Henry James
Henry James; drawing by David Levine

From Rye, where he has taken up residence in Lamb House, Henry James wires to London: “Are you utterly absent or can you dine with me Friday at seven to go afterwards with three others to the theatre?” James has passed his pale bescribbled paper across the counter toward the visible half of the clerk; he has paid, and paid by the word (a fact which could not fail to impress an author, since it was so perfectly the reverse of his own manner of making a living); he has pondered, as he had more than once before, the exposure of his message to a stranger, and wondered at the clerk’s opportunities to observe and construe these brief pieces of privacy.

The clerks, it seemed to him, were quite closed in, enmeshed; they worked in every way in narrow quarters, inconveniently cornered in some conveniently local grocery; their relation to the public was wholly disinterested and practical; and yet they were in possession of so many bits of the public’s personal property, bits usually of the better off who lived in a wider, freer world, presumably, than these servants who handled their telegrams did, that the novelist could not help but inquire of himself just what they made of these messages; or rather, what, if the right consciousness were caught in such a cage, it might compose from the words slid over the counter, the sounds sent out on the wire.

No doubt it is important to consider why Henry James was so predisposed to see his small scene in this way rather than in some other, but the reasons are not difficult to find. The arts of conversation which his circle cultivated were, in great part, the gossipacious arts: that of making much out of little, of displaying your wit and inventive facility, your ability to amuse, without boring your listeners with too many ideas, or unpleasantly stretching their minds on the rack of an “issue.” It was a world which took an intense but mainly anecdotal interest in people, and which was therefore also on its guard against just the same exposure of itself which it so assiduously sought to gain against others.

Telegrams often had that quality of being cryptic and secret, and certainly, from the clerk’s station, had to seem like the shards from vessels which in their wholeness could never be observed. Henry James could not fail to see here another instance of a parallel he had drawn several times already, and was to draw again, to draw out even to infinity in The Sacred Fount: the ultimate worthlessness of the social exchanges he regularly participated in, the weak and unreal interest of people in one another, the guarded, protective nature of their social speech, and the greed of the novelist for the same material—the need in that role to reach through and beyond all tea-talk to the selves it hid, to whatever real life moved like the mole was believed to somewhere beneath the softly raised and silently shoveled foothills of its passage.

Almost the first thing that strikes us about this professional London stroller, country-house visitor, and dinner guest, this diligent cyclist, tourist, and correspondent, is his passion for epistemology, his habitual self-conscious sense of standpoint: both his moral and esthetic sensibilities are dependent on it, and his style, his rich metaphorical manner of seeing, continually reflects it. Rootless from the beginning, in his world but never of it (the whole James family suffered from motion sickness), he lives in London as one lives on a ledge…where it is always dangerous to be unaware. To reach out, belong to, touch—how important this is to him—but he must be satisfied to confer embraces on his friends as though he were granting degrees, to buss both cheeks in the continental manner, to command his friend, Fullerton, “Hold me then…with any squeeze; grip me with any grip; press me with any pressure; trust me with any trust,” to wire his friends to visit him at Lamb House, or to cry, “lean on me as on a brother and a lover,” in his letters to the young sculptor, Andersen.

The port from which I set out was, I think, that of the essential loneliness of my life…. This loneliness… what is it still but the deepest thing about one? Deeper, about me, at any rate, than anything else; deeper than my “genius,” deeper than my “discipline,” deeper than my pride, deeper, above all, than the deep counterminings of art.

So he interrogates sailors; he cycles, strolls, takes tea; he moves his eyes in search of images, and what he must overcome, in his elaboration of them, is their own inherent as-ifness, of which he is deeply suspicious. “You see too much,” Mrs. Briss tells the narrator of The Sacred Fount. “You talk too much…. You’re abused by a fine fancy…. You build up houses of cards.” Any part of life which can’t be directly rendered must be inferred, and when all that is seen are mated pairs of boots and shoes in “promiscuous hotel doorways” (as James remarked when writing of D’Annunzio), one is very much tempted, defensively, to say:


Detached and unassociated these clusters of objects present, however obtruded, no importance. What the participants do with their agitation, in short, or even what it does to them, that is the stuff of poetry, and it is never really interesting save when something finely contributive in themselves makes it so.

Participants? agitations? Mr. Edel thinks this statement very wise, but I think it’s evasive bunk, and I think James, in the depths of his loneliness, knew it. The exact sensuous feel of things was something, on occasion, he expressed a clear desire and even a preference for:

He wanted the hour of the day at which this and that had happened, and the temperature and the weather and the sound, and yet more the stillness, from the street, and the exact look-out, with the corresponding look-in, through the window and the slant on the walls of the light of afternoons that had been.

