James’s Last Bow

Henry James
Henry James; drawing by David Levine

Reviewing a new novel by Henry James on October 5, 1911, the Times Liter-ary Supplement announced: “And now comes ‘The Outcry’ to astonish [James’s] admirers with the phenomenon of a positively exciting plot. We venture to add also, a plot almost excessively ‘up-to-date.'”1 That the reviewer so heralded the plot had to do with the famous inaccessibility of the author’s great previous novels—The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl. When The Wings of the Dove appeared in 1902, James’s brother William complained: “You’ve reversed every traditional canon of story-telling (especially the fundamental one of telling the story, which you carefully avoid).” The dramatic, plot-driven Outcry, which had in fact started out as a play, proved far more popular than its immediate predecessors, running through five printings in a few weeks, “whereas,” its pleased but somewhat embarrassed author told Edith Wharton, it had “taken the poor old [Golden Bowl] eight or nine years to get even into a third.”

The outcry in question concerns the art drain that was transferring the contents of England’s ancestral houses to the collections of American millionaires—hardly a new theme for James: he had been writing about the transatlantic “traffic” in art, culture, and imaginative perception for more than thirty years, only this time he treated it as a comedy. And The Outcry had a specific contemporary referent. Toward the end of 1909 a heated public protest had prevented the Duke of Norfolk from selling a Holbein portrait, The Duchess of Milan, to Henry Clay Frick, and the British had raised over $350,000 to buy the painting for the National Gallery—which gave James the idea for a play he had already agreed to write. It was to be part of a London repertory season at the Duke of York’s Theatre, organized by J.M. Barrie and the American producer Charles Frohman; others invited to contribute were George Bernard Shaw, John Galsworthy, Harley Granville-Barker, Somerset Maugham, and Barrie himself. James had longed for success on the stage all his literary life—he published his first play, Pyramus and Thisbe, in 1869, and his most painful public failures were productions of The American and Guy Domville in the 1890s. Consequently, he was delighted at the age of sixty-seven to be drawn into the highly professional company of the Frohman-Barrie group.

He wrote The Outcry “with great intensity and interest” in the last few weeks of 1909, then suffered an acute depressive breakdown (brought on partly, according to his biographer Leon Edel, by the poor sales of the New York Edition of his novels). During this illness, at the insistence of Barrie and Granville-Barker, he reluctantly cut the text of his play. Then, in May 1910, the death of Edward VII closed London’s theaters, putting an end to Frohman’s repertory season.

Over the following year James turned The Outcry into a slight but sharp and funny novel, primarily…

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