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The Master at War

Henry James’s awareness of things had an unexpected military streak. No professional soldier can afford illusions about his life and its duties and James certainly had none; but he would have seen the point of Marshal Lyautey’s claim that gaiety was needed to be a good officer. It is probably also needed to be a good biographer, certainly a good biographer of James; and Fred Kaplan is fortunate to possess in large measure the ebullience esteemed so highly by the French general. Edel’s great biography was not lacking in it either; but Edel allowed himself a certain nonmilitary indulgence in prosy abstraction and psychological theorizing. Kaplan’s gaiety takes him straight into battle, as it were, and riding his narration like a spirited horse.

We see the perspective of the Jamesian battlefield much more clearly as a result, over not much more than five hundred pages taking in the whole sweep, from the Cambridge and Boston childhood to death in London as a British citizen. Raised in the shadow of one war, James died in the midst of another, a conflict of even more dire proportions, to which he had loyally given all the help and support an old man could, and an old man who was by then a writer with an august international reputation. Kaplan lays stress on these points and surely rightly: an emphasis of a different kind from Edel’s mulling over the question of the “obscure hurt” which James had received when helping to put out a fire in Newport (strange repetition of his father’s loss of a leg firefighting in similar circumstances) and the guilt he may have felt in consequence for not enlisting in the Civil War. Whatever the hurt may have been—probably no more than a bad back—James was not the kind of man to be haunted by conscience as a result. Indeed, as his biographer robustly suggests, he had his own war to fight and to win, “in the alcove of a yellow-toned sunlit room in Cambridge. Massachusetts, where he pretended to study law.”

Although his two younger brothers were soldiers, “engaged,” Kaplan writes, “in the most massive conflict since Napoleon had made Europe his empire,” Henry James’s will to win assumed a different form. “His motives for writing were clear to himself and they were not unusual: He desired fame and fortune.” No less than generals and conquerors do he belonged to the category of what the novelist Anthony Powell has called “men of the will.” A marvelous paragraph toward the end of that very Jamesian nouvelle The Aspern Papers describes the statue on a square in Venice of the great soldier of fortune Colleoni, sculpted by Verocchio, lifting his “small hand” high in a commanding gesture as he rides his great horse to victory. It is a conjuration which James’s narrator, who desires more than anything in the world to get his hands on the papers of the pioneer American writer Geoffrey Aspern, duly takes to heart. Nor probably was it coincidental that the name of the American writer was taken from one of Napoleon’s battles, although as it happens one of the few that he lost. That may be significant too, for James prefers his characters to lose their battles, as his narrator loses the papers, however much he desired to win his own.

James’s mother called him “the angel,” the most loving and obliging of her children: and this gentleness was somehow all of a part with the steely determination which lay beneath, and was well illustrated by young Henry’s dream, or nightmare, of being accosted by a horrible apparition at Versailles, upon whom he turned after his initial terror and put to flight down the Galerie des Glaces. Kaplan connects this dream with Henry’s desire to overcome his crippled father; and interestingly refers it to the denouement of his very first published short story, “A Tragedy of Error.” Strongly influenced by Maupassant, this surprisingly effective tale tells of a wife’s intrigue to kill her crippled husband, and how the hired murderer inadvertently kills her lover instead. In the last sentence the distraught wife sees her husband “limping toward her with outstretched arms.” His loathsomeness, says Kaplan, is “embodied in his disability” and he suggests that Henry junior too wished to achieve a symbolic patricide. “It was as if the nightmare figure in the Gallery of Apollo had not yet been fully routed, as if the young man…still cannot free himself from the possessive cripple.”

Well, we all know now that parents, especially fathers, can’t win: and that behind the democratically affectionate façade of the James family all sorts of repressions and revolts were hatching. Normal enough: it was poor Alice, the youngest, who suffered the most, and has justly received a great deal of feminist sympathy in consequence. Tough William had no trouble, and Henry triumphed by his own placatingly devious methods. But though Kaplan is not above taking a psychological leaf from the classic study of his predecessor Edel, he passes lightly over such matters, preferring to fill in with the same vivid and lively detail which distinguished his biography of Dickens the happy and talent-nurturing days that Henry spent as a young man in Europe and back home at Newport, in the company of John La Farge. Thomas Perry, and above all Minny Temple.

