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.

The fact that one is never told just how James’s heroes make their money was neither coyness nor disdain: it was simply a blank, as he confessed in 1898: “Those who know [business] are not the men to paint it; those who might attempt it are not the men who know it.” One wonders what his friend the author of The Rise of Silas Lapham thought of the alleged absence in our literature of the businessman—of “the magnificent theme en disponibilité.”

James was very much interested in “the real world”; and not without a certain shrewdness in political matters. Surprisingly, he reviews in The Nation (1875) Charles Nordhoff’s The Communistic Societies of the United States, from Personal Visit and Observation, Etc., a book which ought to be revived. Nordhoff was a Prussian-born American journalist who covered the Civil War for the New York Herald. In the 1870s, he decided to investigate applied communism in the United States, as demonstrated by the Oneida, Amana, Mount Lebanon, and Shaker groups. “Hitherto,” Nordhoff writes, “very little, indeed almost nothing definite and precise, has been made known concerning these societies; and Communism remains loudly but very vaguely spoken of, by friends as well as enemies, and is commonly either a word of terror or contempt in the public prints.” Tout ça change, as the good Walt might have said.

For over a century, communism has been the necessary enemy of our republic’s ruling oligarchy. Yet before 1917, communism was not associated with totalitarianism or Russian imperialism or the iron rule of a nomenklatura. Communism was simply an economic theory, having to do with greater efficiency in production as a result of making those who did the work the owners. James grasps this principle rather better than most of his contemporaries; and he commends Nordhoff for his ability to show us

communistic life from the point of view of an adversary to trades-unions, and to see whether in the United States, with their vast area for free experiments in this line, it might not offer a better promise to workingmen than mere coalitions to increase wages and shorten the hours of labor.

Although he thinks Nordhoff (probably a closet German socialist) tends to “dip his pen into rose-color,” James is intrigued by the material efficiency of the societies. He is also appalled by their social customs: some are celibate, some swap mates. “One is struck, throughout Mr. Nordhoff’s book, with the existence in human nature of lurking and unsuspected strata, as it were, of asceticism, of the capacity for taking a grim satisfaction in dreariness.” Then James adds with characteristic sly irony: “Remember that there are in America many domestic circles in which, as compared with the dreariness of private life, the dreariness of Shakerism seems like boisterous gaiety.”

Predictably, James deplores the “attempt to organize and glorify the detestable tendency toward the complete effacement of privacy in life and thought everywhere so rampant with us nowadays.” Would that he could move among us today, and revel in our government’s call for obligatory blood and urine tests. “But [lack of privacy] is the worst fact chronicled in Mr. Nordhoff’s volume, which, for the rest, seems to establish fairly that, under certain conditions and with strictly rational hopes, communism in America may be a paying experiment.” Now that I have revived these lines, James, already banned in certain public libraries for pornography (The Turn of the Screw, what else?), can now be banned as a communist. A small price, all in all, to pay for freedom.

Now that all of Henry James is to be republished in the Library of America, it is amusing to read what he has to say of the other novelists included; also, more to the point, what he does not have to say. For instance, there is no mention of Jack London, whose best work was done before James died in 1916. Although the inner life of a dog in the Arctic circle might not have appealed to the Master, James might have found a good deal to ponder in The Sea-Wolf and The Iron Heel. Stephen Crane appears in his letters (and in his life; he liked him, not her) but there is no reference to Crane anywhere in the flow, the torrent of names like Alger, Baxley, Channing, Fletcher, Gannett, Sedley, Spofford, Whitney….

James’s study of Hawthorne is famous; it is also full of evasive high praise: James did not care for romance; yet Hawthorne’s one “real” novel, The Blithedale Romance, which is not, to me, a romance at all, is to James notable for its “absence of satire…, of its not aiming in the least at satire.” I thought the whole thing a splendid sendup of Brook Farm, and Zenobia a truly comic character. In any case, Hawthorne is the only American novelist to whom James pays full homage.

He does do justice to his friend Howells. He certainly applauds Howells’s ability for “definite notation”; yet he doesn’t much care for Howells’s ladies. But Howells is not writing about the drawing room; he writes about men, work, business. Bartley Hubbard is a splendid invention—the newspaperman as inventor—while the story of Silas Lapham does for the paint business what Balzac so magically did for paper. James (writing for lady readers?) looks elsewhere.

Fenimore Cooper is mentioned, blandly, twice, while Melville is dismissed in the following line: “the charming Putnam [magazine] of far-away years—the early fifties…. the prose, as mild and easy as an Indian summer in the woods, of Herman Melville, of George William Curtis and ‘Ik Marvel.’ ”

Mark Twain, with whom Henry James was forced so titanically to contest in the pages of Van Wyck Brooks (James lost), is mentioned only once: “In the day of Mark Twain there is no harm in being reminded that the absence of drollery may, at a stretch, be compensated by the presence of sublimity.” So much for the Redskin Chief from the Paleface Prince. Finally, James praises his friend Mrs. Wharton, with the no longer acceptable but perfectly apt characterization: “of the masculine conclusion tending to crown the feminine observation.”