Participants? agitations? Clever, social, down-the-nose words. These agitations frequently affect the spirit precisely because they are so often so simple and complete in themselves, because they possess so much intrinsic interest, so much forgetfulness of self, because they are so remorselessly physical. Spiritual signs are very fine but boots are better evidence. Nor can we reason from effect to cause, as Hume observed, except on the basis of constant conjunction. This look-out, with its corresponding look-in, James seems never to have sufficiently had, and there is more of mystery and evil than eagerness and glee in the inferences he draws. The shoes may be real but ghosts roll on the bed. The Awkward Age? What Maisie Knew? The Sacred Fount? The Turn of the Screw? Throughout this volume, too, “The grey years gather; the arid spaces lengthen, damn them!” Art, pride, discipline, genius… In the Cage….

Where Mr. Edel is now, receiving the many messages of Henry James. They are hardly telegrams; on the other hand, they are hardly revelations either—cryptic in their very completeness, deviously shaped. More than a million words hem him in: novels, stories, notebooks, letters, plays, critical essays and travelogues, reminiscences by both the subject and his friends—countless testimonies of all kinds—the debris of a wholly literary life; yet he must imagine more than he can see, feel further than he has felt, deduce the kernel from the shell: clarify, interpret, rearrange. Mr. Edel cannot close his ears, as James did, deduce the kernel from the shell: clarify, interpret, rearrange. Mr. Edel cannot close his ears, as James did, when the anecdote becomes long; he must employ “the common lens of history,” for his subject is finally inert, famously dead, a choice piece of the past. The novelist is henceforth (and how he would be horrified to hear it) fair game; where once one might have thought to “hunt him up” in London or at Rye, now he must, it seems, be “hunted down” in five volumes of a life which bears his name as a monument might… as, for example, Grant’s Tomb or the Lincoln Tunnel.

Mr. Edel tells us that In the Cage, which was the first story Henry James wrote after he moved to Rye, was created “out of immediate emotion.” Immediate emotion is a condition Mr. Edel is all too eager to believe in, and it leads him to suggest that the tale reflects its author’s sense of “isolation from his clubs and the murmurs of London society.” The trouble is that it reflects the opposite if anything. The distance in this story is an economic one. James, for a change, is on the other side of the wire, handing messages in, and although his heroine is customarily full of conjecture, the weight of this small novel falls elsewhere.

What could still remain fresh in her daily grind was the immense disparity, the difference and the contrast, from class to class, of every instant and every motion…. What twisted the knife in her vitals was the way the profligate rich scattered about them, in extravagant pleasures and sins, an amount of money that would have held the stricken household of her frightened childhood…together for a lifetime.

James may be missing the pleasures of London—certainly he is telegraphing, issuing invitations—but his sense of himself and the price of his pleasures is far from comfortable. In fact, one of the more important customers is called Lord Rye.


Of course, Mr. Edel does not miss the economic motif, but as a biographer he does not wag James’s tale this way; his method is so narrowly “psychological” that the actual psychology of his subject frequently escapes him, and he is often so intent on fastening James’s feelings and behavior to the distant past, interpreting any story to which his history has risen in terms of ground floor and basement (as if the clearest explanation of the French Revolution could be found in the character of Charlemagne), that he skips every floor in between—an omission which seems all the stranger when he has troubled, before, to give a lengthy description of each of them.

But these numerous details of day-to-day seem for the most part not to count; instead, to a frame formed in childhood, life is seen to administer a few powerful and wrenching shocks: the Miss Woolson affair, for instance (described in the preceding volume), or the disasters of Guy Domville, the upsetting heart-sickness of his brother, William, or an uncommonly warm and physical feeling for a sculptor half his age; and certainly it would be wrong not to measure such shocks, to graph the depth and duration of their shake, but what we tend to lose with such a stress on traumas is any feel for the weight of the ordinary, any sense of the accretions or the erosions of everyday, the impact on the camel of each added straw, or the strength of the back each threatens to break. Sibling rivalries, castration complexes, homosexual tendencies, oedipal longings; these are common, we may suppose, to many men, none of whom possesses the style and the mind of this master; they tell us too little, and even in one life make our explanations increasingly monotonous and empty; since what is any life, from this point of view, but a repeating pattern of family relations, one where every war is the first war refought? so that the answers to our whys have a persistent dull sameness: basement, basement, basement.

