Lessons of the Master

Henry James: Literary Criticism Essays on Literature, American Writers, English Writers

The Library of America, 1484 pp., $27.50

Henry James: Literary Criticism French Writers, Other European Writers, The Prefaces to the New York Edition

The Library of America, 1408 pp., $27.50

On the evening of January 12, 1905, President and Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt held a reception for the Diplomatic Corps. After the reception, a limited number of grandees were given a dinner; among those so distinguished was Henry James, who was staying across the street at the house of Henry Adams. The reception had been boycotted by Adams himself, who found it impossible to finish a sentence once the voluble President was wound up. But Adams sent over his house guests, James, John La Farge, and St. Gaudens.

The confrontation between Master and Sovereign contained all the elements of high comedy. Each detested the other. James regarded Roosevelt as “a dangerous and ominous jingo” as well as “the mere monstrous embodiment of unprecedented and resounding noise” while Theodore Rex, as the Adams circle dubbed him, regarded the novelist as “a miserable little snob” and, worse, “effete.” As it turned out, snob and jingo were each on his best behavior that night; and James, in a letter to Mary Cadwalader Jones, noted that the President was “a really extraordinary creature for native intensity, veracity and bonhomie.” What TR thought of his guest on that occasion is not recorded; but he could never have been approving of James, who had settled in England, had never roughed it, had never ridden, roughly, up Kettle Hill (to be renamed San Juan, since no one could be the hero of anything so homely as a kettle).

But the true high comedy of that January evening was that the two great men were meeting not as literary lion and president but as book reviewer and author reviewed. Seven years earlier, James had given Roosevelt (an indefatigable writer of echoing banality) a very bad review in the English paper Literature. Although reviews were not signed in those days, concerned authors could almost always find out who had done them in, and if the wielder of the axe were a writer of James’s fame, the secret could never have been kept for long.

James begins, blandly,

Mr. Theodore Roosevelt appears to propose—[the first verb is a hint of fun to come] in American Ideals and Other Essays Social and Political—to tighten the screws of the national consciousness as they have never been tightened before. The national consciousness for Mr. Theodore Roosevelt is, moreover, at the best a very fierce affair.

James then suggests that this approach is not only overwrought but vague.

It is “purely as an American,” he constantly reminds us, that each of us must live and breathe. Breathing, indeed, is a trifle; it is purely as Americans that we must think, and all that is wanting to the author’s demonstration is that he shall give us a receipt for the process. He labours, however,…under the drollest confusion of mind.

All in all, TR was saintly to put such an unAmerican reviewer at his dinner table, separated from his own intensely American self by a single (American) lady. Of course, in April…

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