Who Was Henry James?


Henry James has come to occupy such a central position in Anglo-American fiction that any account of the modern novel must take notice of his pioneering industry, particularly in relation to the search for form. In fact, in certain ways he exemplifies the tone, temper and spirit of the 20th century novel more than anyone else. Though his roots were Victorian and even the value-system in his novels and tales remained pegged to old-world charms, he had a typically modern consciousness. No wonder, whilst his contemporaries were in turn dismayed, baffled and intrigued by his productions, today’s readers find an answering echo in them. There is something radical in his temperament, though this element does not relate to his politics. Thus, his revival in the early forties of the present century was, in manner, an acknowledgment of the modernity of his muse.

Henry James has, of late, received such a great deal of critical attention that there is a danger of each new exercise sliding into a sort of ritual. The multiplicity of interpretations has assuredly opened up the James territory, but it also becomes a trap unless, of course, a certain discipline of thought and argument is maintained. There is no need to drag criticism into a hard position, particularly when a writer’s work is fully of irony and ambiguity. What, therefore, a James critic today can claim is not the finality of interpretation, but the finality of response.

It’s well known that nearly each important novel, novella and tale of James lands itself to a community of criticism, and that one reading or meaning may well be as valid as another. What is generally missed is the idea that indeed the novelist himself may have, consciously or unconsciously, reacted to the evolved situations of the story in a similar manner. In the final analysis: his view, though indispensable, where is one amidst the several, that his imagination has been launched. Once the novel or the tale is done, it appropriates all the minds that operate upon it.

HENRY JAMESAlthough the New Criticism which indeed is chiefly responsible for the revival of Henry James since 1940 or so, frowns upon any attempt to relate a work of art to history and biography, and insist upon the autonomy of the printed text as such, it may, nevertheless, be possible to interpret or understand a particular novel, tale or story more authentically if the circumstances of its origin and of its growth in the writer’s imagination are somehow available. Fortunately, in James’s case, we know not only all the important details of his somewhat uneventful life, but also a great deal of his inner life and style embodied in his letters, diaries, note books and autobiographies. Surely, these read in conjunction with the books he produced with such elaborate cunning, should yield insights which would have eluded our grasp, had we distanced the man who felt or experienced or suffered from the artist who created. As Richard Ellman says in the preface to Golden Codgers: Biographical Speculations, “the events of a writer’s life are not important in themselves, but in eliciting the mysterious armature as Mallarme called it, which binds the creative work.”

Henry James was born in 1843 in the city of New York where the James family lived at the moment. A prosperous, upper middle-class people, the Jameses had by the middle of the century acquired a great deal of wealth and position. His father, Henry James Senior, came into money as a result of ancestral legacies, and he was soon drawn towards the world of thought, art and literature. He came under the influence of the Transcendentalists, and was, in particular, close to Emerson. Later he imbibed the philosophy of Swedenborg, and sought to structure a system of values based on these influences in conjunction with the essential tenets of Christianity. No wonder, he gave his children—amongst them the philosopher, William James and the novelist, Henry James—all the freedom in the world to earn knowledge through experience and exertions of the self. There wasn’t much formal schooling for them, though private tutors and governesses looked to their needs. Like most other affluent American families of America, the James’s family travelled a great deal. Europe was for them a cultural Mecca, and no one’s education could be really complete without repeated sojourns in Paris, Rome and London. Thus, James and his brothers and sisters became, to use his own expression, ‘hotel children’. They were constantly on the move, visiting theatres, cathedrals, art galleries, universities, country – house etc. It was in those impressionable years that James acquired a taste for high life and an appetite for the life of the mind and imagination. Europe – he subsequently wrote a tale with that title as well as a novel. The European – was to remain for him a symbol of infinite charm despite its questionable ethics. The American moorings were always there, latent in his work, though he pondered endlessly over “complex fate of being American”.

There is little in James early life to sustain one’s interest. A brief stay as a law student at Harvard University seems to have had no real impact on him. The Boston Brahmin society to which his family belonged provided his burgeoning imagination with powder for comedy, though he himself seldom rose above its ‘genteel’ values. The New England Puritanism never became a hard uncompromising reality for him as it did in the case of Hawthorne. As we shall see later in The Portrait of a Lady, James’s heroine, Isabel Archer, invites irony whenever her stances become fixed or rigid. Thus James managed to draw the best out of Puritanism, avoiding its harshness and excesses.

