After prolonged engagement with the works of Henry James, one not uncommonly discovers oneself attempting to strike off lovely looping sentences, sentences that seem to unravel without themselves quite becoming unraveled, pausing, immitigably, for the oddest adverbial interpositions, pausing again, mitigably, for the most dazzlingly elaborate metaphors, sentences that are dipped, even drenched in the most delicious irony, yet, for all this oh so fragile verbal freight, churn merrily along their way, still full of steam and cadence, to close on some slightly oblique but nonetheless utterly deft perception. I parody, but, after having arisen from reading the four volumes of the Henry James Letters, the last of which has just been published,[1] who wouldn’t? The Henry James prose style, though surely no disease, is nevertheless highly communicable. In life anyone long exposed to Henry James seemed to pick up the Jamesian prose vibrations. In his day James had his conscious imitators, among them the journalist Morton Fuller-ton and the belletrist Percy Lubbock. Even James’s last typist-secretary, Miss Theodora Bosanquet, in her slender volume Henry James at Work reeled off a number of very James-like sentences. James himself in the end became implacably Jamesian. Miss Bosanquet reports: “by 1909, when the play [The Outcry] was written, the men and women of Henry James could talk only in the manner of their creator.”

Love it or loathe it, the late style of Henry James is sui generis. It is also the great issue in James’s career as an artist. Simply formulated, the issue is this: Is the late style of Henry James, more than a bit of a muchness, altogether too much? Would James have done better to have stayed with the elegant yet still not so insistently parenthetical style of, say, The Portrait of a Lady? Not to put too delicate a point on it, Did Henry James cut it too fine? At the outset, this much can be said with confidence: No one ever wrote English prose as Henry James did and no one ever will again. Other writers have made a firm impress with a distinctive style. In this century, Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, Ernest Hemingway wrote English prose each in his own distinctive way, yet in every case the style was an invention, a work of artifice. But Henry James’s style was nothing of the sort. James wrote as he thought and thought as he wrote—between his mind and his pen there appears to have been no slack whatsoever. Buffon’s famous formulation, “le style est l’homme même,” for once really does seem to apply; between Henry James the man and Henry James the writer the congruence was complete.

Love it or loathe it, the late style of Henry James is sui generis.

Strong evidence for this assertion is to be found in the way Henry James spoke. It was Buffon (again) who said, “Those who write as they speak, even though they speak well, write badly.” But James, in a reversal on Button, seems often to have attempted to speak as he wrote. The results could often be, to put it softly, immensely inconvenient. “He was a great hesitater, you know, the greatest of hesitaters,” recalled Max Beerbohm, who was a great James parodist, you know, the greatest of James parodists. After Edith Wharton introduced James to Finley Peter Dunne, the creator of Mr. Dooley, Dunne commented: “What a pity it takes him so long to say anything. Everything he said was splendid but I felt like telling him all the time: ‘Just ’pit it right up into Popper’s hand.’” Ford Madox Ford once described hearing James speaking to his, Ford’s, housemaid outside the window of his study, “going on and on interminably . . . with the effect of a long murmuring of bees.”

But to the people who adored James, his hesitations, his parentheses, his circumgyrations, held their own fascinations. Edith Wharton, who adored and admired James, wrote of his conversation: “To James’s intimates, however, these elaborate hesitations, far from being an obstacle, were like a cobweb bridge flung from his mind to theirs, an invisible passage over which one knew that silver-footed ironies, veiled jokes, tiptoe malices, were stealing to explode a huge laugh at one’s feet. This moment of suspense, in which there was time to watch the forces of malice and merriment assembling over the mobile landscape of his face, was perhaps the rarest of all in the unique experience of a talk with Henry James.”

Such, then, was Henry James the talker, at least late in his life. But as James’s talk grew more involuted, trying at times even the patience of admirers such as Edith Wharton, so, in middle age, did his prose style grow more intricate. One explanation sometimes put forth for the increasing complexity of James’s style is the advent in his life of the typewriter. In 1896, when James was fifty-three, he developed writer’s cramp, in response to which he called upon the services of a typist to whom he dictated his books, journalism, and all but his most private correspondence. For the rest of his days he continued to avail himself of a typist. “If I could only write as I might talk,” James began a sentence to his brother when both were young men and Henry felt the rush of impressions upon him, a rush whose current was too strong for his pen to keep pace with. Now, though, with a typist at the ready, he was able to “talk” his writing.