It seems to me significant that those Newport days possibly incubated one of the most memorable though seldom mentioned heroines of the early stories, the simple but artful New England girl of A Landscape Painter, who knows how to charm without drawing attention to herself, and who proves more than a match in guile for the young painter hero, James’s earliest and most haunting embodiment of a man deceived and decentered by the social bonds that entrap the sexual instinct.

Kaplan ignores this tale but has some excellent things to say about the “combined romance and realism” of the early stories—he considers “A Day of Days” to be one of the best of them—and the way they bear out the significance of the first review the young author did for the North American Review. This was on Essays in Fiction, by a well-known British critic, and James was keen to make the point that just as the habitually busy man is the best novel reader, so the best novelist is “the busiest man.” The young author would be having no truck with European and Victorian assumptions about an Ivory Tower, in which the writer might dwell safe from the cares of the world, and where his readers could visit him as a refuge. James wrote about life and wrote his tales for cash; and he was as determined to get it as a businessman to earn his fees.

Kaplan is very good himself on the business side of things. Grandfather William James of Albany, that almost involuntary wizard in real estate, had left his large family a lot of money, but Henry senior’s delighted discovery that he would never have to work did nothing to improve his share. Henry junior did want to work, and to earn, and he was fortunate in the high earning powers a writer possessed at the time: in comparative terms the sums he got for articles and stories went a staggeringly long way. Like Constance Fenimore Woolson, his devoted American lady friend in Florence and England, who also earned a living by her pen, he could easily afford apartments and servants and suites of rooms in palazzos which today would put him well in the millionaire bracket. He made himself responsible for sister Alice, it is true, devoting to her much of his own patrimony, but enough remained to cushion a lean period, like the one in which the royalties from seven separate novels brought him in a mere two pounds. Reviews and travel pieces tided him over; and though he failed in the great enterprise of winning riches from the stage, the New York edition of his novels was in his later days secretly subsidized by his prosperous admirer and disciple, Edith Wharton.

Just as well; because his great period of fiction after he renounced the stage, the four short years of the new century which produced the glittering trio of The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl, was also and ironically the time when his pen earned him least. But women like Edith Wharton and “Fenimore,” as he called her, were always for him a refuge and resource in good times and bad. Did he repay the emotional debt? Yes and no. Kaplan is sensible and judicious about James’s sex life, or the lack of it. James knew—must have known—what was what at a comparatively early age; but his appreciation of feminine charms helped gloss over, for himself and them, his lack of desire for females, and his sense of vocation fitted well with a taste for celibacy. Was he ever homosexually active? Did his military and mental gaiety go with being gay in the modern sense? Fortunately it is a question impossible to answer; and with all our compulsive frankness it might even be as difficult to be sure about a writer or public figure today. Certainly he never really came out of the closet, even to his closest friends; yet he and Edmund Gosse tacitly understood each other very well, and shared a fascinated curiosity over such homosexual scandals of the period as the Wilde case.

Gosse had solved his own problem by marriage and outward discretion; but he delighted in feline gossip and innuendo (he called on the white-haired and silken-bearded Whitman during an American visit and described him as looking like “a dear old. Angora tom”). In later life James certainly entertained strong feelings for handsome young men like Jocelyn Persse and the Danish sculptor Hendrik Andersen: young men who were either rather languidly masculine or had sex lives as ambivalent as his own. Among his splendid collection of photographs Kaplan includes one of a remarkable oil painting by Andersen’s brother Andreas, in which the two young men are naked and virtually in bed together, one at least in an obvious state of sexual arousal. As one might expect, the painting is none the less happily unexplicit—Andreas is just pulling his socks on—and an innocent viewer of the time would have neither taken offense nor understood what might be going on.

