Very early in his career as a writer Henry James made his position clear. He would not be a public novelist or a social commentator but would instead deal with the reverse of the picture; the intricacies and vagaries of feeling in the relations between people, and mainly between men and women, would be his subject. Duplicity and greed, disappointment and renunciation, which became his most pressing themes, occurred for James the novelist in the private realm. It was his genius to make this realm seem more dramatic and ample than any space inhabited by government or business.
James himself was a figure of complexity and ambiguity and secrecy; a number of matters in his life seemed greatly unresolved. His personality, like his later prose style, was one in which things could not be easily named, in which nuance was more substantial than fact and the flickering of consciousness more interesting than knowledge. James was, above all, guarded. He was the supreme artist concerned with the architecture and tone of fiction; he specialized in the deliberate, the considered, and the exertion of control; he did not seek to bare his soul for the reader.
Nonetheless, it is possible to read between the lines of James’s work, searching for clues, seeking moments in which the author came close to unmasking himself. Many of his stories, written quickly and for money, give more away perhaps than he intended. Here, more than in the novels, he comes closer to opening a chink, for example, in the grand armor of his own sexuality, allowing us to catch a brief glimpse of his deepest and darkest concerns. These stories include “The Pupil,” “The Master of Beltraffio,” and “The Beast in the Jungle.” The stories are careful and restrained, but it is clear from them that the subject of illicit love or misguided loyalty interested him deeply, as did the subject of sexual coldness.
Thus it is possible to trace James’s sometimes unwitting, unconscious, and often quite deliberate efforts to mask and explore matters which concerned him deeply and uneasily. It would be possible to trace, for example, in his copious writings, all references to Ireland or England, or to his brother William, or to the novelist George Eliot, and find areas of ambiguity and uncertainty as well as strange contradictions, underlining the fact that these things mattered very deeply to James, so deeply indeed that they appear in many layers and guises.
Perhaps of all the provinces in his realm whose contours remain shadowy and whose topography is unresolved, the city of New York is a prime example. James’s writings about New York disclose, more than anything, an anger, quite unlike any other anger in James, at what has been lost to him, what has been done, in the name of commerce and material progress, to a place he once knew. It is not an ordinary anger at the destruction of beauty and familiarity; it is much stranger and complex than that, and it deserves a great deal of attention.*
There is a peculiar intensity in the tone of Henry James’s memoir of his first fourteen years, “A Small Boy and Others,” written in 1911, when he was sixty-eight, one year after the death of his brother William. Much of the memory evoked and most of the scenes conjured up in the book took place in New York between 1848, when the Jameses moved to the city, and 1855, when they left for Europe. Since he had no notes or letters or diaries to work from, it is astonishing how fresh and detailed his memory is, how many names he can remember, including those of teachers and actors, how sharply he can evoke places and their atmospheres, precise smells and sights and locations, including many shows and plays in the New York theaters of the time. “I have lost nothing of what I saw,” he wrote, “and that though I can’t now quite divide the total into separate occasions the various items surprisingly swarm for me.”
It was as though old New York, as he saw it between the ages of five and twelve, had remained still and frozen and perfect in his memory. He had not watched it change or participated in its growth. It was the ground which formed him; he was never to have a place again which would belong to him so fundamentally. He would not possess another territory until 1897 when he signed the lease on Lamb House in Rye in England. The fact that his New York had been taken from him and not replaced, save by hotel rooms and temporary abodes, may explain the sheer driven enthusiasm with which he pursued Lamb House and his sense of relief when he had made it his. Indeed, the year before he purchased the lease he wrote his novel The Spoils of Poynton, a drama about owning and losing a treasured house. Having signed the lease, he wrote The Turn of the Screw about a lone figure attempting to make a home in a house already possessed.
New York after 1855 was lost to him, not merely, he realized as the years went on, by his father’s removing the family from there, but by changes in the city which would be absolute and overwhelming. A new world was being built on the site of his dreams. This site’s most hallowed quarter was 58 West Fourteenth Street, first seen during
an afternoon call with my father at a house there situated, one of an already fairly mature row on the south side and quite near Sixth Avenue. It was “our” house, just acquired by us…the place was to become to me for ever so long afterwards a sort of anchorage of the spirit.
