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On Henry James
The Best from American Literature
By Louis J. Budd, Edwin H. Cady
Duke University PressCopyright © 1990 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
Young Henry James, Critic
THE REVIVAL of interest in the critical work of Henry James, evident in the recent publication of two discriminating selections from his reviews and essays has been long overdue. Heretofore, too few of us have been familiar with the great body of criticism which came from his prolific pen, particularly in his earlier years Even fewer of us have taken the time to give it the study and analysis it deserves.
In the failure to do so we have been guilty of an oversight, for James's earlier critical writings are important. For the student of James they have a value beyond weighing. In embryonic form they hold the theories which produced James's later narrative techniques. The idea of the "germ," for instance, makes its first appearance something more than forty years before the Prefaces; the principle of a central intelligence is clearly expressed in 1868, only three years after James had begun writing reviews; and, as Morris Roberts has pointed out, the concept of Romance expressed in them is essentially the same as that which appears much later in the Preface to The American.
But it is not only to the student of James that these essays are important. They are of equal value to the student of American literature as a whole. For a decade and a half they must have been a powerful influence on American taste. Time and again the editors of the highly respected and widely read periodicals for which he wrote—the North American Review, the Atlantic Monthly, and the Nation—assigned him the most important review of the issue, the one to which their readers would turn first. He reviewed as they came fresh from the presses the most recent novels of George Eliot, Victor Hugo, Trollope, Kingsley, and Dickens; the poetry of William Morris, Browning, and Tennyson; and the critical writings of Matthew Arnold, Scherer, and Swinburne. His readers would not have known whom they had to thank, for these early reviews went unsigned, but they could hardly have avoided the deep influence of his persuasive arguments.
Because of the very fact that the young James was important as a critic, I have examined his earlier criticism here, not in relation to his art, but simply as criticism. I have arbitrarily chosen a period beginning with his first published review in 1864 and terminating with the publication of French Poets and Novelists in 1878, and I have studied the reviews and essays he wrote in that period with the one intent of trying to understand what some of his basic critical principles were.
In the course of those fourteen years, James published more than 250 critical articles, the greater part of them reviews In them he showed himself to be a most assured young critic. He sometimes showed himself to be provincial. He wrote in a style direct, easy, and rapid, yet lucid and powerfully expressive—the style of a man whose ideas are clear-cut and integrated. Indeed, the most pronounced characteristic of these early essays is their unity of thought. The standards by which James judges have been carefully worked out; they fit together. He has taken his job seriously, and he has not come to it unprepared.
If anything, his system is too tight. It restricts him and makes him a narrow critic—a specialist in prose fiction and, to limit it still further, in the prose fiction of his own time. By far the greater part of his reviews and articles deals with novels of the mid-nineteenth century, and when he comes to poetry he is out of his element. He judged the sowing of the dragon's teeth at Colchis as "too complex and recondite a scene" for graceful poetic expression. Yet he liked it when he found it in Morris, and honestly said so, though he could not tell why. But when he dealt with Dickens, George Eliot, or contemporary French novelists, he spoke with an assurance which makes it very clear that he had thought out the problems of the critic and of his own function as a member of that brotherhood.
Direct statements of James's critical tenets come up again and again in these essays, most frequently, interesting enough, in reviews of the least successful and the dullest dooks, where he seems to have felt free to leave the book behind and to fill the required space with his own speculations. One review which seems to have suggested much in this way was that of "Dallas Galbraith," in which he states his critical manifesto clearly and uncompromisingly. Even more valuable are his reviews of the works of other critics—Matthew Arnold, Sainte-Beuve, Scherer, and Swinburne—for not only do they lead him into revealing discussions of criticism and critical problems, but what he approves and disapproves in them is clear sign of what his own standards are.
The first of these evaluations of a brother critic is his review of Matthew Arnold's Essays in Criticism, which appeared in the North American Review of July, 1865. That date puts it very early in James's critical career, his eighth publication, to be exact, and the first in which he dealt directly with the problems of the critic. It is, further, one of the most important, for in these early years the critic James owed more to Matthew Arnold than to any other.
The most basic of the ideas to appear in this essay is one which springs, in part at least, from James's own provincialism and his hatred of the vulgar, and which finds welcome support in Arnold's doctrine that the only salvation for the Philistine lies in learning to see life steadily and see it whole. It is the principle that the function of criticism is to exalt the importance of the ideal. Criticism deals with facts of course, must deal with them of necessity, but it deals with them disinterestedly, as Arnold said, and not for their sake alone. It deals with them for the sake of the truth in them, for it is only for the expression of truth that these facts exist.
