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 about America.”

But the family was always present in Henry’s imagination and in his emotions, even while he felt himself to belong to a cosmopolitan republic of letters, which included George Eliot, Stevenson, Wells, Turgenev, and Flaubert.

Mr. Lewis is particularly authoritative and successful in placing the James family on their exalted social pinnacle against the more variegated and tumultuous background of ordinary American life. He is much less interested in Henry’s later life in England, and in his high standing among the distinguished and famous there. Originally Irish immigrants, the family became immensely rich through the real estate operations of Henry and William’s grandfather, Willam James Senior. His fortune in the 1830s was considered to be second only to that of J.J. Astor in New York State, and “William James of Albany” was certainly one of the richest men in the country at that time. In Henry’s wonderful words, which Mr. Lewis quotes, most of the heirs of this tycoon were an “extravagant, unregulated cluster…handsome dead cousins, lurid uncles, beautiful vanished aunts, persons all bust and curls.”

Henry’s gift of inspired vagueness, as in “lurid uncles,” tells with wit all that needs to be told of most of the first William’s less enterprising descendants. Then with Henry James Senior’s dedication to the life of an Emersonian intellectual, to a spiritual quest, mere wealth was converted into another, and characteristically American, kind of gentility: the gentility of old New York houses, of repeated cultural journeys to Europe, of an intensely sustained literacy, of a turning away from the taint of commerce and of speculation, and of a controlled distaste for the social effects of more recent immigration, which would dilute the original stock.

Without undue emphasis Mr. Lewis, Edith Wharton’s biographer, gives a convincing impression of the social world to which the family during Henry and William’s childhood and youth naturally belonged, with Emerson at the center, and surrounded by Lowells, Sedgwicks, Brookses, Adamses, Porters, and other such reassuring names of intermarrying families. One has the comforting feeling that all is well from the social point of view, as when reading about Huxleys, Darwins, Trevelyans in England. The tone of the intellectual gentry and of the cultivated family self-consciousness that was part of its style is particularly marked in Mr. Lewis’s quotations from Alice James’s writing and her letters.

The same sense of belonging to a secure and well-defined clerisy is noticeable in the style of Henry and William, in spite of the famous differences of temperament between them. Henry was entirely at ease and happy with Turgenev, because he was a gentleman, and never with the Goncourts or Flaubert or with other French writers, tinged with bohemianism. Turgenev could not think of himself, in spite of his friendships in Paris, as belonging to an intelligentsia; nor could William and Henry James. The republic of letters, to which they both belonged, crossed frontiers, but neither of them escaped, or wished to escape, from the stable moral atmosphere of their childhood, which Mr. Lewis convincingly traces to Henry James Senior, unworldly, tolerant, and open-minded.

The two salient characteristics of the family as a whole were, first, an unresting and intense self-consciousness, a sense of themselves as persons burdened with the habit of observing the condition of their own souls from week to week and month to month. Among Henry Senior’s children, William and Alice were the fiercest self-observers and the most unforgiving; both suffered from a kind of spiritual hypochondria. Secondly, the Jameses all urged upon themselves, and sometimes upon each other, something that they called “effort.” In The Principles of Psychology William’s theory of the self rested on the observed facts of efforts of will. A passive attitude toward experience, a surrender to inclination and to a peaceful drift down the stream of consciousness, was an ignoble surrender, and to William, as to his father, also a temptation.

In The Varieties of Religious Experience “healthy-mindedness” is contrasted by William with the “morbid” view. William clung to his idea of “the resisting ego” while also writing of “the sick soul”: “We are all potentially such sick men. The sanest and best of us are of one clay with the lunatics and prison-mates.” He must fight against “Vorstellungen (impressions) disproportionate to the object. Every good experience ought to be interpreted in practice.” This was a family doctrine, although very differently interpreted by William and by Henry. Mr. Horne quotes from a letter of Henry’s in which he stated his faith in “the grim residuum of conscious manhood with which we stand face to face to the hard reality of things”—a William phrase indeed. “I have in my own fashion learned the lesson that life is effort, unremittingly repeated.” In fact it was William rather than Henry who had to struggle with this “lesson” in his early life, while Henry’s energies were concentrated, from his early twenties onward, by an unrelenting ambition to succeed as a writer. In 1878 Henry told his mother that she could look forward to a fund of reflected glory—“It is time I should rend the veil from the ferocious ambition which has always couvé beneath a tranquil exterior.” To William in the same year he wrote, “If I keep along here patiently [in London] for a certain time I rather think I shall become a (sufficiently) great man.” The ferocity and the passion remained constant in Henry, in spite of the terrible disappointments of his later years. “Very likely some day all my buried prose will kick off its tombstones at once.”