But ambivalence can be the secret of high art. Kaplan has a nice story of the well-known editor W.E. Henley asking James if he had ever read Sacher-Masoch. James said he hadn’t, “but if you recommend S-M I will try him.” He also heard Tennyson—another artist who was much less innocent than his poems—holding forth to an audience mostly of ladies on the works of de Sade, without any of them having the faintest idea what he was talking about. In many ways James’s secret as a novelist and storyteller, his “figure in the carpet” (the title of one of his tales), was to perfect his own variation on Victorian concealments. His style and approach achieved the apotheosis of that strict cultural civility under which everything can be known and insinuated, provided it is not said openly. The advantage for art and the artist is enormous. Contemporary literary theorists have pointed out, almost with envy, that the successful formula of his plots and stories depends on it: the story’s structure itself becomes the unspoken question, the riddle with no explicit solution. Art can thus go deep into the natural incomprehensibility of things, saturate itself in the texture of living, without ever having to deal in the banality of what actually occurred. During his most sedulous period of London dining-out James often heard anecdotes and bits of gossip, especially from society women, which he could make use of in his own way. Sometimes he would even beg his interlocutor not to tell him how some little drollery or scandal had actually ended.

In this context James was both interested and distrustful of the attempts by John Addington Symonds, the Victorian aesthete and art critic, to come clean about his feelings, and to express them both in practice and in print. For James as for Edmund Gosse Symonds’s attempt to display openly his love of a homoerotic world was socially unwise; but, which was more important, it was artistically unwise as well. In his story “The Author of Beltraffio” James portrays Symonds’s books as containing some unspecifically evil and corrupting material: the long-suffering wife of what she sees as a depraved author would rather let her son die—literally—than read them. As so often, James has brilliantly and obliquely caught here something of real significance in his sense of the psychology and of the period. Many a Victorian mother must have worried to death about her son becoming “queer,” while never breathing a word on the subject, or indeed hardly knowing what it signified. In the same way James shows us in “The Turn of the Screw”—officially a ghost story—how naturally secretive children are, like animals leading their own hidden life, and how determined the worrying adult can be to possess and to understand them. James’s puzzle stories not only anticipate the psychoanalysts but are more naturally truthtelling in what they reveal.

Just as he transposed and mystified the better to reveal in terms of art, so James preferred the unexplicit in close personal relations. The brash young novelist Hugh Walpole, whom James was genuinely fond of, though privately considering him, according to their friend Desmond Macarthy, “a vulgar little arriviste,” was once sanguine enough, as an overt homosexual, to make the Master a direct offer. “I daren’t, I daren’t,” James is supposed to have replied. Although frivolous and only legendary, that anecdote may itself disclose a deep truth: that James was well aware how much his art, and his own persona as an artist, depended for its power on nonconsummation in living. Himself an artist of altogether inferior calibre, the all too straightforward Walpole missed the point.

Kaplan is extraordinarily good, in the general flow of his narrative, at linking things up in a brisk but always sympathetic manner, disclosing James’s own process of “dramatizing the interconnections between his life and his art.” “Dramatizing” is the word. However great his failure on the stage there is no doubt about James’s mastery in setting up dramatic situations: many of his novels today make excellent plays. A real-life drama that befell him about the time his play Guy Domville was being booed off the stage was the suicide of Constance Fenimore Woolson in Venice, throwing herself from a third-floor window in the depression caused by a severe bout of flu. Stricken, James could not bear to attend the funeral in Rome, but he rescued his letters from her Venice apartment and helped her friends tidy up—to the bizarre extent, as Kaplan relates it, of taking all her dresses by gondola out into the lagoon to drown them. Failing to bring any weights, he had the mortification of seeing them surface all around him, like so many black balloons.

