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 I’m not writing,” Hemingway said. And James: “God knows they are impossible—the great fatal, incurable, unpumpable leak of one’s poor sinking bark.” But Hemingway’s letters are perfunctory. James was an epistolary spendthrift. Nightly, after he had put aside his fiction, he would write as many as six or seven letters, some running to a dozen pages.
They were saved for a posterity whose interest might be considered honorable, and a pruned two-volume edition was published in 1920, and then batches addressed to particular recipients—to members of the James family, to Stevenson, Wells, A.C. Benson, Geoffrey Keynes, John Hay, Edith Wharton, and others—were printed or were drawn on by the abhored biographer, most fully by Leon Edel in his five-volume biography completed in 1972. His just-completed edition of them contains about 1,075 representative letters but this probably is only about 7 percent of the surviving multitude.
What “story” do they tell? Was his furious privacy owing to some truths he wished to hide? We shall be disappointed if we are looking for melodrama or titillation. In 1903 James published a tale called “The Story in It,” an ironic treatment of the view of fiction held by his friend Paul Bourget: “l’honnête femme n’a pas de roman.” It suggests that hidden states of consciousness may have stories, while declared and enacted emotion may tell no story at all.
Any biographer, of course, is likely to be a novelist manqué, and Edel has tried to carve out a plot where sometimes the letters give only faint hints or none. He has often read James’s fiction as allegory to fill in what he calls in this last volume of the letters “interstices.” So, he concludes: a sibling rivalry with William James arose in Henry’s childhood and governed his life; James never had a “love affair” with a woman but did encourage the attachment of Constance Fenimore Woolson, and after her suicide felt a lasting guilt for the love he had aroused without returning; the disastrous failure of his attempt to write for the theater resulted in a profound depression; late in life James’s celibacy was threatened by “the emotions of first love” for a young sculptor, Hendrik Andersen.
Yet we can only grant such speculations a cautious “Perhaps….” Henry’s lifelong hostility for William is not convincingly inferred from his fiction. In this final volume of the letters, he expresses, when William is dying in 1910, his grief “at the prospect of losing my wonderful beloved brother out of the world in which, from as far back as in dimmest childhood, I have so yearningly always counted on him.” Five years earlier he had responded testily when William, like many others, failed to appreciate The Golden Bowl, but his devotion was unwavering. In any case, his hostility is not demonstrated by a letter from William refusing membership in the Academy of Arts and Letters on the grounds that it institutionalizes snobbery and vanity, and adding—as a joke, I am sure—“I am the more encouraged to this course by the fact that my younger and shallower and vainer brother is already in the Academy.” This letter appears as an appendix to Henry’s own in volume 4; four letters from Constance Woolson which reflect her appreciation of James’s genius (though not her love) are to be found in volume 3. But no James letters to her survive, and his fiction (which had dealt with unappreciated love long before) does not prove James blamed himself for her suicide.
In this last volume, Edel admits, “Anyone reading the letters would not know…that James was deeply depressed after his failure in the theatre; and there is little evidence of this in his notebooks.” Yet he insists that James’s fiction of the 1890s, because it includes some victimized children, reflects the writer’s regression to a condition of psychic helplessness. The letters show, on the contrary, that James met defeat with resolution, turning back to his proven skills in fiction: “I have, thank God, quantities of work on hand and in prospect, and with better powers to do it than ever before,” he wrote in 1895. It was quite different when he had a real nervous breakdown in 1910.
Finally, there is the supposed “evidence” of a late sexual breakthrough. James’s sexual history may never be chronicled but there is no more reason to suppose that he was celibate until he met Hendrik Andersen in 1899 than there is to be certain of his sexual fulfillment with anyone in particular. In general, I like to think, celibacy is less likely than some experience of sex. But what do we know of the intimate history of his youth, of those occasions that may have helped to form his sexual character? The late letters multiply, but nearly all that could be found for his first thirty-two years are in the first volume of Edel’s edition of the letters, mostly addressed to his family. That he never married does not prove that he was a homosexual either, but if he had discovered sex with men in early life, it is all the more likely that there would be no trace of it in these letters. And yet something could have occurred. He told Edmund Gosse of a Proustian moment when he had stood for hours outside a house watching an upper window for the sight of a face that never appeared, while his own was bathed with tears.
Was he talking of a man or a woman? James’s friendships with both sexes were numerous but as he grew older it was to young men, mostly homosexual, that he turned for emotional support—Edmund Gosse, Wolcott Balestier, Howard Sturgis, Morton Fullerton, Percy Lubbock, Gaillard Lapsley, Hugh Walpole, Jocelyn Persse, Hendrik Andersen. James often wrote them letters both avuncular and loverlike in a style of half-ironic, half-sentimental extravagance. It is difficult to distinguish his tone to “dearest little Hugh” or “dear, dear Jocelyn” from one to “dearest Hendrik,” though those to Andersen have a slightly more foamy measure of erotic metaphor insinuatingly suggesting the literal (e.g., “I’ve had punctually all your beautiful and blessed missives, and of course I’ve tenderly loved you, and yearningly embraced you, and passionately thanked you for them”). But James should not be seen as an infatuated Gustav von Aschenbach. Andersen does not seem to have aroused deep emotion in him, though passion itself may be suggested by the very contempt James clearly had for the sculptor’s mind and for his grandiose nude statuary.
