate them.” This was the point, of course, to Whitman; but young James can only groan, “What would be bald nonsense, and dreary platitudes in anyone else becomes sublimity in you.” A quarter century later, Whitman has become “the good Walt.” Of Calamus (Whitman’s highly adhesive letters to the working-class lad Pete Doyle): “There is not even by accident a line with a hint of style—it is all flat, familiar, affectionate, illiterate colloquy” yet “the record remains, by a mysterious marvel, a thing positively delightful. If we can ever find out why, it must be another time. The riddle meanwhile is a neat one for the sphinx of democracy to offer.” When the riddle was “solved” by Dr. Kinsey in 1948, the Republic had a nervous breakdown, which continues to this day.

One is constantly surprised by the spaciousness of James’s sympathies as he got older. In time, the vulgarity of Whitman was seen for what it is, the nation itself made flesh. Edith Wharton in A Backward Glance writes,

It was a joy to me to discover that James thought [Whitman] the greatest of American poets. Leaves of Grass was put into his hands, and all that evening we sat rapt while he wandered from “The Song of Myself” to “When Lilac last in the door-yard bloomed.”

On the other hand, no sentiment was ever exempt from his critical irony, and James could not resist exclaiming, at the reading’s end, “Oh, yes, a great genius; undoubtedly a very great genius! Only one cannot help deploring his too-extensive acquaintance with foreign languages.” Like the late Tennessee Williams, Whitman loved foreign phrases; and usually got them wrong.

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