Henry James’s New York, the city of his childhood, “the small warm dusky homogeneous New York world of the mid-century,” was situated between Fifth and Sixth Avenues down to Washington Square, where his maternal grandmother lived, and up eastward to Union Square, which was, in his day, surrounded by a high railing. Close by were members of James’s extended family, including his mother’s cousin Helen. “I see in her strong simplicity,” he wrote, “that of an earlier, quieter world, a New York of better manners and better morals and homelier beliefs.” James saw that “her goodness somehow testifies for the whole tone of a society, a remarkable cluster of private decencies.” Thus his book became an elegy not only to a lost childhood, but a set of values which began to erode as soon as the village James could wander in freely was replaced by a great city. “Character,” he wrote about the changing city, “is so lost in quantity.”
As James grew older he was allowed to wander farther. He remembered
hard by the Fourteenth Street home…the poplars, the pigs, the poultry, and the “Irish houses,” two or three in number, exclusive of a very fine Dutch one, seated then, this last, almost as among gardens and groves—a breadth of territory still apparent, on the spot, in that marginal ease, that spread of occupation, to the nearly complete absence of which New York aspects owe their general failure of “style.”
He and his brother wandered up and down Broadway
like perfect little men of the world; we must have been let loose there to stretch our legs and fill our lungs, without prejudice either to our earlier and later freedoms of going and coming…. Broadway must have been then as one of the alleys of Eden.
In this city which was a mixture of a remembered Eden and a failed style, James set eight stories and one novel; he also devoted considerable space to New York in his book The American Scene, written several years before his autobiography. In his fiction, he did not set out to chart the history of the city or the emotion surrounding its growth. What he disclosed about his attitude toward the city he did in passing. In the foreground were his characters, more real and more pressing in their needs than mere bricks and mortar.
As his own scope as a writer widened and his ambition hardened, Henry James became, at times, acutely alert to the thinness of the American experience. In his book on Hawthorne, written in 1879, he famously listed what was absent in American life:
No sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church, no clergy, no army, no diplomatic service, no country gentlemen, no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old country-houses, nor parsonages, nor thatched cottages, nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals, nor abbeys, nor little Norman churches; no great Universities, nor public schools—no Oxford, nor Eton, nor Harrow; no literature, no novels, no museums, no pictures, no political society, no sporting class.
Eight years earlier, however, in a letter to Charles Norton Eliot, he had written: “It’s a complex fate, being an American, and one of the responsibilities it entails is fighting against a superstitious valuation of Europe.”
He worked then in the interstices between America as a wasteland, untouched by tradition, and America as a golden opportunity for a novelist interested in complexity. Thus in his first New York story, “The Story of a Masterpiece,” published in the magazine Galaxy in 1868, when James was twenty-five, his hero can be a man of taste and the city a place where such a man will rub shoulders with artists, one of whom will paint “the best portrait that has yet been painted in America.” He will also begin to display in some of his stories a view of women as somehow untrustworthy and of love as a loss of balance. In this story, the painter manages to catch the true nature of Marian Everett, and it is for this reason that John Lennox, her suitor, must destroy the painting. This story was welcomed by The Nation, which wrote, “Within the narrow limits to which he confines himself Mr James is…the best writer of short stories in America.”
By this time James had only written six short stories. The two most substantial of these, “The Story of a Year” and “Poor Richard,” concerned the aftermath of the Civil War, more precisely the relationship between the men who had fought in the war and the women who stayed at home. James’s ninth story, “A Most Extraordinary Case,” published in the Atlantic Monthly in April 1868, dramatized that same subject.
The story opens in New York, in “one of the uppermost chambers” of one of its “great” hotels. Mason, whose injuries in the war, while grave, remain unspecified, is living in an “ugly little hotel chamber.” This is one of James’s New York stories in which it is imperative for the protagonist to leave the city, which is too lonely or unhealthy, or just too hot. It would be impossible for James to imagine anyone recovering from anything in the city he had lost; thus he moves Mason to a house on the Hudson River. Miss Hofmann, his hostess’s niece, someone remarks, “looks as if she had come out of an American novel, I don’t know that that’s great praise,” to which Mason replies: “You are bound in honor, then…to put her into another.” The heroine in question is notable because she inspired James’s most un-American sentence in his career thus far: “She was now twenty-six years of age, beautiful, accomplished, and au mieux with her bankers.”