James’s method can take the darkest comedy in its stride, and his guilty sadness about poor Fenimore finds a place in one of his most striking tales, “The Beast in the Jungle.” It is a gothic reverie of a man whose fate it is to miss everything in life by having the consciousness that something, some important fate, is waiting for him. What he misses is of course love; and the beast of the title is his eventual realization of the fact. James’s use of the gothic model makes the tale rather too sensationally explicit, though nonetheless powerful for that; and, as Kaplan points out, the patient heroine who loves the hero unavailingly embodies both James’s guilt over Constance and his deeper, stronger guilt for the possible homosexual partner to whom he had never given himself in love. Many of James’s female figures, as Kaplan suggests, must in his own imagination have been males transposed; and yet so capacious is that imagination that they can totally behave, at different levels, as both male and female.

That James in his last years and in the late flowering of his final inspiration became absorbed more and more in his own situation, and in what might have been, seems undeniable. It became obsessive, “the obsession of the idée fixe,” as his old friend Henry Adams said of The Sacred Fount, going on to suggest, with gloomy jocularity, that “Henry must soon take a vacation, with most of the rest of us, in a cheery asylum.” He spoke truer than he knew. Henry’s own breakdown in 1910 was largely due to William’s having become an invalid. The withdrawal of the sense of fraternal care, even though that sharp-spoken care had often been a cause for chagrin, strangely disoriented the younger brother. He had always been so much one of the family, even when he had sought and found his vocation outside it, a vocation which his last novels and stories made a subject itself in querying—in asking whether it had all been worthwhile.

Such a question would never have occurred to the youthful author, fascinated by everything he saw in London as the modern Babylon, determined to take it by storm, to reveal in his novels its sly corruptions and mysterious allurements. In James’s Balzac period, as it might be called, there was nothing in the economic and political panorama that did not interest him. Himself wholly of Irish and Scots descent he was notably unsentimental about the behavior of his forebears, engaged then as now in trying to blow up London. “I think I am more sorry on the whole for the English than the Irish. The former have utterly departed from the turpitude of their ancestors & want only to do justice & consent to reform; while it would be vain to pretend that the latter are not a totally impractical people. This government can neither satisfy them, shut them up, nor part with them; the problem seems insoluble.” It still does. He revered the reformer Parnell nonetheless, and found his spectacular fall “a real drama—living, leaping & throbbing—with the acts bounding over from day to day—on a huge national stage.”

But with the fullness of age, “my younger and shallower and vainer brother” as William in a fit of pique had referred to Henry the academician when himself resigning from the American Academy, became increasingly aware of his loneliness, and his isolation from life. Clinging ever closer to his friends he was desolated when they died, or when they failed to visit him. Two remarkable photographs by Hilaire D’Arois, not, I think, reproduced in any book on James before, show the Master in a kind of Roman undress, his neck and shoulders bared for the studies of a young sculptor, his massive head and broodingly melancholy eyes conveying as in no other picture that realization, as he once put it, of “the Medusa face of life,” the stony glare of existence without hope, and without any other meaning than the one a great artist can briefly create.

And in the end James no more believed in art than in anything else. Having spent the night in his bedroom at Lamb House, on the occasion of giving the James Lecture at the Rye Festival, I myself can testify to the sense of lostness and loneliness which haunts these beautiful rooms, and which woke me up in the morning feeling scarcely able to face another day. The potency of James’s latter-day presence is more compelling and disturbing in the house he loved than anything in ghost-ridden Bly, in his great story “The Turn of the Screw.” But one must not exaggerate: his stoical humor would have come to chuckle one gently out of any such impression. The wide garden between its brick walls is gracious and sunlit; and by the dining room is the little verse his affectionate nephew scribbled on a visit, which I quote from memory.

There’ll be no algebra in heaven
Nor learning dates and names;
But only playing golden harps
And reading Henry James.

The Master would have been amused. In the last resort gaiety never quite abandoned him, and he retained that soldier’s gift to the end, not with the gravity of Owen Wingrave (“He was all the young soldier on the gained field”) but rather with the whimsical bafflement of Colonel Assingham in The Golden Bowl. “We know nothing on earth,” says the colonel with a shrug. “It was the soldier’s watchword at night.”

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