Setting the standard for a century’s worth of criticism, Rebecca West diagnosed Henry James as an American who “could never feel at home until he was in exile” in this slim, readable biography, published just a few months after his death in 1916.
West boldly assesses Roderick Hudson as “not a good book,” and displays remarkable foresight in describing Daisy Miller as a “sad and lovely” book that “will strike each new generation afresh.” An early advocate of feminist principles, she has fascinating things to say about James’s heroines, and her division of his work into early and late periods continues to be a basic principle of Jamesian scholarship.
One of the twentieth century’s brightest minds, Rebecca West began her career as a public intellectual with this thoughtful and compelling study of a literary giant.
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About the Author
Dame Rebecca West (1892–1983) is one of the most critically acclaimed and bestselling English novelists, journalists, and literary critics of the twentieth century. In her eleven novels, beginning with The Return of the Soldier, she delved into the psychological landscape of her characters and explored topics including feminism, socialism, love, betrayal, and identity. She was lauded for her wit and intellectual acuity, evident in her prolific journalistic works such as her coverage of the Nuremberg trials for the New Yorker, published as A Train of Powder, and Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, her epic study of Yugoslavia and its people. She had a child with H.G. Wells, but married banker Henry Maxwell Andrews later in life and continued writing until she died in London at age ninety.
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A Critical Biography
By Rebecca West
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2014 Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.
All rights reserved.
At various times during the latter half of the eighteenth century there crossed the Atlantic two Protestant Irishmen, a Lowland Scotsman, and an Englishman, and thereby they fixed the character of Mr Henry James' genius. For the essential thing about Mr James was that he was an American; and that meant, for his type and generation, that he could never feel at home until he was in exile. He came of a stock that was the product of culture and needed it as part of its environment. But at the time of his childhood and youth—he was born in 1843—culture was a thing that was but budding here and there in America, in such corners as were not being used in the business of establishing the material civilisation of the new country. The social life of old New York and Boston had its delicacy, its homespun honesty of texture, its austerer sort of beauty; but plainly the American people were too preoccupied by their businesses and professions to devote their money to the embellishment of salons or their intelligence to the development of manners. Hawthorne and Emerson and Margaret Fuller and their friends were trying to make a culture against time; but any record of their lives which gives a candid account of how desperately these people had to struggle to make the meanest living shows that the poor American ants were then utterly unable to form the leisured community which is the necessary environment for grasshoppers. "The impression of Emerson's personal history is condensed into the single word Concord," wrote Mr James later, "and all the condensation in the world will not make it rich." There was no blinking the fact that in attempting to set up in this unfinished country Art was like a delicate lady who moves into a house before the plaster is dried on the walls; she was bound to lead an invalid existence.
This incapacity of America to supply the colour of life became obvious to Henry and William James, the two charming little boys in tight trousers and brass-buttoned jackets, one of whom grew up to write fiction as though it were philosophy and the other to write philosophy as though it were fiction, at a very early age. It did not escape their infant observation that the ladies and gentlemen who fascinated them by dancing on the tight-rope at Barnum's Museum always bore exotic names, and when they grew older and developed the youthful taste for anecdotic art they found it could be gratified only by such European importations as Thorwaldsen's Christ and His Disciples, the great white images of which were ranged round the maroon walls of the New York Crystal Palace, or Benjamin's Haydon's pictures in the Düsseldorf collection in Broadway. And when they grew older still and began to show a fine talent for painting and drawing their unfolding artistic sense found more and more intimations of the wonder of Europe. A View of Tuscany that hung in the Jameses' home was pronounced by a friend who had lived much in Italy not to be of Tuscany at all. Colours in Tuscany were softer; but such brightness might be found in other parts of Italy. So Europe was as various as that—a place of innumerable changing glories like a sunrise, but better than a sunrise, inasmuch as every glory was encrusted with the richness of legend.
But most powerful of all influences that made the Jameses rebel against the narrowness of Broadway and the provincial spareness of the old New York, which must have been something like a neat virgin Bloomsbury, was their father. The Reverend Henry James was wasted on young America; it had developed neither the creative stream that would have inspired him nor the intellectual follies that he could slay with that beautiful wit which made him one of the great letter-writers of the world. "Carlyle is the same old sausage, fizzing and sputtering in his own grease, only infinitely more unreconciled to the blest Providence which guides human affairs. He names God frequently and alludes to the highest things as if they were realities, but all only as for a picturesque effect, so completely does he seem to regard them as habitually circumvented and set at naught by the politicians." The man who could write that should have been a strong and salutary influence on English culture, and he knew it. It is probable that when he and his wife paid what Mr James tells us was their "first (that is our mother's first) visit to Europe, which had quite immediately followed my birth, which appears to have lasted some year and a half"—the last clause of this sentence is unfortunate for a novelist famous for his deliberation—he brought his babies with him with a solemnity of intention, as if to dip them in a holy well. Thus it was that the little Jameses not only bore themselves proudly through their childhood as became those who had lived as babies in Piccadilly, and read Punch with a proprietary instinct, but were also possessed in spirit by something that was more than the discontent with the flatness of daily life and the desire for a brighter scene that comes to the ordinary child. From their father's preoccupation they gained a rationalised consciousness that America was an incomplete environment, that in Europe there were many mines of treasure which they must find and rifle if they hoped for the health of their minds and the salvation of their souls.