James, as he developed as a novelist, became seriously au mieux with the recognition scene, in which a character watches a scene between two people from a distance and, by their gestures and movements and silences, realizes what is between them. This offers us the central drama of both The Portrait of a Lady and The Ambassadors. In “A Most Extraordinary Case,” written when he was twenty-five, he tries it out for the first time. Mason, now recovering with the help of a talented young doctor, notices, on entering the room as Miss Hofmann sits at the piano: “A gentleman was leaning on the instrument with his back toward the window, intercepting her face…. The silence was unnatural, or, at the least, disagreeable.” It is the doctor who will eventually win Miss Hofmann’s hand. Later, toward the end of the story, Mason will catch a “glance of intelligence” between the two, and the knowledge of the deep bond between them will hasten his decline.
In this story, as in “The Story of a Year,” the business of injury and illness interests James. It will surface in a great deal of his work, in the case of Ralph Touchett in The Portrait of a Lady and Milly Theale in The Wings of the Dove. Although Mason’s wounds were caused by the Civil War, and resemble those of Oliver Wendell Holmes to some extent, his recovery depends on his happiness and his decline will be caused by unrequited love. In James’s early world, it was still possible to die of a broken heart. “A Most Extraordinary Case” won the approval of James’s harshest critic throughout his career, his brother William. “Your style grows easier, firmer,” he wrote, “and more concise as you go on writing…the face of the whole story is bright and sparkling.”
An International Episode,” a sort of companion piece to Daisy Miller, which had appeared six months earlier, was first published in Cornhill Magazine in December 1878 and January 1879. Two young Englishmen, one the heir to a title and a fortune, come to New York; they experience the city in the stifling heat of summer. They are great blank creations, almost stupid at times, alert only to their own station and the newness and strangeness of the New World. The hot summer allows James to follow the routine he had already developed in “A Most Extraordinary Case” and make the city a site to begin the story but not a place where a story can unfold. Their contact in New York, J.L. Westgate, is one of James’s few creations who actually has a job, who puts in a full day at the office. Westgate’s wife and sister-in-law are at Newport, and the reader can feel James itching to remove his two young men from “the sinister hum of mosquitoes” in the sinister and inhospitable city, to Newport, away from the world of J.L. Westgate and his money-making activities to the world of leisure and American women, led by Westgate’s sister-in-law Miss Alden. These women are forward, intelligent, charming, curious, and opinionated, ripe for a young English lord, who is used to more stuffy company, to fall in love with.
Miss Alden is Daisy Miller’s opposite. She is too intelligent to be doomed; if she breaks the rules, she does so because of her genuine lack of respect for them rather than any weakness. The English are seen in the story as snobbish, thoughtless, bad-mannered, a race on whom everything is lost. The Americans are democratic and hospitable. When the story appeared, it was roundly attacked by Mrs. F.H. Hill, the wife of the editor of the Daily News, whom James knew socially in London. “Mrs. Hill,” Leon Edel writes,
accused James of caricaturing the British nobility, and of putting language into its mouth which it would never utter. Henry on this occasion replied, since he knew the lady; the letter is a magisterial defense of his work and his art. It is the only letter extant which he wrote to a reviewer.
“A man in my position,” James wrote to Mrs. Hill,
and writing the sort of things I do, feels the need of protesting against this extension of his idea in which, in many cases, many readers are certain to indulge. One may make figures and figures without intending generalizations—generalizations of which I have a horror. I make a couple of English ladies do a disagreeable thing—cela c’est vu: excuse me!—and forthwith I find myself responsible for a representation of English manners! Nothing is my last word about anything—I am interminably supersubtle and analytic—and with the blessing of heaven, I shall live to make all sorts of representations of all sorts of things. It will take a much cleverer person than myself to discover my last impression—among all these things—of anything. And then, in such a matter, the bother of being an American! Trollope, Thackeray, Dickens, even with their big authoritative talents, were free to draw all sorts of unflattering English pictures, by the thousand. But if I make a single one, I am forthwith in danger of being confronted with a criminal conclusion—and sinister rumours reach me as to what I think of English society. I think more things than I can undertake to tell in 40 pages of the Cornhill. Perhaps some day I shall take more pages, and attempt to tell some of these things; in that case, I hope, there will be a little, of every sort, for every one! Meanwhile I shall draw plenty of pictures of disagreeable Americans, as I have done already, and the friendly Briton will see no harm in that!—it will seem to him part of the natural fitness!