Talk flows more easily than penmanship, or even than typewritermanship, assuming the author himself at the typewriter. The natural fatigue of fingers and wrist that cause one when writing or typing to wish to come to the end of a sentence disappears when one talks one’s writing. Talk rolls and flows, lasting quite as long as breath; and even the need for breath may be satisfied by a semi-colon stop, after which one may roll on and on. Although James frequently excused himself to his correspondents for writing in “Remingtonese,” he doubtless greatly enjoyed dictating to a typist, for talking his writing gave full freedom to his impulse to qualify, his hyper-subtlety, his need for utmost clarity, and his endless pursuit of nuance. Yet allowing for all that dictating his books permitted James, one must go on to allow for James’s own abiding love of complexity per se. “I glory in the piling up of complications of every sort,” James once told his niece, adding, “If I could pronounce the name James in any different or more elaborate way I should be in favor of doing so.” Writing by dictation did not so much change Henry James’s style as give full vent to it.

Whence derived this love of complexity in Henry James? After one allows for his high intelligence, his susceptibility to impressions, his verbal gifts, one still hasn’t accounted for James’s love of complexity. One can only begin to do so by gaining some elementary sense of that remarkable machine, the mind of Henry James. It was a mind of rare receptivity. Of James, Ethel Coburn Mayne wrote: “I have never beheld, for my part, any creature who struck me as to his degree assailed by the perceptions.” Begin, then, with a mind “assailed by the perceptions” (a very Jamesian sounding phrase), and now add T. S. Eliot’s notion that Henry James “had a mind so fine no idea could violate it.” Please note that Eliot writes not “penetrate” but “violate.” James could handle general ideas with considerable facility, and he could do so from a fairly early age, as his youthful letters show. It happens that general ideas were not what interested him; richer, more serious truths, for Henry James, were to be discovered elsewhere. Eliot, who thought James “the most intelligent man of his generation,” had James very much in mind when he wrote that “instead of thinking without our feelings [as James did] . . . we corrupt our feelings with ideas.” We are talking here about sensibility, that ill-defined and perhaps indefinable quality whose constituent elements are feelings, perceptions, refinement, and taste, for Henry James’s was pre-eminently a mind dominated by sensibility, and such a mind, itself fine-grained, tends toward shadings, subtleties, nuances, complexity.

George Santayana, whose mind resided in this same realm of sensibility, records another aspect of Henry James in his autobiography. Santayana had met James only once, when James was already an older man. Logan Pearsall Smith and his sister Mary Berenson had arranged the meeting. Of James, Santayana writes: “Those were his last years and I never saw him again. Nevertheless in that one interview he made me feel more at home and better understood than his brother William ever had done in the long years of our acquaintance. Henry was calm, he liked to see things as they are, and be free afterwards to imagine how they might have been. We talked about different countries as places of residence. He was of course subtle and bland, appreciative of all points of view, and amused at their limitations.” What a telling formulation—“appreciative of all points of view, and amused at their limitations”—and what it tells is a very great deal about James’s simultaneous interest in and detachment from life. That Santayana spotted this quality in Henry James is not so surprising. It takes one, as they say, to know one.

What was Henry James’s own point of view, and in what ways did this point of view contribute to his penchant for complexity? James’s nationality—or, more precisely, his lack of nationality—is significant here. It was T. S. Eliot who remarked, “I do not suppose that anyone who is not an American can properly appreciate James.” Yet it was Eliot, too, who apropos of James, noted: “It is the final perfection, the consummation of an American to become, not an Englishman, but a European—something which no born European, no person of any European nationality, can become.” This is of course exactly what James did do—turn himself into a European, but of no known country. He penetrated ample segments of three European cultures: English, French, and Italian. He walked about with two full languages in his head; his command of French appears to have been that of a native speaker. Miss Bosanquet says that James “was never really English or American or even Cosmopolitan.” Although he became a British citizen at the close of his life, Henry James was, as an artist of sensibility, supranational. As such, his point of view was never that of an American or Englishman merely; it was above and beyond that; his was the point of view of the pure artist.