In 1855, when Henry James was twelve, the family yielded to its passion and crossed the Atlantic. The following four years were of immense importance to Mr James, and consequently to ourselves, for he had been born with a mind that received impressions as if they had been embraces and remembered them with as fierce a leaping of the blood; just as his brother William's mind acquired and created systems of thought as joyously as other men like meeting friends and establishing a family. He found London in the main jolly, rather ugly, but comfortable and full of character, just as he had seen it in Punch, but here and there detected—notably on a drive from London Bridge—black outcrops of Hogarth's London. "It was a soft June evening, with a lingering light and swarming crowds, as they then seemed to me, of figures reminding me of George Cruikshank's Artful Dodger and his Bill Sykes and his Nancy, only with the bigger brutality of life, which pressed upon the cab, the Early Victorian four-wheeler, as we jogged over the Bridge, and cropped up in more and more gas-lit patches for all our course, culminating, somewhere far to the west, in the vivid picture, framed by the cab window, of a woman reeling backward as a man felled her to the ground with a blow in the face." He knew Paris, then being formed by the free flourish of Baron Haussmann into its present splendours of wide regularity, yet still homely with remnants of the dusty ruralism of its pre-Napoleonic state; he saw all the pretty show of the Second Empire, he stood in the Champs-Elysées and watched the baby Prince Imperial roll by to St. Cloud with his escort of blue and silver cent-gardes; and the Galerie d'Apollon in the Louvre, its floors gleaming with polished wood, its walls glowing with masterpieces, and its proportions awesomely interminable and soaring, was the scene of his young imaginative life. Those were the great places; but there were also Geneva and Boulogne and Zurich and Bonn, the differences of which he savoured, and above all the richness of desultory contact with arts and persons of the various countries. He gaped at the exquisiteness of ugly Rose Chéri at the Gymnase, copied Delacroix, read Evan Harrington as it came out in Once a Week; was at school with a straight-nosed boy called Henry Houssaye and a snub-nosed boy called Coquelin; was tutored by Robert Thompson, the famous Edinburgh teacher who was afterwards to instruct Robert Louis Stevenson and many other eminent Scots in Jacobite sympathies as well as the more usual subjects, and by M. Lerambert whose verse had been praised by Sainte-Beuve in his Causeries. "Impressions," writes Mr James of this period, "were not merely all right but were the dearest things in the world."
And one must remember that not only were impressions much to young Henry James, they were all he had. His mental life consisted of nothing else. His natural inaptitude for acquiring systematised knowledge was probably intensified by the study of foreign languages entailed by this travel; for if a child spends its time learning several systems of naming things it plainly has less energy to spare for learning systems of arranging things. At any rate his inability to grasp the elements of arithmetic and mathematics led to his removal from the Polytechnic School at Zurich, and was the cause of despair in all his tutors. But most minds, however incapable they may be of following the exact sciences or speculative thought, have some sort of idea of the system of the universe inserted into them by early instruction in one or other of the religious faiths. This unifying influence was refused to Henry James by the circumstance that his father had found certain religious doubts that had almost driven him from the ministry solved in the works of Swedenborg, which he found not at all incredible but—as he once said in a phrase that showed him his son's own father—fairly "insipid with veracity." On this foundation of Swedenborgianism he had built up for himself a religion which was "nothing if not a philosophy, extraordinarily complex and worked out and original, intensely personal as an exposition, yet not only susceptible of application, but clamorous for it, to the whole field of consciousness, nature and society, history, knowledge, all human relations and questions, every pulse of the process of our destiny." This was no playground for the young intelligence, so young Henry James was told to prepare himself by drinking from such springs as seemed to him refreshing. When he was asked to what church he went he was bidden by his father to reply that "we could plead nothing less than the whole privilege of Christendom, and that there was no communion, even that of the Catholics, even that of the Jews, even that of the Swedenborgians, from which we need find ourselves excluded." He certainly liked to exercise this privilege, but he admits that "my grounds may have been but the love of the exhibition in general, thanks to which figures, faces, furniture, sounds, smells and colours became for me, wherever enjoyed, and enjoyed most where most collected, a positive little orgy of the senses and riot of the mind." Which was to be expected; as also was the fact that he never broke his childish habit of regarding his father's religion as a closed temple standing in the centre of his family life, the general holiness of which he took for granted so thoroughly that it never occurred to him to investigate its particulars.