Should James have had a biographer at all (especially one so impressive as Mr. Edel, who must be measured against the best) if he had not written novels? James captured no castles, laid waste no countrysides (though in the next volume he will motor through them—we must wait for that); his audience was always modest, often bewildered, soft and mannerly with its applause. Thus he made no fortune, sailed no steam yacht à la Arnold Bennett, nor authored an important column for the papers; he never fought with strenuous men, fish, or climates, nor escaped dramatically from wrecked trains; he had no lurid love affairs which sent him with a quip to sickness, jail, and death like Oscar Wilde; he altered public policies not a jot, had no famous enemies, engaged in no vulgar quarrels, and avoided Shaw’s smart-aleck image altogether; he invented no new gadgets, made known no unknown territories, proposed no new philosophy, uncovered no new truths nor spoke with shocking candor about old ones, and could not bring himself to catch VD or take up drugs or die with panache—suicidally.

He merely wrote his novels like the useless man he was, and what is striking about these if not their quality, their extraordinary refinement, their personality, their style? for they shimmer and stink of idleness and isolation, detachment and removal. In one sense he was simply a spy, his novels guessing games. And when he thought to venture into life he threw his pen at the stage. Periodically he would endeavor to be base, but he could not even walk through puddles without protest; he could not hear American spoken without pain, and he would persistently correct young ladies on their speech. What did he do, one wonders, to punish his erections?

And he wrote, in effect, in his notebooks, that his study—not his bedroom, parlor, or garden—was the proper enclosure for his life. Here he prayed to his genius as one might to a muse, and the lines he put upon paper were the lines he chose for his face. The history of such a man must somehow contrive to be the history of his imagination—what feeds it, what it does with what it gains, how it embodies itself in its work—since his words were those servants who did his living for him; and consequently every sign of significant change in the nature of that imagination will mark an important moment in the life of its owner.

In the particular period covered by this volume (from the collapse, amid catcalls, of his play Guy Domville to the bodiless mysteries of The Sacred Fount, the leading edge of his later phase) two such changes occur, and one of these Mr. Edel treats with wonderful understanding and completeness. James responds to every rebuff by becoming more artful and indirect, more difficult, circumspect, and delicate. To challenge his “manner” was to force him to choose it—to reaffirm all by redoubling everything; so that after his failure to be cheap and theatrical (while Wilde… well, it was hardly bearable… while Wilde and Pinero scored), he returns to his fiction determined to demonstrate his abilities as a dramatist in his own way.

Henceforth he will take charge of everything. Are directors uninstructible, actors hammy, settings vulgar, critics and audience dense? He replaces them all, including theater and curtain, with his own words, and makes of The Awkward Age, for instance, a novelized play—one perfectly performed and perfectly perceived… since performed and perceived by him. Much in life defeated Henry James, but because he was an artist of rare stubbornness and courage, he would not allow himself a loss on his chosen field.

In the middle of Maisie, so it is claimed, James began dictating to a typist, and the new method of materializing his thought at once altered his style. The event, however, is not of much importance to Mr. Edel, a page or two will do for it, and he is satisfied to repeat this customary glib explanation of James’s later manner, possibly because he simply thinks it is correct, or because style (as a dominating feature of Henry James) interests him rather little. Yet it is inconceivable that an artist so careful even his extravagances were calculated could allow the machine he now dictated to to dictate to him. Once his hand was free of the pen, his mind simply flew in even more characteristic circles; his imagination was able, more directly, to manifest itself, and he began to brood upon his subjects as few writers have brooded, before or since.

“I can be trusted, artless youth,” James replied to Morton Fullerton who had wondered about the effect of the typewriter, “not to be simplified by any shortcut or falsified by any facility.” The imagination which now spoke out loud for itself was fully formed (it would not have spoken this way twenty years before), and could be relied on; the changes dictation might incline James toward were already being willed.

Themes, plots, subjects, givens—those—Mr. Edel treats at length (indeed, he won’t let them alone) because he believes, quite properly, I suppose, that they are significant psychologically, but they are also significant in other ways, and these get scant weight. James is distressed by the Wilde case for a number of reasons, as he is by the Dreyfus affair, but Mr. Edel is preparing us for James’s strangely flavored letters to Andersen (on the principle, perhaps, of at least one ah-ha! per volume), so that we are never permitted to infer much more than that on most public questions James was admirably humane.