But finally Henry James required a complex, fine-textured style because he had a complex, fine-textured mind. One of the many pleasures of reading through Leon Edel’s handsomely produced, intelligently edited, chronologically arranged four volumes of Henry James Letters is in witnessing the mind of James grow more complex and more finely textured. Not that this took very long. Henry James was very smart very young. He had the advantage of having been born into a cultivated family, whose father was freed, by his own father’s commercial cunning, from the responsibility of having to earn a living. Henry James, Sr., travelled Europe with his family in tow, and his children took a goodly portion of their early schooling in Paris, Geneva, London, and Bonn. Henry was never a superior student; future artists often aren’t. He went at things in his own way, and grew up mentally storing his sensations, accruing his impressions, perpetually sharpening his observational powers. He had another advantage: he knew early that he wanted to be a writer. In this line he was fiercely, unrelentingly ambitious. One can say with fair confidence that every important decision Henry James made in his life—to live in Europe, never to marry, to move out of and then later back into London—was a decision dictated above all by the needs of his art. Complicated though life may have seemed through the eyes of Henry James, in this wise at least it was simple—art, his art, came first.

When Henry James was a small boy one of his tutors could make out no special aptitudes in him, and could commend him only on a pleasing translation into English of some of the fables of La Fontaine. Never much good at games, Henry James was nonetheless from an early age an exceptional verbal athlete. His youthful letters show a boy who could play wonderfully with language, tossing it about, using it ironically, dotting in the occasional French phrase, achieving sweet comic effects. Thus, at age seventeen, toward the close of a letter to his boyhood friend Thomas Sergeant Perry, James writes: “According to my usual habit, having fully satisfied my egotism, I turn to humbler themes. Pray how may you be?” He was well on his way, as he might put it, to “taking possession” of the English language. At twenty, once more writing to Thomas Sergeant Perry, James describes listening in church to a hell and damnation preacher and remarks upon how the day of such men is done. “The brimstone fizzles up in the pulpit but fades away into the musk and cologne water in the pews.” That is pretty damn good, and James knew it was sufficiently to joke about it, for after this line, in parentheses, he notes: “(Don’t it strike you that I am very epigrammatic?)”

I referred to Henry James as an exceptional verbal athlete.

I referred to Henry James as an exceptional verbal athlete, by which I mean someone who can really play the language, ringing a wide variety of effects from it, ranging over a vast field of moods, registering the most subtle modulations. The verbal athletes are the great natural writers: they have power over the language and consciousness of this power and joy in the consciousness. For them writing is a species of intellectual play; they do not grumble about its difficulties, but turn to it with expectant pleasure. Because they take such pleasure in composition, they are generally highly fertile in their creation. In English the great verbal athletes, in my view, have been: Chaucer, Sir Thomas Browne, Shakespeare, Dryden, Pope, Sterne, Dickens, James Joyce, and (a single foreigner) Vladimir Nabokov. The special quality in all of these writers is the joy that one can sense their own writing must have given them. Henry James is of their number.

One of the several delights of the Henry James Letters is the opportunity it provides to watch James the verbal artist in performance. Letters are form free, and under but a single constraint—not to be dull. Over four volumes, Henry James’s letters rarely are. He more than once describes them as “mere gracious twaddle.” True, they are sometimes twaddle; true they are never less than gracious; but they are never “mere.” Attention must be paid to them at all times, for no letter is without its fine touch, how ever pedestrian the subject. Describing poor weather in Rome to his mother, James writes: “Rain in Rome brings out the dirt as darkness does a photographer’s negative . . . .” Or of walking through the Louvre with Emerson, James, not yet thirty years old, remarks: “his perception of art is not, I think, naturally keen; and Concord can’t have done much to quicken it.” Or this one-sentence description of Mrs. William Morris, favorite subject of Rossetti, whom James first encounters at age twenty-six: “Imagine a tall lean woman in a long dress of some dead purple stuff, guiltless of hoops (or of anything else, I should say), with a mass of crisp black hair heaped into great wavy projections on each of her temples, a thin pale face, a pair of strange sad, deep, dark Swinburnish eyes, with great thick black oblique brows, joined in the middle and tucking themselves away under her hair, a mouth like the‘Oriana’ in our illustrated Tennyson, a long neck, without any collar, and in lieu thereof some dozen strings of outlandish beads—in fine Complete.” In Rome for the first time, he reports back that he has seen “the Tiber hurrying along as swift and dirty as history.” The mind of the young Henry James swarms with impressions, emotions, and sensations, observations, insights, and fine formulations. Yet to his brother William he writes: “I never manage to write but a very small fraction of what has originally occurred to me.” In this same letter, lauding the energy of Michelangelo (“energy—positiveness—courage,—call it what you will”), he notes that this energy alone marks the true man of action in art and disjoins the artist from the critic. Could Henry James have already been thinking of himself when he made this observation? It would scarcely be surprising if he had.