On January 4, 1879, James wrote about the matter to his friend Grace Norton in Boston: “You may be interested to know that I hear my little ‘International Episode’ has given offence to various people of my acquaintance here. Don’t you wonder at it? So long as one serves up Americans for their entertainment it is all right—but hands off the sacred natives! They are really I think, thinner-skinned than we!” Two weeks later, James wrote to his mother: “It seems to me myself that I have been very delicate; but I shall keep off dangerous ground in future.”
Later that year, when he published his book on Hawthorne, James discovered that Americans could also be thin-skinned. He was attacked by critics in both New York and Boston (“The clucking of a brood of prairie hens,” he called them), including his friend William Dean Howells, whose tone was milder but whose opinion was pointed. Howells wrote: “We foresee, without any powerful prophetic lens, that Mr James will be in some quarters promptly attainted of high treason.” On the accusation that Hawthorne was provincial, Howells wrote:
If it is not provincial for an Englishman to be English, or a Frenchman French, then it is not so for an American to be American; and if Hawthorne was “exquisitely provincial” one had better take one’s chances of universality with him than with any Londoner or Parisian of his time.
He sent James his review.
James was unrepentant. He replied:
I think it is extremely provincial for a Russian to be very Russian, a Portuguese very Portuguese; for the simple reason that certain national types are essentially and intrinsically provincial. I sympathize even less with your protest against the idea that it takes an old civilization to set a novelist in motion—a proposition that seems to me so true as to be a truism.
In that same letter James mentioned a forthcoming serialization in the Cornhill Magazine of “a poorish story in three numbers—a tale purely American, the writing of which made me feel acutely the want of the ‘paraphernalia.'”
The paraphernalia in question were, James had written earlier in the letter, the “manners, customs, usages, habits, forms, upon all these things matured and established that a novelist lives—they are the very stuff his work is made of.” The “poorish story” was Washington Square. While it is clear that he was being modest when he mentioned the book to Howells (and his general tendency in referring to his own work was to be self-deprecating), it still must seem that he underestimated it. It is certainly his best short novel, and remains one of his best books. It was the first of his books to be serialized simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic, thus offering him the freedom to devote a great deal of time to The Portrait of a Lady, his next project.
Washington Square tells the story of Dr. Sloper and his only daughter, Catherine, whom he considers dull. When Catherine falls in love with a penniless young man, her father becomes determined, in ways which are cold and cruel, that his daughter must not marry the interloper. James’s portrait of the vulnerable and sensitive and unassertive daughter is one of the most sustained and convincing of his career. The value of Washington Square also lies in the lack of “paraphernalia,” thus forcing James to intensify the psychology, to draw the father and daughter with greater subtlety and care, because he, at the apex of his social power in London, did not know enough about the city and the society in which he had set the novel. He knew about the interior of the houses where he had been a small boy; he could write about familiar rooms; but he had not grown up in that world enough to know its wider personality.
He placed the events of Washington Square in the very years when he and his family were living in the city; he made his grandmother’s house become the house of Dr. Sloper, as a year later he would make his other grandmother’s house become Isabel Archer’s house in Albany. The original story was told to him by Fanny Kemble, whose brother had jilted an heiress when he discovered that her father intended to disinherit her. James moved this story to his own lost territory, to the site which belonged now merely to his dreams, to the old New York whose contours he had barely made out before he was removed from it. In Chapter Two of the book he inserted a passage about Washington Square and its environs which strikes the reader as strange, almost clumsy, and unthinkable for a novelist who is about to write The Portrait of a Lady.