Although there is little religious feeling in him, there is much moral passion, and if James is puritanical, he is puritanical in a typically Henryesque fashion (what shocks him about Symonds is not the man’s homosexuality, but his public proclamation of it); if his language is consistently condescending (Ford Madox Ford’s friends used to excuse Ford by saying he would condescend to God if given the opportunity); if it is often prissily fastidious and circumloquacious, moving in a panic of discretion toward its subject with cautious little rushes and retreats like a squirrel approaching peanuts in an unfamiliarly scented hand; even if it tends to make everything over, give to everything the saving salt of Henry James; nevertheless, however deeply the outside is drawn in, the “great world” remains in essence as it is. The very words which often made his cage allowed him also to escape from it, for his thoughts followed not their own bent but the convolutions of their object; he overcame his standpoint by recognizing so many of them, discovering such a multitude of sides and shades and variations, seeing (as he hoped and often bragged) “all round,” that we are inclined to find him, in his faithfulness to people, situations, and human arrangements—in his habit of putting everything in an assayer’s balance—overly mental; we find him, in short, as Mr. Edel frequently shows him to us: as driven by demons, personal chagrins, as taking and rendering mainly the landscape of his spirit, when in fact a good part of his best self is simply composed of the outside, “the other,” the precisely observed; and his moral anger is directed at all those who infringe human freedom, who make pawns of people, who feast on the poor, the naïve, or the powerless, who use love to use (though these ethical matters Mr. Edel rarely mentions); and in those sentences which mark the movement of his mind, his steady shift of position and deepening of view, we ourselves can complain of being caught—caged—victimized. His sentences have such complex insides, they amaze, and we wonder if they have either end or purpose; if we shall ever emerge. The object we sought to have explained seems obscured by the explanation; it is no longer a scene we see, it is a sentence we experience.

Still this, after all, is art, and in James the art is urged upon us; it puts itself forward aggressively, as one nursing merit who has been so far insufficiently recognized. However, so is patience urged on us, and soundings—clear enunciation. Always vocal, a speaker’s art from the first (one reason he may have been misled to the stage), his writing became frankly music of a slow and resonant sort; not merely baroquely decorated, but full of pauses—breaths—pauses for savoring, silences for listening and learning in, not simply hastening duncedly on. In short, in fine, he would say, before suspending himself like a spider from another length. Yet these lines so full of after-and-before-thought we wonder if the first thought’s there, are absolutely necessary, for the first thought is often sentimental, operatic, as dreamy about life as the girl in the cage who cadged her romances from yellow-frocked novels. Undress his plots and what you’ll find is naked melodrama, the raw material of a thousand “female” fictions, soft shapes for the lady books.

It is all the more a triumph over self, then, that his sentences should be, in the harshest contemporary sense, subversive: they undermine our eyes, they speak of values in the act of perishing; but, perhaps, since Mr. Edel’s portrait on this point is faithful to the customary one, I am wrong to think of James in any social sense as a revolutionary. Perhaps he was simply gouty from rich foods and wine, a leisured parasite whose pen defended his person, who clicked his tongue at Symonds and the fate of poor Wilde, groaned nicely about Dreyfus although suffering the anti-Semitism of Bourget (in detesting anti-Semites, one should never exceed the polite), toured Italy to revive old “impressions,” sold stories to pay for his house and servants, and shaved his beard one gay spring day to reappear young.

Because James’s life had so little excitement, Mr. Edel appears to feel he should add some, arranging his work in short, easily swallowed chapters, beginning each dramatically, and striking a portentous note at the end. The devices are without exception cheap; they come straight from bad novels; and they tell us more about Mr. Edel’s attitude toward his subject than anything else, for they invariably falsify for the sake of small effect, a tiny frisson. There are also innumerable variations on “little did he know then, that…” or “having endured X, he was now ready to write Y,” and so on.

The prefatory remarks Mr. Edel makes about his method seem both inconsistent in themselves and inconsistently followed in practice. Stressing the importance of Freud, Mr. Edel nevertheless says: “The physical habits of the creative personality, his ‘sex life’ or his bowel movements, belong to the ‘functioning’ being and do not reliably distinguish him from his fellow-humans.” Why, if he wishes in any way to follow Freud, does he want to slight these “agitations”; why, if they are as slight as he claims, does he then drop broad hints about some of them on every other page; and why, if these things do not reliably distinguish James from his fellow-humans, does he expect other general unconscious patterns to do so? He complains that “Biography has for too long occupied itself with the irrelevancies of daily life…”yet his own account seems full of them. Mr. Edel wants to explain James’s genius, to find the secret sources of his imagination, and about James he certainly explains a good deal; but the creature in Mr. Edel’s cage is not, it seems to me, the golden singing bird. James says that the narrator of The Sense of the Past

…wanted the unimaginable accidents, the little notes of truth for which the common lens of history, however the scowling muse might bury her nose, was not sufficiently fine. He wanted evidence of a sort for which there had never been documents enough, or for which documents mainly, however multiplied, would never be enough.

Mr. Edel wants that too.

This Issue

July 10, 1969