Nothing improves the style like actually having subjects to expend it upon. Reading through the first volume of the Henry James Letters, one sometimes feels that the problem presented to Henry James by America was that it didn’t sufficiently stimulate the artist in him; the young Henry James in America resembles nothing quite so much as a boy who has mastered the higher calculus forced to attend a school where his classmates are working away at addition and subtraction. “Try to be a young man upon whom nothing is lost,” runs a well-known James quotation. If ever there was such a young man, he was Henry James. At the age of twenty-two he wrote a review of Essays in Criticism that the book’s author, Matthew Arnold, praised. In his middle twenties he could meet and take the correct measure of such men as Mark Pattison (“a desiccated old scholar, torpid even to incivility with too much learning”) and John Ruskin (who “has been scared back by the grim face of reality into the world of unreason and illusion, and . . . wanders there without a compass and a guide—or any light save the fitful flashes of his beautiful genius”). When he meets George Eliot—“this great horse-faced blue-stocking”—he knows, at the age of twenty-six, that he has met the real thing: “Altogether, she has a larger circumference than any woman I have ever seen.” This notion of the circumference of a human being is one that recurs in James; later, in his early thirties, he will remark that he is able intellectually to see all around Flaubert. Once again, like a superior athlete, James needed always freshly to test himself—not his muscles, of course, but his mind—and America in the 1870s simply did not offer a gymnasium well enough equipped to provide him with the kind of literary workout he required.

We know from Leon Edel’s five-volume biography of Henry James about James as a dutiful and loving son and as the best of good brothers; from the same splendid biography we know, set out in careful detail, the itinerary and chronology of James’s life. The Henry James Letters add the dimension of allowing a sustained look at James’s mind and style as it developed over a lifetime. Although more than 2,300 pages, Professor Edel’s four volumes of the Henry James Letters are very far from all the letters James wrote. These volumes constitute a selection of James’s letters, chosen, as Leon Edel reports, “either because they are documentary, throw light on character or personality, or furnish a picture of family background.” Professor Edel adds that he has used “literary content” as his chief criterion in making his selection, with an emphasis on those letters that reveal Henry James the artist and professional writer.

Over a long career as a biographer and editor, Leon Edel has served Henry James extremely well. Certainly he has done an admirable job with the Henry James Letters. As editor, he has been self-effacing, writing short and always helpful introductory sections within each of the four volumes. He has chosen the letters so that the redundancy factor from letter to letter is very low. He has permitted none of the barbed wire of modern scholarly apparatus to be erected around the text of the letters. His editorial footnotes are minimal, brief, helpfully explanatory. He has wisely left intact snobbish remarks and anti-Semitic allusions. In almost every other way above his social class, in this latter respect James was, alas, very much a member of his social class—no, none of his best friends was Jewish—though with the passing of years the number of these allusions lessens and lessens and finally disappears.

As for snobbery, in a man of James’s abilities the charge is not so easily leveled. A snob is someone who arrogates superiority to himself in order to look down upon others. But what if he is—as James was—truly superior? James’s snobbery had nothing to do with social class. The form his snobbery took was to look down upon the thoughtless and unfeeling. While in Rome, still a young man, he writes that the “sight-seeing barbarians are oppressively numerous”; yet the society of Cambridge, Massachusetts, that of his own social class, he also found wanting, and describes its women as “provincial, common and inelegant.” Yet one mustn’t understand Henry James too quickly. As soon as one marks him down as a snob, one recalls that in Gilbert Osmond he drew one of the most devastating portraits of a snob in all of literature. One recalls, too, his beautifully imaginative, that is to say his utterly sympathetic, treatment of Hyacinth Robinson and other of the working-class characters in The Princess Casamassima. If James was a snob, it was about spiritual decency that he was snobbish, for he looked down upon those who didn’t possess it. Desmond MacCarthy once put this same point rather differently when he said that, in the fiction of Henry James, only the good are beautiful and there is no shortcut to being good.