However, one incident of his early life appears to have had a deep psychological effect on his character and writings. An injury caused in an accident apparently developed a wound in his consciousness. In his autobiography and elsewhere James refers to his ‘obscure wound’, though there is no explicit explanation. In all likelihood, the injury to his back and probably, to his genitals did not have a serious physical significance, though some critics have connected the absence of sexual scenes as such in his world with his ‘emasculation’ or ‘impotence’. Whatever the truth, one thing as Leon Edel has significantly shown in his 5-volume biography of the novelist, is pretty certain. James out of a deep inner necessity turned to art as a way of sublimating his sexual hunger. His fiction became a compensatory industry. In other words, the prodigality of his art owes not a little to an emotional lean, thin and vapid existence. He sought in it the intensities he missed otherwise. Indeed, he went on to construct a whole flawed aesthetic on this base. In his later novels and tales, particularly in The Ambassadors, he makes the misery of missed intensities and beauties a major theme.

James’s earlier novels and tales brought him a measure of success, though it was with his nouvelle, Daisy Miller that he acquired international repute. Even this success did not secure him a large and permanent leadership. Novel after novel, he struggled for fame, money and position. His more sensitive contemporaries and practising novelist such as Howells, Stevenson, and Conrad recognized the rare quality of his writing, though his subtle and over- refined tales finally made him set up residence in England— a country whose civilized airs deeply translated for him all his dreams and desires. The charm of Gardencourt for Isabel Archer in The Portrait, for instance, is essentially a Jamesian necessity, as we shall soon see. London, the great bustling metropolis drew him like a magnet and he was soon dining out in clubs and country-houses, imbibing the essence of refined life. However he was not blind to its vices and failings. In several London-based novels and tales, he showed up the ugliness and stink of upper bourgeois marital relationships? An admirer of their manners, James was an unsparing critic of their morals. This aspect of ‘the international theme’—European moral laxity and American innocence—became a major concern in his fiction.

In London, James increasingly turned to the theatre for the realization of his aesthetic aims. The dramatic art seemed to him the answer to the chaos of individualism and the fluidity of self revelation. It was however, a matter of sheer disaster when he took a plunge into ‘the pit’ as it were. In 1895, his ambitions and over-wrought play Guy Domville, was received with boos and cat-calls and the novelist turned dramatist was hissed off the stage. It was a traumatic shock, and James never fully recovered from it. Nevertheless, this experience in the theatre proved a turning point in his fictional career. His later novels ingested some of the dramatic techniques learnt on the stage. The influence of the Norwegian playwright, Ibsen, on these productions in particular has now been well established.

During this time—‘the major phase’ as F.O. Mathieseen styles it—James turned out a series of fantastic tales and disturbing novels. However, fame and money seemed to elude his grasp. Though acknowledged as a ‘master’, he never sold well. To highlight his grief and disappointment, he wrote a number of stories dealing with the plight of the refined artist.

From the foregoing account it would appear that James had virtually no love-life. In a manner, this is true. If he ever cared for a woman that way, he was able to cover his tracks admirably. Nevertheless now that his letters and diaries have been published in addition to his autobiographical volumes, it is possible to make some surmises. The heroine of The Wings of Dove, Milly Theale, is – undoubtedly a re-incarnation of the image that James nursed in his imagination over a number of years. Leon Edel mentions Miss Woolson, a minor novelist who committed suicide, the one woman who had heavily invested in emotional terms where James, the man, was concerned. But it appears that few women succeeded in arousing sexual passion in James. This has often been, interpreted as sexual frigidity. Isabel Archer’s diffidence and even revulsion in the face of Goodwood’s passion in The Portrait may partly be seen as Jamesian problem.

James’s ‘affairs’ with three or four youngmen in the evening of his life have given rise to doubts and speculations. His letters indeed have a lover’s tone and idiom, but it may not be concluded that he had homosexual intentions. If anything, these letters affirm the old man’s need for company, warmth and intimacy. The admiring and chattering females around seem to have driven him into the company of youthful male companions and friends.