The doctrine of effort presented itself less simply to William because he never had a single master passion to dominate and to impose order on his life. He had a divided mind, which was an aid to his philosophy. Studying in Germany at the age of twenty-five, he reports that he was on the continual verge of suicide because of self-disgust and a lack of purpose and direction. “What reason can you give for continuing to live?” he asked a friend. Like his father, he desperately wanted to serve humanity, but, unlike his father, he never believed that contemplative philosophy could by itself do much for humanity.

Mr. Lewis’s research makes William’s conflicts vivid. The turning point in his life, the discovery of “the real me” and the sense of a vocation, came from a philosophical doctrine, which constituted for him a moment of revelation, an epiphany: this was the thesis of free will. He was to live his life under the guidance of this single idea. “My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.” Belief, like the adoption of an aim or purpose, was for him an act, not a passive state, and it can be a voluntary act. A particular mind can seize the initiative if it directs its thinking toward possible practical outcomes and concrete meanings, as opposed to submitting to abstract speculations not anchored in fact. In order to feel myself free, and to want to live, I have to feel “the self-governing resistance of the ego to the world.” That was the faith. William had undergone his conversion to this individualism at the age of twenty-eight. Unlike Henry, the least unworldly of men, William had a religious nature, always prey to intense doubts and to self-communings and to equally intense conversions to a personal, non-institutional faith. The Varieties of Religious Experience immediately became, and still remains, a classic work, because he could there describe both doubt and affirmation without irony or self-distancing. His faith was a calculated exaggeration of a single philosophical truth, the seeds of which he might have found in Spinoza, but which seems to have come to him through French philosophy, particularly from Renouvier and Bergson.

The original philosophical truth is: our states of mind, including our beliefs and purposes, are never independent of our conceptions of them, and if we resolve by an act of will to change our conceptions of them, we shall reliably and forcefully change our beliefs and purposes. If there is an additional Jamesian stress on “resolve,” then it becomes plausible that the sense of open possibilities and of self-direction may be the real kernel of the conscious mind, and of the self. Having a more than decently divided mind, William did not rest in a too simple affirmation of will, because he recognized that a pessimistic view of human experience had as good credentials as an optimistic one. One could not dismiss the testimony to pessimism of Shakespeare or of Leopardi by an act of will or by an assertions of “healthy-mindedness.”

In The Varieties of Religious Experience he claims that all religions start with “a sense that there is something wrong about us as we naturally stand.” He often thought of our minds like our bodies, as governed by inexorable laws of nature, and, lying awake, he would have a terrible vision of persons as helpless mechanisms, which are caused to deceive themselves with the illusion of self-direction. In answering moments he instructed himself “to keep sinewy,” and to cultivate the undeniable feeling of moral freedom and abandon the kind of speculation about determinism which does not issue in any direction of the will or in any specific and intelligible change of conduct.

The fascination both of his life and of his work comes from the alternation between attacks of deep, reflective depression, supported by metaphysics, and answering acts of self-assertion, supported by a clinical attitude to his own lapses into sadness and uncertainty. We know what we are doing when we actively devise experiments, actively verify and test our beliefs, actively direct our interests and inquiries toward useful and concrete questions. We acquire knowledge only because we are acting, and only our intentions, successful or unsuccessful, lend meaning and direction to our emotions. A sequence of abstract thought, and also the stream of our passive impressions together form a sea of ignorance, in which we shall drown, if thought and feeling are cut off from our active interest. Metaphysics is an enchantment and a fatality because of its bid for an abstract selflessness and for the suppression of a particular subject’s particular point of view and his particular interest. Unless we purposefully turn our eyes to look at something that interests us as individuals, we shall literally see nothing in the world, and we shall understand nothing in the real world unless we remember that we freely choose the direction in which to look.

Mr. Lewis shows that refinement of consciousness was the common, and very secular, religion of the James family as a whole: in William sometimes a brisk and scientific cultivation, befitting the founder at Harvard of the first laboratory for psychology in America, sometimes a literary cultivation, showing pleasure in fitting descriptions to the elusive facts of consciousness, as in The Principles of Psychology or in The Varieties of Religious Experience. The mind, distinct from the material mysteries of the brain, is constituted by the personal interests and desires that are “the very flour out of which our mental dough is kneaded.” We have access to the dough through the facilities of language, which allow those flights of metaphorical description in which both brothers were inspired. Our “mental life” is made up of the metaphors that we use in conveying our impressions of it to ourselves, thereby endowing it with the only independent reality that it has. At this point the brothers, utterly unlike in temperament and in ambitions, come close together. Mr. Lewis quotes from Henry’s essay of 1884, “The Art of Fiction,”

Experience is never limited, and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spiderweb of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness, and catching every airborne particle in its tissue. It is the very atmosphere of the mind.

The metaphor is characteristically Henry’s (William’s threads would not be silken), but the definition of experience is a shared one.

