Henry James Letters Volume 4: 1895––1916
The popular image of the aging Henry James was described by Hugh Walpole: “a sort of stuffed waxwork from whose mouth a stream of coloured sentences, like winding rolls of green and pink paper, are forever issuing.” There is James asking a passer-by for road directions—in the style of The Golden Bowl. Or remarking after the departure of some female visitors, “One of the wantons had a certain cadaverous grace.” Or even at the moment when he suffered a stroke, murmuring as he fell to the ground, “So it has come at last—the Distinguished Thing!” The caricature libels the complex person. But as he grew older, as more and more stories and novels issued from him, James did become his words, his writing. The waxwork figure who moved among the living, among tables and hairs and what’s for dinner and who’s for tennis or for sex, lived by perception and by language. “I am,” he said to Henry Adams in 1914, “that queer monster the artist, an obstinate finality, an inexhaustible sensibility.”
James was a generation removed from the Emersonian confidence in the poetseer; he was a modern without conviction of transcendence. And yet he could have called himself a “transparent eyeball”—using Emerson’s image which is no less grotesque than Walpole’s waxwork—and borrowed Emerson’s declaration, “I feel that nothing can befall me in life,—no disgrace, no calamity (leaving me my eyes), which nature cannot repair.”
But such descriptions of the artist must always seem monstrous. Are we not right to believe that the man Henry James (1843–1916) had other organs than eye and tongue, was more “real” than the persona who disappeared like a ghost when it was time to stop writing? We want to know how the historic man lived and breathed the common air, what joys and thwartings of the common kind were his, whom he hated, whom he loved, what made him laugh or weep, and when those moments came when life turned itself as on a pivot because of some crisis that had nothing to do with literature. James would have despised our curiosity. He loathed the exploitation of the private life of public persons just then discovered by popular journalism. Even the refined nosiness of scholarship was suspect. In The Aspern Papers someone who looks much like a modern biographer turns out to be a “publishing scoundrel.”
He would have hated anyone for wanting to write his biography; he had enjoined his executor to “frustrate as utterly as possible the postmortem exploiter.” Letters were the worry. Despite his frequent appeals to correspondents to burn his, few had done so, though he himself finally piled a great mass of their letters onto a backyard bonfire. He had not been able to keep himself from writing letters. If they were not formal literature, they came from its creative source and dramatized his relation to life, concentrated his direct observation, exercised him in modulating his voice. “Any time I can write a good letter it’s a sign…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.