... the great beauty of the critical movement advocated by Mr. Arnold is that in either direction its range of action is unlimited. It deals with plain facts as well as with the most exalted fancies; but it deals with them only for the sake of the truth which is in them, and not for your sake, reader, and that of your party. It takes high ground, which is the ground of theory.... We said just now that its duty was, among other things, to exalt, if possible, the importance of the ideal. We should, perhaps, have said the intellectual; that is, of the principle of understanding things. Its business is to urge the claims of all things to be understood. If this is its function in England, as Mr. Arnold represents, it seems to us that it is doubly its function in this country.
It is obvious to anyone reading this early criticism that James did not always act upon this principle, but when he failed to do so the reason was simply that he found himself reviewing books which had very little in them to be understood, very little that admitted the critic to high ground; and when he found himself dealing with this kind of thing he simply gave up, and talked wearily to the Philistines in their own language. We do not open his [Trollope's] books with the expectation of being thrilled, or convinced, or deeply moved in any way, and, accordingly, when we find one to be as flat as a Dutch landscape, we remind ourselves that we have wittingly travelled into Holland, and that we have no right to abuse the scenery for being in character. We reflect, moreover, that there are a vast number of excellent Dutchmen for whom this low-lying horizon has infinite charms. If we are passionate and egotistical, we turn our backs on them for a nation of irreclaimable dullards; but if we are critical and disinterested, we will endeavor to view the prospect from a Dutch stand-point.
Whatever it might become in practice, ideally the primary function of the critic was for James, as it was for Arnold, to perceive truth. But James differed from Arnold as to how that truth was to be apprehended. For him it was far less a matter of touchstones and far more a matter of intellect, and he perceived this difference and expressed it. Arnold, he said, unquestionably had feeling and observation, but these alone are not enough, and they may even be secondary.
He has these qualities, at any rate, of a good critic, whether or not he have the others,—the science and the logic. It is hard to say whether the literary critic is more called upon to understand or to feel. It is certain he will accomplish little unless he can feel acutely; although it is perhaps equally certain that he will become weak the moment he begins to "work," as we may say, his natural sensibilities. The best critic is probably he who leaves his feelings out of account, and relies upon reason for success.
The admission here that feeling might challenge understanding as the primary faculty of the critic and the statement that it is a hard choice between them are, I think, largely the rhetorical device of minor concessions. James seems to present them only to assert more strongly the importance of the understanding. He has no trouble in deciding against feeling elsewhere. For him criticism is a rational process, and he cannot easily think of it otherwise. When he finds himself reviewing something which has moved him, yet which he does not fully understand, he is at a loss. Both Kipling and Morris leave him saying that he has been deeply stirred but does not know why, and it is obvious that this is a critical position which James finds most uncomfortable. Indeed, a lack of reasonable understanding is the most severe charge he can bring against a critic, and ten years after the Arnold review he brings it against Swinburne:
His book is not at all a book of judgement; it is a book of pure imagination. His genius is for style simply, and not in the least for thought nor for real analysis; he goes through the motions of criticism, and makes a considerable show of logic and philosophy, but with deep appreciation his writing seems to us to have very little to do.... He is an imaginative commentator, often a very splendid guide, but he is never a real interpreter, and rarely a trustworthy guide.
In charging it against Swinburne that he was no real interpreter and hardly a trustworthy guide, James would seem to imply that he thought it a primary function of the critic to interpret a work of art to those of less perception and less ability to understand than he. Perhaps; but James feels so pronounced a hatred of the vulgar and expresses it so strongly that he gives the impression that this understanding which the critic seeks is more his own understanding than teaching of his readers. If they do not follow him, if they do not learn from him, that is hardly his fault. For James the critic is not a zealot, not a crusader, not a missionary.
When you lay down a proposition which is forthwith controverted, it is of course optional with you to take up the cudgels in its defense. If you are deeply convinced of its truth, you will perhaps be content to leave it to take care of itself; or, at all events, you will not go out of your way to push its fortunes; for you will reflect that in the long run an opinion often borrows credit from the forbearance of its patrons. In the long run, we say; it will meanwhile cost you an occasional pang to see your cherished theory turned into a football by the critics.... Unless, therefore, you are very confident of your ability to rescue it from the chaos of kicks, you will best consult its interest by not mingling in the game.
This idea that truth will make its own way, that it will succeed without favoritism or assistance, is no mere escapism on James's part. It is, instead, another facet of the disinterestedness he had learned from Matthew Arnold, and he stresses its importance again and again.
Of all men who deal with ideas, the critic is essentially the least independent; it behooves him, therefore, to claim the utmost possible incidental or extrinsic freedom. His subject and his stand-point are limited beforehand. He is in the nature of his function opposed to his author, and his position, therefore, depends upon that which his author has taken. If, in addition to his natural and proper servitude to his subject, he is shackled with a further servitude, outside of his subject, he works at a ridiculous disadvantage. This outer servitude may either be to a principle, a theory, a doctrine, a dogma, or it may be to a party....
