Henry James’s New York

Very early in his career as a writer Henry James made his position clear. He would not be a public novelist or a social commentator but would instead deal with the reverse of the picture; the intricacies and vagaries of feeling in the relations between people, and mainly between men and women, would be his subject. Duplicity and greed, disappointment and renunciation, which became his most pressing themes, occurred for James the novelist in the private realm. It was his genius to make this realm seem more dramatic and ample than any space inhabited by government or business.

James himself was a figure of complexity and ambiguity and secrecy; a number of matters in his life seemed greatly unresolved. His personality, like his later prose style, was one in which things could not be easily named, in which nuance was more substantial than fact and the flickering of consciousness more interesting than knowledge. James was, above all, guarded. He was the supreme artist concerned with the architecture and tone of fiction; he specialized in the deliberate, the considered, and the exertion of control; he did not seek to bare his soul for the reader.

Nonetheless, it is possible to read between the lines of James’s work, searching for clues, seeking moments in which the author came close to unmasking himself. Many of his stories, written quickly and for money, give more away perhaps than he intended. Here, more than in the novels, he comes closer to opening a chink, for example, in the grand armor of his own sexuality, allowing us to catch a brief glimpse of his deepest and darkest concerns. These stories include “The Pupil,” “The Master of Beltraffio,” and “The Beast in the Jungle.” The stories are careful and restrained, but it is clear from them that the subject of illicit love or misguided loyalty interested him deeply, as did the subject of sexual coldness.

Thus it is possible to trace James’s sometimes unwitting, unconscious, and often quite deliberate efforts to mask and explore matters which concerned him deeply and uneasily. It would be possible to trace, for example, in his copious writings, all references to Ireland or England, or to his brother William, or to the novelist George Eliot, and find areas of ambiguity and uncertainty as well as strange contradictions, underlining the fact that these things mattered very deeply to James, so deeply indeed that they appear in many layers and guises.

Perhaps of all the provinces in his realm whose contours remain shadowy and whose topography is unresolved, the city of New York is a prime example. James’s writings about New York disclose, more than anything, an anger, quite unlike any other anger in James, at what has been lost to him, what has been done, in the name of commerce and material progress, to a place he once knew. It is not an ordinary anger at the destruction of beauty and familiarity; it is much stranger and complex than that …

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Letters

Corrections April 6, 2006