“I know not,” he wrote of the area around the square,
whether it is owing to the tenderness of early associations, but this portion of New York appears to many persons the most delectable. It has a kind of established repose which is not of frequent occurrence in other quarters of the long, shrill city; it has a riper, richer, more honourable look than any of the upper ramifications of the great longitudinal thoroughfare—the look of having had something of a social history…. It was here that your grandmother lived, in venerable solitude, and dispensed a hospitality which commended itself alike to the infant imagination and the infant palate; it was here that you took your first walks abroad, following the nursery-maid with unequal step…. It was here, finally, that your first school, kept by a broad-bosomed, broad-based old lady with a ferule, who was always having tea in a blue cup, with a saucer than didn’t match, enlarged the circle both of your observations and your sensations. It was here, at any rate, that my heroine spent many years of her life; which is my excuse for this topographical parenthesis.
This may well be the excuse, but it is hardly the reason. The reason is that, a quarter of a century after it had been lost to him, James was prepared to disrupt the sacred seamlessness of his fiction to evoke this square as belonging to his memory, his primary sense of himself which could be brought back now only in words. The need was so pressing and urgent that he would allow such a paragraph to remain; had it been about another place, he would surely have removed it. He was claiming Washington Square for himself. It was here also, soon afterward, that he began to evoke the next generation, who were too ready to eschew social history for the blight, as James saw it, of newness.
Dr. Sloper’s niece, for example, is about to marry Arthur Townsend, who speaks about his new house:
It’s only for three or four years. At the end of three or four years we’ll move. That’s the way to live in New York—to move every three or four years. Then you always get the last thing. It’s because the city’s growing so quick—you’ve got to keep up with it. It’s going straight up town—that’s where New York’s going…. I guess we’ll move up little by little; when we get tired of one street we’ll go higher. So you see we’ll always have a new house; it’s a great advantage to have a new house; you get all the latest improvements. They invent everything all over again about every five years, and it’s a great thing to keep up with the new things.
It is easy to feel James’s rage and exasperation at the new ethos of easy and quick change which has eaten up his city of old values, destroyed the few buildings and streets with many rich old associations for him. Like the passage quoted above about Washington Square itself, however, this long speech by the young man seems forced and makes its point rather too heavily. These two passages stand out in a novel which is otherwise compact and tightly constructed. They are part of James’s deeply irrational response to the New York he had known and what had replaced it; his emotions about the city, as about no other place, moved at times slowly and strangely out of his control.
Three years later, after the death of his parents and a return to the United States, James wrote another story set in New York, “The Impressions of a Cousin,” one of his slackest and weakest stories but interesting nonetheless for the further light it shines on his attitude toward New York. The story opens as the narrator wonders how she can inhabit Fifty-third Street:
When I turn into it from Fifth Avenue the vista seems too hideous; the narrow, impersonal houses, with the dry, hard tone of their brownstone, a surface as uninteresting as that of sandpaper; their steep stiff stoops, giving you such a climb to the door; their lumpish balustrades, porticoes, and cornices, turned out by the hundred and adorned with heavy excrescences—such an eruption of ornament and such a poverty of effect!
The narrator is a painter, returned from Italy, who remarks in the early pages that there is nothing to sketch in the city, not even the people:
What people? the people in the Fifth Avenue? They are even less pictorial than their houses. I don’t perceive that those in the Sixth are any better, or those in the Fourth and Third, or in the Seventh and Eighth. Good heavens! What a nomenclature! The city of New York is like a tall sum in addition, and the streets are like columns of figures.
Later, she will see the stoops “as ugly as a bad dream,” as earlier she has seen the sky over New York as seeming “part of the world at large; in Europe it’s part of the particular place.” This echoes James’s assertion in his Hawthorne book of four years earlier that in the United States, in Hawthorne’s day, “there were no great things to look at (save forests and rivers).”
For the next twenty years and more, as he wrote increasingly about England and the English, James remained silent on the subject of New York. His bad dreams of the city seemed to be over. He had other places, such as Paris and Rome and Florence, to remember and note as they changed. But nothing in James’s most complex personality was ever that simple. The city of New York, in all its unresolved power, remained like an undertow in his consciousness for all these years. In 1906, in his book The American Scene, he devoted three chapters to the city, having kept in reserve, during his long exile, a body of adjectives which he now heaped down on the teeming metropolis like a plague of locusts.