But the glory of the Henry James Letters is the account its volumes provide of the organization of the life of a major literary artist. I am unaware of the existence in literary annals of anything quite like it. James was a graphomaniac. “I live with my pen in my hand,” he wrote, and in his instance this was no mere figure of speech. When he wasn’t writing—and he wrote for the better part of his life every morning through lunch (a meal he once referred to as “that matutinal crime") and then often again late at night, seven days a week (in his professional life he abolished the Sabbath)—he was out gathering impressions and experience for still more writing. He knew that “life is effort, unremittingly repeated.” He also knew the kind of writer he didn’t want to be: “I have a moral horror of seeming to write thin”; and he knew the kind of writer he couldn’t be even if he wanted: “a free-going and light-paced enough writer to please the multitude.” He viewed himself as a literary artist but one who had the unshakable temperament of the professional writer. To Charles Eliot Norton, his first editor, then at the North American Review, he notes that “experience will cure me of the tendency to waste my substance upon worthless subjects, and teach me to write cheaply about cheap writing.” Later, now earning his livelihood as'a writer, he complains about “my slow and laborious writing,” yet expresses confidence that “with practice I shall learn to write more briskly and naturally.”

Had he set his mind to it, Henry James could have been illustrious at two or three different branches of writing. He might easily have made his way—and his name—as a literary critic, and indeed as a young man he wrote to his friend Thomas Sergeant Perry: “Deep in the timorous recesses of my being is a vague desire to do for our dear old English letters and writers something of what Sainte-Beuve and the best French critics have done for theirs.” Of course, James did write a great deal of literary criticism, much of it by the way and to help earn his livelihood, though as he grew older he wrote— excluding the prefaces to the New York edition of his novels and tales—less and less criticism. What is perhaps not so well known is that Henry James could doubtless have set up as a professional art critic. For an example of how strong he was in this line one has only to read his early letters to his brother William about the great renaissance masters in Venice, Florence, and Rome. When he later wrote about some of these same painters in the Nation, John Ruskin was so moved by it that he told Charles Eliot Norton that he wished James had been appointed Slade Professor of Fine Arts at Cambridge.

“To produce some little exemplary works of art is my narrow and lowly dream,” James, not yet thirty, wrote to his friend Grace Norton. There was of course nothing either narrow or lowly about this dream. James hugely admired the amplitude of Balzac’s career, after which in some respects he modeled his own, and he tended to think of the literary artist, Napoleonically, as a conquering figure. Before many more years passed he would allow that “my dream is to arrive at the ability to be, in some degree, [England’s] moral portrait-painter.” As James entered his thirties, these dreams slowly began to come to realization. He took up permanent residence in Europe, first living in Rome, then in Paris, finally settling in London, of which he wrote: “You can live elsewhere before you have lived here—but not after.”

“To produce some little exemplary works of art is my narrow and lowly dream.”

In Europe he begins in earnest his genre-juggling regimen of writing criticism and journalism while putting his major energies into his fiction. “I find as I grow older,” he writes to William Dean Howells, who throughout his career is so honorably receptive to James’s writing, “that the only serious work I can do is in story-spinning.” In Paris he comes to know Turgenev, whom he admires as an artist but even more as a man: “his whole aspect and temperament [are] of a larger and manlier kind than I have ever yet encountered in a scribbler.” His confidence in his own literary abilities grows; so does his critical acumen; and his observations become correspondingly sharper. “Renan is hideous and charming—more hideous even than his photos, and more charming even than his writing.” Walter Pater is “far from being as beautiful as his prose.” He meets Matthew Arnold in Rome, with whom he shares small talk, and about whom he writes home: “It remained small-talk and he did nothing to make it big, as my youthful dreams would have promised me.” The twaddler grows ever more gracious, learning to combine sweet malice with flattery, as when he writes to his sister-in-law Alice, wife of William, apropos of Josiah Royce: “I shall never, in future, embrace a man’s philosophy till I have seen him—and above all till I have seen his wife,” adding, “You see that William’s own doctrines are by this system very well guaranteed.”

“Mysterious and incontrollable (even to one’s self) is the growth of one’s mind,” James wrote not long after his thirtieth birthday. “Little by little, I trust, my abilities will catch up with my ambitions.” In point of fact, he would spend the remainder of his life making sure that they, his abilities, do precisely that. But his chief problem would be not his abilities but the ability of his audience to keep up with him. Henry James was neither an avant-garde writer nor a writer out to épater his audience in any way. Yet, fairly early in his career, he was presented with the prospect of having to lower his artistic sights in order to hit the large audience that he would have liked but found himself quite unwilling to accommodate. This man so assailed by the perceptions would never in his lifetime find a large audience prepared to be similarly assailed. When Howells suggests that James might give greater pleasure to readers if he would conclude The American, which Howells was then serializing in The Atlantic, by bringing about a marriage between Christopher Newman and Mme de Cintre, James makes clear to Howells that his job is not to provide such ready gratification: “Such readers have a right to their entertainment, but I don’t believe it is in me to give them, in a satisfactory way, what they require.” Earlier, when he supplied The New York Tribune with a regular cultural letter from Paris, James had to be warned against aiming his writing too high. The editor, a decent sort, told James that his letters from Paris were simply too lofty for the readers of a New York newspaper. Once again James gave no serious thought to stooping to conquer. “If my letters have been 'too good,'” he replied, “I am honestly afraid they are the poorest I can do, especially for the money!” All this might come under the rubric of the Integrity Question, except that for Henry James there was no question about it. He believed that it was his job to write as well as he could, while it was his readers’ job to keep up with him.