Henry famously shifted the narrative of the “old-fashioned English novel,” which included even Middle-march, into a narrative of consciousnesses, using the inherited devices of drama to keep the separate consciousnesses vividly before the reader. He took over from Jane Austen, particularly from Persuasion, the novelistic soliloquy in which a character’s conscious thoughts appear in direct, and now largely Jamesian, speech. Notoriously he also used, and perhaps overused, the confidant of classical drama as a device to multiply the shifts of consciousness within the story.

The confidant Fanny Assingham, for instance, probed secrets in The Golden Bowl. Henry James was fascinated by secrecy in all its forms, by the maneuvers of concealment and by the thrill of sudden revelations, when the long-guarded truth is dragged from the shadows and made explicit. For him sexuality was indissolubly connected with secrecy and concealment, with the unsaid and the unspeakable thing that exists behind the flow of civilized behavior, with locked doors and with hints and allusions kept studiously vague. Max Beerbohm’s marvelous cartoon shows James earnestly kneeling to examine two pairs of shoes left to be cleaned in a hotel corridor, a scene of Edwardian adultery probed. The prurient curiosity implied is not incidental but deep-seated; it was the engine of James’s imagination. The Maisie of What Maisie Knew is present in one form or another in almost all his best stories and in most of the novels.

He has often been rebuked, by Wells and by other critics, for omitting any frank representation of physical passion, such as can be found in Maupassant or Lawrence. I agree with Millicent Bell that this is a misunderstanding of James, and it is a misunderstanding, also, of the normal ways that the human imagination works. For many men and women the most intense feeling, whether it is sexual or religious feeling, requires as a condition of its intensity mystery, concealment, privacy, and a sense of the unspeakable. When James returned on a visit to America from Europe, he was disgusted by the dominance of newspapers and by the rage for publicity in American life, a disgust expressed in his stories. The only life worth living, and that has authentic vitality, is one that preserves and enjoys the felt tension between the civilized, social self and the hidden recesses of the inner and unclothed self. Otherwise there is a universal flatness and no place for art and for dramatic fiction, as in the unlivable-in America he thought he saw in his last visits, the land of celebrity which must soon turn literature into journalism.

Henry James had one master and only one: not Dickens, as might be expected, but Balzac. Balzac had conveyed delight in depicting greed and lust and the unregarded victims caught in the naturalized inferno, Paris. James was a supremely worldly man, driven by a vast curiosity about the three mechanisms of London’s social life, money, rank, and sexual passion, and in the great novels of his maturity, The Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl, he found a fitting form. On re-reading some of the other works, one is very easily bored by the sentimental educations of Roderick Hudson, Rowland Mallet, Christopher Newman in The American, and, most of all, by Lambert Strether in The Ambassadors, who seems particularly leaden in his awakening. James always wrote more memorably about women than about men, and Gilbert Osmond, a convincing and subtle villain, is arguably the only interesting male to be set alongside Isabel Archer or Madame Merle or Milly Theale or Maggie Verver or Charlotte Stant. The perception that sets light to the great novels is a perception of the cost of high civilization and of the unavoidable corruption of the new money in London, the new Babylon, and of the discarding of the poor, teeming in their slums. Lewis quotes, from The Princess Casamassima, a description of the London scene:

It’s the old regime again, the rottenness and extravagance, bristling with every iniquity and every abuse, over which the French Revolution passed like a whirlwind; or perhaps even more a reproduction of the Roman world in its decadence, gouty, apoplectic, depraved, gorged and clogged with wealth and spoils, selfishness and skepticism, and waiting for the onset of the barbarians.

Gouty” is again a pure Jamesian epithet in the context. Millicent Bell quotes a letter that James wrote to Charles Eliot Norton, just after The Princess Casamassima had appeared, in which in similar style he compared the English ruling class to the French aristocracy before the Revolution: he predicted that “in England the Huns and Vandals will have to come up—from the black depths of the (in the people) enormous misery.” He expected the doom of social upheaval, some “blood-letting” as he called it, but the bloodletting he actually encountered was the wholly unexpected horror of the First World War.

James, supremely self-conscious, knew that his own aesthetic attitudes were the enjoyment of an inherited privilege. He knew that, unlike his brother, he was always a superior tourist everywhere in the world, brought up to record at leisure, and to exploit for literary gain, the picturesque features of the lives being lived around him, without ever being fully involved in them, as William was for many years at Harvard. Philip Horne quotes a revealing passage from Italian Hours:

To travel is, as it were, to go to the play, to attend a spectacle; and there is something heartless in stepping forth into foreign streets to feast on “character” when character consists simply of the slightly different costume in which labour and want present themselves.