James began by disliking New York harbor: “The shores are low and for the most part depressingly furnished and prosaically peopled; the islands, though numerous, have not a grace to exhibit.” He admits to “the beauty of light and air,” which is like admitting that the United States has forests and rivers to look at. He writes about “the bigness and bravery and insolence, especially, of everything that rushed and shrieked.”
The city’s skyscrapers struck him as
impudently new and still more impudently “novel”—this in common with so many other terrible things in America—and they are triumphant payers of dividends.
It gets worse, as James, visiting the business quarter, notes “the consummate monotonous commonness…of the pushing male crowd, moving in its dense mass.” He is appalled by the disappearance of buildings and the dwarfing of others. He is, he admits, “haunted” by a “sense of dispossession.” He revisits his old city:
The precious stretch of space between Washington Square and Fourteenth Street had a value, had even a charm, for the revisiting spirit—a mild and melancholy glamour which I am conscious of the difficulty of “rendering” for new and heedless generations.
The demolition of his birthplace at Washington Place had the effect, James wrote, “of having amputated half my history.” He realizes that the building which could have sported a tablet announcing the author’s very birthplace had been destroyed.
As he rails against the city, James finds astonishing images for the levels of distress he detects in the natives:
Free existence and good manners, in New York, are too much brought down to a bare rigour of marginal relations to the endless electric coil, the monstrous chain that winds around the general neck and body, the general middle and legs, very much as the boa-constrictor winds around the group of the Laocoon.
James’s horror of the new arrivals in the city and his use of animal imagery to evoke them make for some of the most uncomfortable reading in his entire opus. The immigrant in New York “resembles for the time the dog who sniffs round the freshly-acquired bone, giving it a push and a lick, betraying a sense of its possibilities, but not—and quite as from a positive deep tremor of consciousness—directly attacking it.” Of the Jewish population, he wrote:
There are small strange animals, known to natural history, snakes or worms I believe, who, when cut into pieces, wriggle away contentedly and live in the snippet as completely as in the whole. So the denizens of the New York Ghetto, heaped as thick as the splinters on the table of a glass-blower, had each, like the fine glass particle, his or her individual share of the whole hard glitter of Israel.
The fire escapes, “omnipresent in the ‘poor’ regions” of the city, remind James
of the speciously organised cage for the nimbler class of animals in some great zoological garden. This general analogy is irresistible—it seems to offer, in each district, a little world of bars and perches and swings for human squirrels and monkeys.
He watched, from a window in the Ghetto, “a swarming little square in which an ant-like population darted to and fro.”
It is hard to be precise about what exactly is biting Henry James as he wanders the streets of New York, “this terrible town,” as he puts it, hating the voices and the accents he hears in the cafés, “the torture rooms of the living idiom,” disliking even Central Park, comparing it
to an actress in a company destitute, through an epidemic or some other stress, of all feminine talent; so that she assumes on successive nights the most dissimilar parts and ranges in the course of a week from the tragedy queen to the singing chambermaid.
It is as though something has been stolen from James, as indeed it has, and it is not something ordinary. For certain writers, both places long abandoned and experiences that might just as well have been forgotten continue to exist in the present tense. They can be conjured up at will, and sometimes they come unwilled. They live lives of their own in the mind. They are like rooms whose electric lights cannot be dimmed or switched off. For James, the New York of 1848 to 1855 was such a place and his experiences there, so happy with the innocence of prepuberty and full of ease, did not fade in his memory. They remained living presences. He was moving now fifty years later in a city which tried, in the name of novelty, to prevent him reinhabiting his lighted rooms. He was not simply in the new city while remembering the old. The old city had never ended for him; it lived as an aspect of the imperative of his genius. Now the lights in his rooms were flickering madly, almost blinding him. To protect himself, he heaped insult upon insult on New York.
For a writer, the blurring of time present and time past is a way of freeing the imagination but it has also a way of making the personality both troubled and willful. What he saw in 1905 in New York caused James to use imagery wildly disproportionate to his experience, but apt for the battle going on within him between a past which clung to him and the terrible novelty of the modern city. New York that year was asking James for too much.
