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Henry James’s New York

1.

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, and it deserves a great deal of attention.*

There is a peculiar intensity in the tone of Henry James’s memoir of his first fourteen years, “A Small Boy and Others,” written in 1911, when he was sixty-eight, one year after the death of his brother William. Much of the memory evoked and most of the scenes conjured up in the book took place in New York between 1848, when the Jameses moved to the city, and 1855, when they left for Europe. Since he had no notes or letters or diaries to work from, it is astonishing how fresh and detailed his memory is, how many names he can remember, including those of teachers and actors, how sharply he can evoke places and their atmospheres, precise smells and sights and locations, including many shows and plays in the New York theaters of the time. “I have lost nothing of what I saw,” he wrote, “and that though I can’t now quite divide the total into separate occasions the various items surprisingly swarm for me.”

It was as though old New York, as he saw it between the ages of five and twelve, had remained still and frozen and perfect in his memory. He had not watched it change or participated in its growth. It was the ground which formed him; he was never to have a place again which would belong to him so fundamentally. He would not possess another territory until 1897 when he signed the lease on Lamb House in Rye in England. The fact that his New York had been taken from him and not replaced, save by hotel rooms and temporary abodes, may explain the sheer driven enthusiasm with which he pursued Lamb House and his sense of relief when he had made it his. Indeed, the year before he purchased the lease he wrote his novel The Spoils of Poynton, a drama about owning and losing a treasured house. Having signed the lease, he wrote The Turn of the Screw about a lone figure attempting to make a home in a house already possessed.

New York after 1855 was lost to him, not merely, he realized as the years went on, by his father’s removing the family from there, but by changes in the city which would be absolute and overwhelming. A new world was being built on the site of his dreams. This site’s most hallowed quarter was 58 West Fourteenth Street, first seen during

an afternoon call with my father at a house there situated, one of an already fairly mature row on the south side and quite near Sixth Avenue. It was “our” house, just acquired by us…the place was to become to me for ever so long afterwards a sort of anchorage of the spirit.

Henry James’s New York, the city of his childhood, “the small warm dusky homogeneous New York world of the mid-century,” was situated between Fifth and Sixth Avenues down to Washington Square, where his maternal grandmother lived, and up eastward to Union Square, which was, in his day, surrounded by a high railing. Close by were members of James’s extended family, including his mother’s cousin Helen. “I see in her strong simplicity,” he wrote, “that of an earlier, quieter world, a New York of better manners and better morals and homelier beliefs.” James saw that “her goodness somehow testifies for the whole tone of a society, a remarkable cluster of private decencies.” Thus his book became an elegy not only to a lost childhood, but a set of values which began to erode as soon as the village James could wander in freely was replaced by a great city. “Character,” he wrote about the changing city, “is so lost in quantity.”

As James grew older he was allowed to wander farther. He remembered

hard by the Fourteenth Street home…the poplars, the pigs, the poultry, and the “Irish houses,” two or three in number, exclusive of a very fine Dutch one, seated then, this last, almost as among gardens and groves—a breadth of territory still apparent, on the spot, in that marginal ease, that spread of occupation, to the nearly complete absence of which New York aspects owe their general failure of “style.”

He and his brother wandered up and down Broadway

like perfect little men of the world; we must have been let loose there to stretch our legs and fill our lungs, without prejudice either to our earlier and later freedoms of going and coming…. Broadway must have been then as one of the alleys of Eden.

In this city which was a mixture of a remembered Eden and a failed style, James set eight stories and one novel; he also devoted considerable space to New York in his book The American Scene, written several years before his autobiography. In his fiction, he did not set out to chart the history of the city or the emotion surrounding its growth. What he disclosed about his attitude toward the city he did in passing. In the foreground were his characters, more real and more pressing in their needs than mere bricks and mortar.

2.

As his own scope as a writer widened and his ambition hardened, Henry James became, at times, acutely alert to the thinness of the American experience. In his book on Hawthorne, written in 1879, he famously listed what was absent in American life:

No sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church, no clergy, no army, no diplomatic service, no country gentlemen, no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old country-houses, nor parsonages, nor thatched cottages, nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals, nor abbeys, nor little Norman churches; no great Universities, nor public schools—no Oxford, nor Eton, nor Harrow; no literature, no novels, no museums, no pictures, no political society, no sporting class.

Eight years earlier, however, in a letter to Charles Norton Eliot, he had written: “It’s a complex fate, being an American, and one of the responsibilities it entails is fighting against a superstitious valuation of Europe.”

He worked then in the interstices between America as a wasteland, untouched by tradition, and America as a golden opportunity for a novelist interested in complexity. Thus in his first New York story, “The Story of a Masterpiece,” published in the magazine Galaxy in 1868, when James was twenty-five, his hero can be a man of taste and the city a place where such a man will rub shoulders with artists, one of whom will paint “the best portrait that has yet been painted in America.” He will also begin to display in some of his stories a view of women as somehow untrustworthy and of love as a loss of balance. In this story, the painter manages to catch the true nature of Marian Everett, and it is for this reason that John Lennox, her suitor, must destroy the painting. This story was welcomed by The Nation, which wrote, “Within the narrow limits to which he confines himself Mr James is…the best writer of short stories in America.”

By this time James had only written six short stories. The two most substantial of these, “The Story of a Year” and “Poor Richard,” concerned the aftermath of the Civil War, more precisely the relationship between the men who had fought in the war and the women who stayed at home. James’s ninth story, “A Most Extraordinary Case,” published in the Atlantic Monthly in April 1868, dramatized that same subject.

The story opens in New York, in “one of the uppermost chambers” of one of its “great” hotels. Mason, whose injuries in the war, while grave, remain unspecified, is living in an “ugly little hotel chamber.” This is one of James’s New York stories in which it is imperative for the protagonist to leave the city, which is too lonely or unhealthy, or just too hot. It would be impossible for James to imagine anyone recovering from anything in the city he had lost; thus he moves Mason to a house on the Hudson River. Miss Hofmann, his hostess’s niece, someone remarks, “looks as if she had come out of an American novel, I don’t know that that’s great praise,” to which Mason replies: “You are bound in honor, then…to put her into another.” The heroine in question is notable because she inspired James’s most un-American sentence in his career thus far: “She was now twenty-six years of age, beautiful, accomplished, and au mieux with her bankers.”

  1. *

    This essay appears, in slightly different form, as the introduction to The New York Stories of Henry James, just published by New York Review Books.

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