The great novels, The Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl, coming more than twenty years after The Portrait of a Lady, combine a vision both of the elevating and debasing effects of accumulated wealth, of the gross power of money that turns into refinement as well as into cruelty. Millicent Bell writes: “It is easy to see that The Wings of the Dove is all about money.” So it is, no less than Eugénie Grandet: so also was The Golden Bowl.

Living in the age of Frick, Morgan, the first Rockefellers and Harrimans, the Ververs in The Golden Bowl, “wonderful” little Maggie and the elusive, sinister Adam Verver together outwit their European dependents, Charlotte Stant and the adulterous Prince. They buy them up and take them over, as if they were subsidiaries, underfunded assets from an older and negligent culture. Sensitive principally to social surfaces, Charlotte and the Prince pathetically underestimate the cunning, ruthlessness, and controlled energy that were needed to make a great fortune in the fierce struggles of capitalist concentration in America.

The Ververs’ simplicity is all surface, not substance, and Charlotte, parading sophistication, turns out to be an innocent who has strayed into a jungle, and for her impulsiveness she suffers the terrible penalty of accompanying her commercial, cautious, and calculating husband to an unmentionable city somewhere in the middle of America. The famous end of this wonderful story, Charlotte obediently showing visitors her husband’s treasures, led, as it were, by a silken cord, is black and harsh, and almost tragic, in its Jamesian style. Money wins. The darkness of the plot helps to explain James’s statement that he could never sincerely propose marriage because that would imply that he thought better of human life than he actually did.

Both Lewis and Horne show what a large proportion of James’s work was a response to the literary marketplace and to his need of sales to ensure his independence. In his early years, and before The Portrait of a Lady in 1881 established his reputation, he was a prolific magazine reviewer, earning what he could in journeyman style. Throughout his life he wrote potboilers of all kinds, fluent but rather empty magazine stories, travel books, reviews, and critical essays, alongside his more serious stories and autobiographical works. In the spirit of his times and of his American origins, “Produce, Produce” was the motto that guided him through all his disappointments. His energy was no less prodigious than William’s. Added to the need of an income was a craving for popularity and for a widespread recognition, which were always withheld. He occasionally tried to write down to the public, particularly in his plays, always without success, except for the story The Turn of the Screw.

It is curious how often the public reputation of a writer is formed by his or her own misleading self-descriptions: James in the prefaces to the New York Edition surveyed by Philip Horne is an outstanding example, and Trollope in his Autobiography is another. The great public, both in his own time and since, has accepted James at his own valuation as being essentially an “interminably supersubtle and analytic,” writer, with the implication that he was writing for the chosen few: at best a half-truth. Reading these new books about him, I am again impressed by his long struggle to impose himself upon a larger public by every device of melodrama and of wit that he could command, including the wit of the prefaces themselves, which are an unashamed form of self-advertisement. Trollope deceived the public in a contrary sense, by a plain man’s disavowal of the literary subtleties which in fact assure the perpetual power of his novels.

Two questions are unavoidably provoked by all four books, and especially by Mr. Lewis’s narrative: What is the measure of a great philosopher, What is the measure of a great novelist? It is natural to wobble in assessment of both William and Henry, as they wobbled in their assessments of themselves, William wobbling much more than his single-minded brother. Philip Horne’s record of the revisions that Henry made for the New York Edition of the novels, together with the prefaces, suggests one qualification in the measure of his greatness: Henry’s conception of the art of fiction was predominantly a matter of structure, and of form and sustained dramatic tension in the storytelling, and of the elimination of the inessential.

Perhaps—and a tentative “perhaps” is certainly needed—from another point of view the most enduring achievement of fiction is in the art of illusion, in the invention of characters who have the particularity that distinguishes the actual from the merely possible, in a trick played upon nature: as with Leopold and Molly Bloom, Françoise and Charlus and Madame Verdurin, Prince Andrew, Mrs. Proudie, Miss Havisham and Sam Weller, Mr. Woodhouse and Emma Woodhouse, Evelyn Waugh’s Apthorpe, Isherwood’s Mr. Norris and Sally Bowles—the list could obviously be prolonged indefinitely. All these have an irresistible presence as distinct persons, living still by their inessential particularities.

This power of illusion James did not possess. He was too intensely involved in communicating the joys of representation, as the New York Edition’s revisions show, and as he records them in several of his short stories—in “The Figure in the Carpet” and “The Lesson of the Master,” for example. He did not try to break out of the circle of his own sensibility. Rather he exulted in the exuberance of his own phrase-making, and the wit, which welled up in his diction and writing reflected his delight in his own conversation. No one else had lurid uncles. No one else would have seen a family of American tourists in the National Gallery as wearing “an air of vague resentment humanised by fatigue,” as quoted by Millicent Bell from The Wings of the Dove. About William as a philosopher there can be one certainty: The Varieties of Religious Experience and The Principles of Psychology are part of the Canon, however defined, and are likely to remain so.