By 1900, James had shaved his beard and the world saw the face of an antique Roman with power and irony revealed in the wide saturnine mouth. He bought a house in the country, a seemingly mundane act. But Lamb House in Rye meant withdrawal from the social complications of London, meant a final commitment to his English life, and the déraciné took a touching householder pride in his belated rooting. Yet in this period he discovered the pleasures of occasional motor travel, mostly thanks to Edith Wharton, who entered his life with her friendship and her powerful chauffeured car. He had recently taken up bicycling himself and become a familiar figure pedaling with dignified persistence on the Sussex roads, doing on occasion twenty-two miles between lunch and tea.
His further discovery of the machine age took place when he began dictating to a typist, a procedure which, whether or not it affected his style (he said it didn’t), affected his manner of composition, and it was to the tapping amanuensis that he spoke his final novels. With The Golden Bowl in 1904 his fiction writing was almost done, but for the twenty-three plum-colored volumes of the New York edition, issued by Scribner’s, he undertook the heroic job of revising his major novels and tales and writing the series of prefaces that are his critical apologia. In 1904 and 1905 he paid a long visit to America after two decades of absence, and wrote the remarkable travel essay, The American Scene, as a farewell to his native land. William’s illness brought him back in 1910, but the death of this last of his four siblings was the snap of the shears. He had been ill himself during this period, the seclusion of Rye became insupportable, and he moved back to London. The war seemed an assault upon civilization, and he made his gesture by becoming a British subject.
These letters trace the period in which the aging writer produced some of his most fascinating works—first the daring “experimental” stories and novels of the Nineties, then the three prodigious long novels, The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl, which F.O. Matthiessen termed the “major phase.” In the letters, James’s literary thinking flashes forth only occasionally, as when provoked by readers’ comments on “The Turn of the Screw,” but we also catch his views of the achievements of others. He cannot curb his critical habit even for a friend, not for Mrs. Humphry Ward or Edith Wharton or even poor Howard Sturgis (who never wrote another book after James wrote him a deprecating letter about his novel), but his exchanges with H.G. Wells exhibit his rare tolerance for a very different kind of writer, who astonishingly failed to tolerate him. His outward glance goes beyond the literary, too—he senses the drift of a society which also seems headed for darkness with the failure of Irish Home Rule, the explosion of jingoism, and the ferocity of American politics under Cleveland and TR, fostered by the “foul criminality of the screeching newspapers,” the decadence of France during the Dreyfus case and of England during the Boer War and at the brink of the abyss with labor strikes and suffrage demonstrations.
He turns his analytic energy on personality, the novelist’s subject, and again and again on the relation between personal and artistic character. He is struck by the discrepancies between talent and other qualities in Daudet and in Bourget, the rabid anti-Dreyfusard. He notes dryly how well “the perfect possession of a métier” has enabled Leslie Stephen to survive the death of his wife. But no one arouses his interest more than Edith Wharton. Percy Lubbock said that she was “herself a novel of his, no doubt in his earlier manner.” The spectacle of her life’s disorders and splendors—her failed marriage, her middle-aged discovery of passion in a love affair with one of his friends, her grand, alarming use of her wealth, the strengths of her art and will—all engage his rapt attention as though she were one of his American heroines. The letters Edel prints give us several sides of this vision—some of James’s comic poetry as he characterizes her descents (“a golden eagle,” “a firebird,” an “angel of devastation”) upon the humble Rye “barnyard” and also something of his sympathy during her troubles, and his admiration for her war work. The selection does not represent sufficiently his negative judgment of what he considers her hubris. Particularly in many letters I have read written to Gaillard Lapsley (Edel, for some reason, prints only one letter to this correspondent) James clearly sees her tragically.
He could not help reflecting how different her formula of life was from his own. “My conception of felicity is more and more to crouch behind a Chinese wall; or at least behind a good old English russet brick one,” he would write when invited to join “the dance upon the Aubusson carpet” of her Paris salon. He professes to envy “great livers” such as her but he is more than ever definable to himself as a witnessing consciousness. He has given up more and more those motions that once, in his middle years, caused him to remark that he had dined out 140 times that season. Though he has visitors, writing is the fixed center from which he hardly stirs. His days realize the paradox that his art has taken for a theme, the idea that human vision, the Emersonian eyeball, is the source of all meaning, all being. As he writes to H.G. Wells five months before his death, “It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance.”
And more and more this meant that he refused all company but that of the secret double he called “mon bon” in the colloquies of his notebooks. To Morton Fullerton he declares: “The port from which I set out was, I think, that of the essential loneliness of my life—and it seems to be the port also to which my course finally directs itself! This loneliness, (since I mention it)—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 countermining of art.’
Suddenly, this loneliness becomes unbearable and for his breakdown of 1910–1911 James blames his “beastly solitudinous life.” It is the visible climax of this volume’s “plot.” Recovery brings the desire to understand how he had become the “queer monster.” But in the unfinished autobiography that results we can read that as far back as James could reach he could not remember any other self than his latest one. For the “small boy,” he recalled, “just to be somewhere—almost anywhere would do—and somehow receive an impression or an accession, feel a relation or a vibration. He was to go without many things, ever so many—as all persons do in whom contemplation takes so much the place of action.”
July 19, 1984