James is on happier ground when dealing with English and French writers. As for the Russians, except for Turgenev, whom he knew, they seem to have made no impression. There is a perfunctory nod to Tolstoy (1914) in a survey of the New Novel. Tolstoy is “the great Russian” whose influence can be detected in the world of Wells and Bennett. The name Dostoevsky is added to a list of deliberately disparate writers. Admittedly, by then (1897) James had ceased to be a working reviewer as opposed to being an occasional writer of “London Notes” for Harper’s, with a tendency “to pass judgment in parenthesis,” something he maintained that the critic, by him admired, Matthew Arnold never did.

Henry James’s admiration of the never entirely fashionable and often despised Balzac is to his eternal credit as a critic. On the other hand, his attitude to Flaubert, whom he knew, is very odd indeed. He thought that Flaubert (whom he could see all ‘round, he once declared) had produced a single masterpiece; and that that was that. He seems not to have got the point to The Sentimental Education, the first truly “modern novel,” which demonstrated for the first time in literature the fact that life is simply drift; and though Bouvard and Pécuchet is unfinished, the notion is still splendid if droll (James, who was, in life, the essence of drollery, did not much care for levity in the novel, tant pis).

It is always easy to make fun of book reviewers, and what we take now to be, in our superior future time, their mistakes. But he is wrongheaded when he writes (1876): “Putting aside Mme Sand, it is hard to see who, among the French purveyors of more of less ingenious fiction, is more accomplished than [M. Octave Feuillet]. There are writers who began with better things—Flaubert, Gustave Droz, and Victor Cherbuliez—but they have lately done worse, whereas M. Feuillet never falls below himself.” Flaubert had been lately doing such “worse” things as publishing The Sentimental Education (1869) and The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1874), while Three Tales would be published the next year. James had read one of them:

Gustave Flaubert has written a story about the devotion of a servant-girl to a parrot, and the production, highly finished as it is, cannot, on the whole, be called a success. We are perfectly free to call it flat, but I think it might have been interesting; and I, for my part, am extremely glad he should have written it; it is a contribution to our knowledge of what can be done—or what cannot. Ivan Turgenev has written a tale about a deaf and dumb serf and a lap-dog, and the thing is touching, loving, a little masterpiece. He struck the note of life where Flaubert missed it—he flew in the face of a presumption and achieved a victory.

James is never on thinner ice than when he goes on about “presumptions,” as if the lovely art was nothing but constant presuming. In The Art of Fiction (1884), he is more open: “There is no impression of life, no manner of seeing it and feeling it, to which the plan of the novel may not offer a place; you have only to remember that talents so dissimilar as those of Alexandre Dumas and Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Gustave Flaubert have worked in this field with equal glory.” “Equal” is not the right word; but “glory” is.

The usually generous James cannot entirely accept Flaubert, the one contemporary writer whose dedication to his art was comparable to his own. Although James goes on and on about the greatness of Madame Bovary, he cannot, simultaneously, resist undermining it:

Nothing will ever prevent Flaubert’s heroine from having been an extremely minor specimen, even of the possibilities of her own type, a two-penny lady, in truth, of an experience so limited that some of her chords, it is clear, can never be sounded at all. It is a mistake, in other words, to speak of any feminine nature as consummately exhibited, that is exhibited in so small a number of its possible relations. Give it three or four others, we feel moved to say—“then we can talk.”

Plainly, Flaubert’s version of a “two-penny lady” is not the portrait of a lady of the sort that James could happily “talk” about. I suspect, finally, that James not only did not like Flaubert’s writing but that he had serious moral reservations about French literature in general: “There are other subjects,” he wrote plaintively, “than those of the eternal triangle of the husband, the wife and the lover.” Among critics, James is hardly a master; rather, he is a master of the novel who makes asides that are, often, luminous; as often, not.

In the spring of 1948, I was received in Paris by André Gide at 1, bis, Rue Vaneau. I spent a pleasant hour with the Master and John Lehmann, my English publisher. We talked of literature; of national differences, of changing fashions, of James. Then Gide (the proud translator of Conrad) asked, “What is it that you Americans—and English—see in Henry James?” I could only stammer idiocies in my schoolboy French. Ironically, now, nearly forty years later, I find myself explaining to the young that there was once a famous French writer named André Gide. Fashions change but, as George Santayana remarked, “it would be insufferable if they did not.” Each generation has its own likes and dislikes; and ignorances.

In our postliterary time, it is hard to believe that once upon a time a life could be devoted to the perfecting of an art form, and that of all the art forms the novel was the most—exigent, to use a modest word. Today the novel is either a commodity that anyone can put together, or it is an artifact, which means nothing or anything or everything, depending on one’s literary theory. No longer can it be said of a writer, as James said of Hawthorne in 1905: “The grand sign of being a classic is that when you have ‘passed,’ as they say at examinations, you have passed; you have become one once for all; you have taken your degree and may be left to the light and the ages.” In our exciting world the only light cast is cast by the cathode tube; and the idea of “the ages” is, at best, moot—mute?


A Mind So Fine December 18, 1986