In later years he moved out from London to Rye where in the Lamb House, he entertained novelists and painters, squires and patricians, public figures and statesmen. By the time of his death in 1916, he had been canonized as an elder statesman of letters. Its interesting to note that shortly before his death during the First World War, he became British subject and was awarded the O.M. (Order of Merit). However, his body was taken to America – the land of his birth and he now lies buried in a Cambridge (Massachusetts) cemetery. To commemorate his name, a plaque was placed in the Poet’s Corner of the Westminster Abbey in 1975 – one hundred years after the publication of James’s first important novel, Rodrick Hudson (1875). An interpreter of the Anglo-American reality on both sides of Atlantic, he remains one of the finest novelists in the English language.

The Three Phases

Henry James’s literary career spanning a period of nearly half a century has often been divided into three phases. The dialetics of his development have accordingly being studied in the light of these changes. To be sure, these changes are not abrupt or willful; something in the essential James abides till the end. Thus, the division helps us in tracing the contours of the James territory in general.

The three periods—1870-1880, 1888-96 and 1896-1904 roughly synchronize with the novelist’s youth, middle years and old age, and to the extent, may show nothing more rewarding than similar changes in other major writers. However, in James’s case, there’s more to it than meets the eye. The changes do not follow the set patterns of energy, maturity and decline. In fact, as in W.B. Yeats, the productions of the final phase show a remarkable upswing, and carry a charge of energy undreamt of before. During the first phase (1870 – 1880) which may roughly be described as the period of apprenticeship, James learnt to master the craft of fiction. The French novelists, in particular, were his early masters. The tales and novels written at the start show his penchant for colour, scene and style. A lover of painting, he fills his canvasses with light and shade effects. His first printed novel, Watch and Wards (1871), which he almost disowned, is a weak, contrived and sentimental tale, and gives little idea of the direction his genious was to take shortly. However with the publication of Rodrick Hudson (1875), James suddenly came to his own, as it were. The tragedy of a ruthlessly egotistic artist whose sexual passion destroys him in the end has been read as a parable of his own inner conflicts. Rodricks, as Leon Edel opines, was the explosive side of Henry James, and he worked him out of his system to achieve serenity and peace. The novel and nouvelles that followed— The American (1877). The Europeans (1878), Daisy Miller (1878)—in rapid succession veer round ‘the inner-national theme’, as it has come to be known in James’s criticism. With Washington Square (1880), a novel of a father-daughter conflict revealing the darker side of American Puritanism, the first period comes to an end.

In the second, middle period which several notable critics including F.R. Leavis and Lionel Trilling regard as James’s finest phase, we witness such remarkable works, as The Portrait of a Lady (1881), The Bostonians (1886), The Princess Casamassima (1886), and The Tragic Muse (1889). Now ethical social and political problems weigh heavily, and the romantic element is somewhat subdued. The influence of George Eliot is strongest during the phase of moral realism though the naturalism of the French novelists like Zola and Maupassant is made use of in a refined artistic manner. It is interesting to note the The Portrait occupies a unique place in James’s productions. Apart from its manifold beauties, it marks a turning point in his literary development. It sums up the energies of his romantic muse on the one hand, and initiates a sustained interest in dramas of moral confusions, choices and illuminations on the other. In other words, it stands as a bridge between the first phase and the second.

In the final phase which includes the major novels such as The Spoils of Poynton (1897), What Maisie Knew (1897), The Awkward Age (1899), The Sacred Fount (1901), The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903) and The Golden Bowl (1904), James resorts to the technique of indirection and symbolism. These dramatic novels despite their excesses, have a Gothic magnificence. Here we have a James in quest of such states of mind as border on the spiritual, if not the occult. Ambiguities and ironic mysteries and muddlements are woven into the pattern of the novels and tales that increasingly become complex end involved. The prose style is in consonance with the requirements of his fantastic imagination. Long and winding sentences, which are built on multiplying clauses and parenthesis. It’s then the James of the final phase has come to represent the ‘modern’ sensibility. The New Critics canonized him, though there has been since the mid-sixties a reaction against this kind of a adulation. Maxwell Geismar, for instance, questioned the entire basis of the James revival in his controversial book James and the Jacobites (1965) published as The Cult of Henry James in England, James’s criticism today is an over-worked and saturated industry. Each year witnesses two or three major studies, whilst papers and articles in learned periodicals keep swelling the insatiable Jamesiana.

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