Only with this disinterestedness is the critic left free to practice that evenhanded, almost ruthless justice which we see James himself administering in the reviews of this early period. Unfortunately, at the same time that it liberates him, this concept also reduces the critic's importance; for if truth will make its own way regardless of the opposition against it, there would seem to be no necessity for the critic to exist in order to preach and support it.
It is this very circumstance, we think—the fact that when a book is of decided ability it gets a fair hearing and pushes its own fortune—that makes it natural and proper to criticise it freely and impartially. The day of dogmatic criticism is over, and with it the ancient infallibility and tyranny of the critic. No critic lays down the law, because no reader receives the law ready made. The critic is simply a reader like all the others—a reader who prints his impressions.
One is led, of course, to this admission that the critic is nothing but a printing reader, if one makes the critic, as James did, largely an individual searcher after understanding, rather than an interpreter and a teacher. The premise can lead only to a negative evaluation of criticism. Ten years later he wrote: "Art is one of the necessities of life; but even the critics themselves would probably not assert that criticism is anything more than an agreeable luxury—something like printed talk."
But James's view of the critic is not purely negative; he does not mean that the critic serves only his own function, that his only purpose is to reach understanding within and for himself. True, that is for James one of the reasons why a man engages in the critical process, but beyond that is the fact that truth is a sum of many opinions, of which his is one. The critic may no longer be dictator, but he is a contributor, and as such it is his responsibility to make his contribution clearly and emphatically.
Public opinion and public taste are silently distilled from a thousand private affirmations and convictions. No writer pretends that he tells us the whole truth; he knows that the whole truth is a great synthesis of the great body of small partial truths. But if the whole truth is to be pure and incontrovertible, it is needful that the various contributions to it be thoroughly firm and uncompromising. The critic reminds himself, then, that he must be before all things clear and emphatic.
Singularly, it is here that feeling and sentiment, heretofore so rigorously excluded, do come in and fill their places. For though, in the process of evaluation, sentiment is dangerous and feeling only a substitute for reasonable understanding, yet once that understanding has been achieved sentiment is of inestimable value in expressing it. Sentiment can "seize upon a shade of truth and convey it with a directness which is not at the command of logical demonstration." Sentiment and feeling, in short, should be used sparingly by the critic, if at all, in evaluating a work; but they are invaluable aids when it comes to contributing his share to that great body of partial truths which is the whole truth.
We come full circle, then, to the idea with which we began, the idea that the function of the critic is to understand truth. That, obviously, is the keystone of James's whole theory, and what he meant by truth determines to a large extent the soundness of his entire critical doctrine. What he meant by it is, if not defined, at least further limited in his essay on Scherer:
The philosopher's function is to compare a work with an abstract principle of truth; the critic's is to compare a work with itself, with its own concrete standard of truth. The critic deals, therefore, with parts, the philosopher with wholes.
And, since the function of the critic is to compare a work with itself, with its own standard of truth, "The critic's first duty in the presence of an author's collective works is to seek out some key to his method, some utterance of his literary convictions, some indication of his ruling theory." The Prefaces are clear testimony that this critical tenet remained with James to the end; for their purpose is manifestly to give to the reader "some key to his method, some utterance of his literary convictions, some indication of his ruling theory" and then to leave it to the reader to act as his own judge of the extent to which the author has succeeded or failed.
Excerpted from On Henry James by Louis J. Budd, Edwin H. Cady. Copyright © 1990 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of ContentsSeries Introduction vii
Young Henry James, Critic (1949) / Laurence Barrett 1
Henry James, Lecturer (1951) / Marie P. Harris 17
James's Portrait of the Southerner (1955) / Charles R. Anderson 30
The Triple Quest of James: Fame, Art, and Fortune (1956) / Alfred R. Ferguson 53
James's Last Portrait of a Lady: Charlotte Stant in The Golden Bowl (1957) / Jean Kimball 77
James's "Moral Policeman": William Dean Howells (1958) / Oscar Cargill 97
Past Perfect Retrospection in the Style of James (1962) / Hisayoshi Watanabe 125
James and the Morality of Fiction (1967) / Robert J. Reilly 142
A "Shade of a Special Sense": Henry James and the Art of Naming (1970) / Joyce Tayloe Horrell 172
Marriage and the New Woman in The Portrait of a Lady (1975) / Annette Niemtzow 190
Feminist Sources in The Bostonians (1979) / Sara deSaussure Davis 209
Criticism and Autobiography in James's Prefaces (1979) / William R. Goetz 227
Strategies for Survival in James's The Golden Bowl (1983) / Catherine Cox Wessel 243
The Selfish Eye: Strether's Principles of Psychology (1984) / Susan M. Griffin 258
James's Rewriting of Minny Temple's Letters (1986) / Alfred Habegger 272
Hypothetical Discourse as Ficelle in The Golden Bowl (1989) / Arlene Young 294
Notes on Contributors 315