Uncompromising though he was about his art, Henry James nonetheless had his run. The novella Daisy Miller brought him a succès de scandale. In the late 1870s he seemed perpetually to have a novel being serialized, sometimes simultaneously in English and American magazines. “My fame indeed seems to do very well everywhere,” he wrote to Howells, “it is only my fortune that leaves to be desired.” Money would never cease to be a problem for him. At this period the bulk of his earnings came from magazine writing. He described his book royalties to Frederick Macmillan, his English publisher, as “the reverse of copious.” He had by now moved to London, taking up rooms first on Bolton Street; later he would move to 34 De Vere Gardens, where Robert Browning was his neighbor. To his artistic success was joined a social success: by the 1880s he is dining out among such varied but grand company as Gladstone, Balfour, and Pasteur. Earlier, he ardently wishes to become a member of the Reform Club and succeeds. “J’y suis, j’y suis—for ever and a day,” he writes to his father on his admittance. One social season, that of 1878-79, he dined out, by his own reckoning, no fewer than one hundred and seven times. Soon enough he will tire of this vigorous social round, struggling as hard to get out of society as some people do to get into it; and at one point, writing to his sister about his yearning for solitude, he notes how he longs for doing “without the need of swallowing inscrutable entrées and tugging at the relaxed bell-rope of one’s brain for a feeble tinkle of conversation.”

With “inscrutable entrées” and “the relaxed bell-rope of one’s brain” still firmly in mind, perhaps this is the place to insert a point that seems to have escaped generations of Henry James readers but that arises unmistakably in his letters—the point I have in mind is that Henry James was a very funny man. Sometimes his humor will emerge from his phrasings, as when he speaks of his “mountain of ‘correspondential’ arrears,” or describes the room from which he is writing in his bachelor quarters at Rye as “my little old celibatoirean oak parlor,” or refers to one Mrs. Greville as part of a family “who form a positive bouquet of fools.” More often, his comedy derives from his gentle sense of the absurd. After witnessing a ballet in Milan, he writes of “the interminable adventures of a danseuse who went through every possible alternation of human experience on the points of her toes.” Sometimes he will stop a sentence to comment on the silliness of words themselves: “I went over to Dover (what a language we have, ‘over to Dover’—it would have made Flaubert an even greater maniac than his own did) . . .” Much of Jamesian comedy simply comes from sharp observation: “There are surely bad races and good races, just as there are bad people and good people, and the Irish belong to the category of the impossible.” (James himself, of course, came of Irish ancestry.) He can be very funny on the literary manner of the French: “I saw Daudet who is slowly dying and making a book out of it, and Coppee who is slowly living and doing the same.” Of Paul Bourget he notes: “Bourget est tragique—mais est-il sérieux?” What James called his own “tender chord of perception” turns out to have been threaded with laughter. Here it has to be said that the comic view is at the center of James’s vision; and for anyone who cannot comprehend James’s comic gifts the works of Henry James figure to remain a hopeless puzzle.

James would have need of his humor along with all his other estimable resources in the years that lay ahead. Although his artistic powers increased, beginning in the 1880s the audience for his work began to dwindle. After The Portrait of a Lady, which at least earned critical acclaim, James’s next two novels, The Bostonians and The Princess Casamassima, fell flat, both critically and financially. He now began to find it more and more difficult to write stories to the relatively brief length magazine editors desired. Meanwhile, the commercial success of inferior writers turned him purple with rage. “What you tell me of the success of [Frances Marion] Crawford’s last novel sickens and almost paralyzes me,” he writes to Howells. At the same time, doubt about his own prowess begins to creep into his letters. “It’s always the fault of my things that the head and the trunk are too big and the legs too short.” And: “Yes, I reflect too much—or not enough; I don’t know which. I ought, that is, to go either much further, or not so far.” The demand for his work is reduced to zero—and below zero when a man named Horace Elisha Scudder, Howells’s replacement as editor of the Atlantic, rejects James’s great story “The Pupil.” The result is to jolt his confidence severely.

