What the Jameses Knew

The Jameses: A Family Narrative

by R.W.B. Lewis
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 696 pp., $35.00

Henry James and Revision

by Philip Horne
Oxford University Press (Clarendon Press), 373 pp., $89.00

Meaning in Henry James

by Millicent Bell
Harvard University Press, 384 pp., $45.00

Of the four recent books under review two are studies of Henry James’s thought and work, two are about the James family. R.W.B. Lewis’s story of the family will certainly be read with enjoyment by the common reader; the other three books are for specialists, for the great army of Henry James students which seems to have new recruits every year. Philip Horne has written a brilliant academic study, showing in detail the author’s revisions of stories and novels in the preparation of the New York Edition of his works.

Reading Horne on James is rather like reading Pritchett on Chekhov or Ellmann on Joyce. He seems to have absorbed the ways of thought natural to James and to have caught the tone of voice that goes with it. Agostino Lombardo makes the excellent point that James knew nothing of Italian life, and, in spite of the years that he spent there, and of his passionate love of the country, he had no interest in the real Italy of his time. His Italy was the tourist’s Italy, an arrangement of wonderful surfaces, of glorious impressions and historical association, a country of sunlight and shadow, with picturesque peasants in a landscape. Millicent Bell analyzes the use of uncertainty and the suggestions of alternative possibilities in James’s fiction, and the influence on his writing of Hawthorne, Emerson, Flaubert, and Balzac. She explains the function of cryptic endings in James, as in Portrait of a Lady and The Bostonians.

The brothers William and Henry, of equal and matching genius, composed a story in their lifetimes of parallel achievement, and, continually assessing each other, they were also fully aware of the family history as it unfolded. Mr. Lewis’s narrative includes the two other, comparatively unfortunate, brothers, Bob and Wilky, and the clever, distinguished, bitter, invalid sister, Alice, and, dominating the family, Henry James Senior, the generous, restless, enlightened, mystical, Swedenborgian father, also a theorist of the mind. The Jameses were intensely self-conscious as a family. Describing Henry to his sister in America, William wrote:

His anglicisms are but ‘protective resemblances’—and he’s really, I won’t say a yankee, but a native of the James family, and has no other country.

Mr. Lewis does not mention Henry’s taking British citizenship during the Great War, but he quotes him writing to Edith Wharton in the summer of 1911 that he had “got Home [from America]…and got there with the most passionate determination to stick fast for the rest of my life.” England, mitigated by Italy, became home. “I can’t look at the English and American worlds, or feel about them, any more, save as a big Anglo-Saxon total.” He was “deadly weary” of the international theme forced upon him:

I aspire to write in such a way that it would be impossible for an outsider to say whether I am, at a given moment, an American writing about England or an English-man writing …

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