It should be possible, also, to argue that the case was much simpler, that James found more decent, human, and civilized values in the city of his childhood and genuinely disliked the city he found in 1905, and expressed himself robustly on the matter, having done so in a number of stories also. But the last story he set in New York, and one of his last pieces of fiction, tends to favor the opposite argument, that there was something unresolved and haunting in James’s dislike of New York and his fear of it. This story is called “The Jolly Corner.”
James, like many of his contemporaries in London, was interested in doubles. His story “The Private Life,” published in 1892, mirrored the world of Dorian Gray and Dr. Jekyll. In it, James dramatized his own life in society and company and his own vocation as a solitary man, a writer. In the story he manages to place his writer in two places at exactly the same moment; he is both in company and alone at his desk. Now in early August 1906 James wrote to his agent, “I have an excellent little idea through not having slept a wink last night all for thinking of it, and must therefore at least get the advantage of striking while the iron is hot.” In “The Jolly Corner,” written after his American sojourn of 1905, James found a new doubled self to dramatize, the man who had left New York and lived in England, and his double, still haunting him, who had never left, who still wandered in those same rooms which would fill James’s autobiography and had filled his novel Washington Square.
Brydon in the story has been thirty-three years away from New York. He shares James’s view of New York. The city now seems to him reduced “to some vast ledger-page, overgrown, fantastic, of ruled and criss-crossed lines and figures.” He sees his old friend Alice Staverton and muses on what a great man of business he might have become had he stayed in New York. He has kept his old house downtown empty all the years, having it cleaned and cared for every day. He now goes there to be haunted by a figure moving in its dark rooms, the figure who has never left them, just as James himself in part of his mind has never left them.
Both men then engage in a tussle throughout a long night, a battle to turn off the light in these rooms. “Rigid and conscious, spectral yet human, a man of his own substance and stature waited there to measure himself with his power to dismay.” Two fingers on the man’s right hand which cover his face have been shot away. “The hands, as he looked, began to move, to open; then, as if deciding in a flash, dropped from the face and left it uncovered and presented. Horror, with the sight, had leaped into Brydon’s throat, gasping there in a sound he couldn’t utter.”
“It is,” Leon Edel has written, “a profoundly autobiographical tale.” It is a reenactment of the battle which had taken place within James’s own self as he returned to New York and set out to describe the world he saw, seeking in his descriptions to destroy it, seeking to puncture its great power with the steel point of his great paragraphs. He wanted to restore life to the world that lingered within him, the old New York, which he had experienced before the complications of puberty and unsettlement, and had left when he was twelve.
It is significant that at the end of “The Jolly Corner,” Brydon, who has come unscathed through his dark night with his double, is rescued by his old friend called Alice—James’s sister-in-law and sister and the wife of his nephew were all called Alice. In the last sentence of “The Jolly Corner,” he draws her to his breast. His reward for turning off the light has been a hint of love, the possibility of an uncomplicated sexuality as enjoyed by his brother William. “The Jolly Corner” leaves its protagonist stranded between a presexual past and an implausible present.
“The Jolly Corner” was the single American tale that James allowed into his twenty-three-volume New York Edition, from which he excluded The Europeans, Washington Square, and The Bostonians. He worked on the edition in the years between writing The American Scene and writing his autobiography. In case there was any doubt that he meant business in his battle to make his personal New York stand up to the Goliath daily rising on the island of Manhattan, he wrote to his publishers, Scribners, on July 30, 1905:
If a name be wanted for the edition, for convenience and distinction, I should particularly like to call it the New York Edition if that may pass for a general title of sufficient dignity and distinctness. My feeling about the matter is that it refers the whole enterprise explicitly to my native city—to which I have had no great opportunity of rendering that sort of homage.
James’s work would show to a world much hardened against the idea that the reverse of the picture, the soft side as he would call it, could endure and matter, could have a fame beyond money. The great house of fiction would stand as tall as any skyscraper, its rooms would remain well lit even as the world outside darkened.
February 9, 2006
This essay appears, in slightly different form, as the introduction to The New York Stories of Henry James, just published by New York Review Books. ↩