This European visit came to an end in 1859, and William and Henry James spent the next year or so at Newport studying art under the direction of their friend John La Farge, with the result that William painted extremely well in the style of Manet, and Henry showed as little ability in this direction as he had shown in any other. In 1861 the Civil War broke out; and had it not been for an accident the whole character of Mr James' genius would have been altered. If he had seen America by the light of bursting shells and flaming forest he might never have taken his eyes off her again, he might have watched her fascinated through all the changes of tone and organisation which began at the close of the war, he might have been the Great American Novelist in subject as well as origin. But it happened, in that soft spring when he and every other young man of the North realised that there was a crisis at hand in which their honour was concerned and they must answer Lincoln's appeal for recruits, that he was one day called to help in putting out a fire. In working the fire-engine he sustained an injury so serious that he could never hope to share the Northern glory, that there were before him years of continuous pain and weakness, that ultimately he formed a curious and on the whole mischievous conception of himself. For his humiliating position as a delicate and unpromising student at Harvard Law School while his younger brothers, Wilky and Robertson, were officers in the Northern Army and William was pursuing a brilliant academic career or naturalising with Agassiz in South America, seemed a confirmation of his tutors' opinion that he was an inarticulate mediocrity who would never be able to take a hand in the business of life. And so he worked out a scheme of existence, which he accepted finally in an hour of glowing resignation when he was returning by steamer to Newport from a visit to a camp of wounded soldiers at Portsmouth Grove, in which the one who stood aside and felt rather than acted acquired thereby a mystic value, a spiritual supremacy, which—but this was perhaps a later development of the theory—would be rubbed off by participation in action.
It was, therefore, with defiant industry, with the intention of proving that such as he was he had his peculiar worth, that he set to work to become a writer. His first story was published in The Atlantic Monthly when he was twenty-one, and it was followed by a number of stories, travel sketches, and critical essays, some of which have been reprinted, and a few farces which have not. He also went through a necessary preface of the literary life by reading the proofs of George Eliot's novels before they appeared in the Atlantic and reviewing; the profession of literature differs from that of the stage in that the stars begin instead of ending as dressers. In 1869 he went to Europe and, gaining certain impressions that had been inaccessible to him as a child, finally fixed the dye in which his talent was to be immersed for the rest of his life. He stepped for the first time into "a private park of great oaks ... where I knew my first sense of a matter afterwards, through fortunate years, to be more fully disclosed: the springtime in such places, the adored footpath, the first primroses, the stir and scent of renascence in the watered sunshine and under spreading boughs that were somehow before aught else the still reach of the remembered lines of Tennyson...." He was admitted to the homes of Ruskin, Rossetti, Morris, Darwin, and George Eliot, and allowed to see the wheels go round. But the real significance of this journey to Mr James' genius is the part it played in the last days of his beautiful cousin, Mary Temple. She should have had before her a long career of nobility, for "she was absolutely afraid of nothing she might come to by living with enough sincerity and enough wonder." She pretended not to know that she had been cheated out of this, but as she lay on the death-bed that she would not admit to be even a sick-bed, her eyes were fixed intensely on the progress of her cousin through all the experiences that should have been hers. There came a day when all illusion failed, and she died dreadfully, clinging to consciousness. Her death was felt by Henry and William James as the end of their youth.
That, as Mr James would have said, is the donnée. The must was trodden out, it had only to ferment, to be bottled, to be mellowed by time into the perfect wine. There is nothing in all the innumerable volumes that Mr James was to pour out in the next forty-five years of which the intimation is not present in these first adventures.CHAPTER 2
THE INTERNATIONAL SITUATION
It is no use turning up those first stories that appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and The Galaxy unless one has formed an affection for the literary personality of Mr James. The image they provoke of the literary prentice bending over his task with the tip of his tongue reflectively protruding like a small boy drawing on his slate, is amusing enough; but they themselves are such pale dreams as might visit a New England spinster looking out from her snuff-coloured parlour on a grey drizzling day. Where there is any richness of effect, as in The Romance of Certain Old Clothes, it comes from the influence of Nathaniel Hawthorne. That story, which tells how a girl loved her sister's husband, waited eagerly for her death that she might marry him, and later wheedled from him the key of the chest in which the dead wife had left her finery to await her baby daughter's maturity, is seven-eighths prelude, and the catastrophe, which is the finding of the girl kneeling dead beside the chest with the mark of phantom fingers on her throat, comes with too short and small a report. But in spite of its pitiful construction it is the only one of the dozen stories which Mr James published before his visit to Europe in 1869 that shows any of the imaginative exuberance which one accepts as an earnest of coming genius.
Hawthorne was not altogether a happy influence—it is due to him that Mr James' characters have "almost wailed" their way from The Passionate Pilgrim to The Golden Bowl—but he certainly shepherded Mr James into the European environment and lent him a framework on which to drape his emotions until he had discovered his own power to build up an imaginative structure. The plot of The Passionate Pilgrim, with its American who comes to England to claim a cousin's estate, falls in love with the usurper's sister, is driven from the door, and dies just after the usurper's death has delivered to him all he wants, is very clumsy Hawthorne, but in those days Mr James could not draw normal events and he had to have some medium for expressing his wealth of feeling about England. It is amazing to see how rich that wealth already was, how much deeper than mere pleasure in travel was his delight in the parks and private grandeurs of England; and how, too, a fundamental fallacy was already perverting it to an almost Calvinist distrust of the activities of the present.
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Table of Contents
ContentsI. The Sources,
II. The International Situation,
IV. The Crystal Bowl,
V. The Golden Bowl,