It is now, in 1890, with the hope of achieving “fame and shekels,” that Henry James turns to writing for the theater. The story of James’s writing for the theater is one of alternating doubts and hopes, oh such towering hopes—hopes that will come rudely crashing down, leaving him spiritually crushed. Leon Edel has provided the definitive account of James’s theatrical adventures in the third and fourth volumes of his biography. These adventures culminated with the London production of James’s play, Guy Domville. The audience for the first night of the play—“a brutal mob,” as James referred to them in correspondence—“hooted” the play off the stage. At the close of the performance, jeers and catcalls from the gallery were met by applause from James’s friends in the audience. When George Alexander, whose company had produced the play and who had himself acted in it, came before the curtain to say that “these discordant notes tonight have hurt me very much” and that, if he and his company had failed, they “can only try to deserve your kindness” by doing better in the future, a voice in the gallery shot back: “‘Tain’t your fault, guv’nor, it’s a rotten play.” One can easily enough imagine James’s reaction—and shudder.

What is remarkable about Henry James’s experience in writing for the theater is that it marks the first time he was deceived about his own art, or indeed about any art whatsoever. As one reads through James’s correspondence, one notices that—despite all the graciousness, despite all the twaddle—the one thing he cannot be merely polite about is art. When sent books by friends or admirers, he duly finds items to praise in them, but at some point in all such letters he shifts gears and turns on the criticism—and the criticism is invariably more persuasive than the praise. The problem, he claims, is that he cannot read a novel without rewriting it as he goes along. “The novel I can only read,” he writes to Mrs. Humphry Ward, “I can’t read at all!” To Howard Sturgis, after subjecting him to a critical workout, he writes: “I am a bad person, really, to expose ‘fictitious work’ to . . . .”

But it is not only “fictitious work” he is candid about. Some of the funniest letters in the final volume of the Henry James Letters are those to the young sculptor Hendrik Andersen, toward whom it is now claimed James had homoerotic feelings. But these feelings, if in fact they existed, did not interfere with James’s running critical devastations of Andersen’s penchant for creating outsized nude statues. James begins, gently, by hoping that Andersen will soon turn away from such work and toward a “smaller masterpiece, the condensed, consummate, caressed, intensely filled-out thing.” But in later letters he refers to Andersen’s “great nude army”; and after advising Andersen to try his hand at other subject matter, he writes: “I won’t send you any fig-leaves—I need them all myself; besides your ladies great heaving and straining and gentlemen would split them in twain at the end of an hour.”

Henry James was fifty-two years old at the time of his theatrical debacle and felt himself completely demoralized. The time had come either to go under or to pick himself up off the floor. In a splendid letter to William Dean Howells, he recounts his condition. The magazine editors no longer want him. “A new generation, that I know not, and mainly prize not, had taken universal possession. The sense of being utterly out of it had weighed me down.” He feels he has wasted time, in recent years, because of his theatrical preoccupation, and produced too little. He tells himself, “Produce again—produce; produce better than ever, and all will yet be well.” Now, no longer interested in magazine serialization, which has at all events been rendered hopeless by the lack of interest in his work, he decides to turn to the “production of the little book pure and simple,” the thought of which leaves him serene. And this is precisely what he will do, concentrate his remaining energies on writing the very best books he can. As he will later write to Paul Bourget: “For myself, more than ever, our famous ‘Art’ is the one refuge and sanatorium.” Herewith Henry James enters his major phase.

Henry James’s last years are a triumph, but a triumph of a curiously qualified kind. The chief qualification is that he will die, in 1916, not really knowing how triumphant he has been. In a brief span of years, he wrote The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl, the masterpieces of his last years. Yet in 1911, in a letter to Edith Wharton, he refers to The Golden Bowl as “the most arduous and thankless task I ever set myself.” By “thankless” he means unappreciated. The smallness of his audience, though he pretends otherwise, is forever troubling to him. It wounds him that not even his supremely intelligent brother William thinks well of his late novels, and at one point he ironically promises him that he will someday produce a novel “on the two-and-two-makes-four system,” to which his brother’s tastes seem to run. He writes as if resigned to being without a large public for his work. He might call the public “a big Booby”; he writes to friends to say that he no longer worries about its indifference to his work or its inability to understand it; still, one feels he should greatly have preferred to have had that big Booby on his side.

