In response to:
Lessons of the Master from the November 6, 1986 issue
To the Editors:
T.S. Eliot’s supposed wisecrack about Henry James is actually a compliment (“Lessons of the Master,” NYR, Nov. 6). Context herewith: I think Mr. Vidal might enjoy it.
James’s critical genius comes out most tellingly in his mastery over, his baffling escape from, Ideas; a mastery and an escape which are perhaps the last test of a superior intelligence. He had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it…. In England, ideas run wild and pasture on the emotions; instead of thinking with our feelings (a very different thing) we corrupt our feelings with ideas; we produce the public, the political, the emotional idea, evading sensation and thought…. Mr. Chesterton’s brain swarms with ideas; I see no evidence that it thinks. James in his novels is like the best French critics in maintaining a point of view, a view-point untouched by the parasite idea. He is the most intelligent man of his generation.
(Little Review, 1918)
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Gore Vidal replies:
Although, like the late Lord Mountbatten, I have never been wrong, my memory is no longer infallible, to put it mildly. I am in Cook’s debt not only for quoting Eliot in full but for omitting, out of tact, the occasion for his remarks: a review of that all-time neo-conservative black hole, Henry Adams.