The loneliness of the long-distance artist—such seems an appropriate caption to the picture presented in the Henry James Letters of their author’s last years. These are the years of rustification at Lamb House in Rye, Sussex, to which James signed a twenty-one-year lease in 1897. For a man who was a very good friend—“It seems impossible to dislike him,” Stephen Crane said. “He is so kind to everybody”—James seems, in his last years, oddly friendless. Part of the reason for this is that he felt himself the last surviving member of the circle around Flaubert, and hence now quite without contemporaries. But in greater part he withdrew more and more within himself. His love of travel grew less, though in 1904 he set out on the trip to the United States that resulted in The American Scene. He still made visits and had visitors, but work more than ever consumed him. In these years he became, as he writes of a character in one of his stories, “a being organized for literature.”

Never for a moment does he lose interest in his art. “Nothing, all the same,” he writes to Ford Madox (then) Hueffer, “is ever more interesting to me than the consideration, with those who care and see, or want to, of these bottomless questions of How and Why and Whence and What—in connection with the mystery of one’s craft.” Yet he knows that “those who care and see, or want to” are a very small minority. In praising Joseph Conrad to Edmund Gosse, he cannot help adding: “Unhappily, to be very serious and subtle isn’t one of the paths to fortune.” He received renewed affirmation of this in his own case when the New York edition of his novels and tales, on which he had labored long, flopped financially—“a sort of miniature Ozymandias,” he calls it. He sensed that not even his friends read his work. Miss Bosanquet reports: “He found it safest to assume that nobody read him, and he liked his friends none the worse for their incapacity.”

“It is art that makes life,” Henry James said.

Yet it isn’t quite accurate to say that nobody read or understood Henry James in his last years. Henry Nash Smith, in a recent work of scholarship, Democracy and the Novel: Popular Resistance to Classic American Writers, provides an account of the critical reception of Henry James’s mature novels and of their author’s reputation that shows a mixed reaction. Scarcely surprisingly, many critics reacted to James’s work with irritation of the kind shown by William P. Trent, founding editor of the Sewanee Review, who, in a review of The Awkward Age, wrote: “if psychological analysis has to be carried to a point of subtlety considerably beyond any attempted by Shakespeare or Balzac, and if conversations and character analysis are the two poles around which the ellipse of modern fiction is to be drawn—we are willing to commend the novels of to-day to the careful attention of students of advanced mathematics, and shall content ourselves hereafter with the simple old novelists who were unsophisticated enough to write straightforward stories.” Others complained that James’s novels were too circuitous, too analytic, too laden with psychological suggestion and reticences. Yet a small band of critics—most of them, interestingly, women—did understand what James was getting at; they understood that he had abandoned conventional action in literature in the attempt to get at deeper realities and psychological complexities by tracing events to their secret sources in the heart, there to mine a richer truth about human character than anyone had yet worked. Still, the number of people who understood and appreciated James remains small—and, even though James has long since been picked up for teaching purposes in contemporary universities, it still is. In the nature of the case, it probably always will be.

“It is art that makes life,” Henry James said, and the people who believe this will always adore Henry James as one of the great heroes of art, not only for the art he provided but for the example his own life set. It is all the more gratifying to those of us who think of him thus that, as we now know from his letters, he practiced what he preached—that, in fact, art made life for him. Despite his manifold disappointments, despite the many illnesses of his last years—gout, dark depression, shingles, angina—Henry James never lost his passionate interest in life. Henry Adams, James’s contemporary and a man provided with all the advantages life can confer, went sour on life. But not James, who, in old age, accounting for his ever freshened interest in life, wrote to Adams: “It’s I suppose because I am that queer monster, the artist, an obstinate finality, an inexhaustible sensibility.” Henry James is one of those rare writers who does not seem more petty, abject, or repulsive the closer one looks into his life. On the death of his friend Turgenev, James wrote to Edmund Gosse: “Yes, I too like what I read better when I know (and like) the author.” The four volumes of Henry James Letters cause one wholeheartedly to concur, with only a slight emendation: the word “like” needs to be changed to “love.”

  1. Henry James Letters Volume IV, 1895-1916, edited by Leon Edel; Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 864 pages, $30. The three previous volumes of James letters, covering the years 1843-1875, 1875-1883, and 1883-1895, are also edited by Leon Edel and published by Harvard University Press. Go back to the text.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 3 Number 3, on page 30
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