When Henry James and Henry Adams met in England in September 1914—a month after Britain declared war on Germany—“they threw their arms around each other as if bridging a great chasm.” (So wrote Aileen Tone, Adams’s companion.) James and Adams had been friends, although not close friends, for four decades, but this was probably the first time they had ever greeted each other in this way. Perhaps the war had made them more demonstrative.
The onset of war had been a shock to James. On August 10 he wrote to his friend Rhoda Broughton: “Black and hideous is to me the tragedy that gathers. . . . Just across the Channel, blue as paint today, the fields of France and Belgium are . . . about to be given up to unthinkable massacre and misery.” A week later he confided to his close friend Edith Wharton: “Life goes on after a fashion but I find it a nightmare from which there is no waking save by sleep. . . . The season here [Rye] is monotonously magnificent—& we look inconceivably off across the blue channel, the lovely rim, toward the nearness of the horrors that are in perpetration just beyond.” A few weeks later he suffered a severe attack of depression and food-loathing, but it lasted only thirty-six hours.
In the final eighteen months of his life James found it difficult to work on his pre-war literary projects. In November 1914 he told Wharton: “I try myself to get back to work—but . . . I crawl like a fly—a more or less frozen fly—on a vast blank wall.” A month later he wrote Wharton again: “one of three books begun & abandoned.” He is referring to A Sense of the Past, The Ivory Tower,and possibly a book on London that he had promised Macmillan. He could also be referring to the third volume of his autobiography, The MiddleYears, which he began in the fall of 1914.
In the final eighteen months of his life James found it difficult to work on his pre-war literary projects.
James could not concentrate on literary projects for an obvious reason: he was preoccupied with the war. In September 1914 he told an American friend: “we sleep and wake and live and breathe only the war.” Eight months later he was still intensely interested in the conflict. In April 1915 he wrote Hugh Walpole that “one’s consciousness is wholly that of the Cause, wholly the question of what becomes of it; frankly I take no interest in any other—save, that is, for two or three hours each forenoon, when I . . . push a work of fiction of sorts uphill at the rate of about an inch a day.”
The war affected James’s daily life. His valet Burgess Oakes enlisted. So did the sons of many friends. He knew several young writers who had enlisted, including Rupert Brooke. In February 1915 he visited Brooke, who was on sick leave. James promised Brooke, who died of sepsis two months later while on his way to Gallipoli, that he would write an introduction to Brooke’s letters from America (appearing in 1916, it was the last essay James wrote). In October 1915, James learned that the son-in-law of his neighbor Moreton Frewen had died in
Wanting to take part in the war effort, James became a quasi-public figure. He served as the chairman in England of the American Volunteer Motor Ambulance Corps. He attended meetings in Chelsea to organize relief efforts for refugees.
Wanting to take part in the war effort, James became a quasi-public figure.
James also visited wounded soldiers at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London—Belgian soldiers and later British ones. He told Hugh Walpole, “I have been going to a great hospital (St. Barts’) at the request of a medical friend there, to help to give the solace of free talk to a lot of Belgian wounded & sick . . . & have thereby almost discovered my vocation in life to be the beguiling and drawing-out of the suffering soldier.” He was doing what Walt Whitman had done during the Civil War.
James wrote six essays about the war. In “The Long Wards,” which was written for Wharton’s The Book of the Homeless—published to raise money for refugees—James praises the amiability and good nature of the wounded soldiers. And he asks: “How can the stress of carnage . . . have left so little distortion of the moral nature?” In the essay James makes it clear that he regards Germany as the aggressor. He speaks of “the horrors that the German powers had . . . been for years conspiring to let loose upon the world.” In a letter to Brander Matthews, a professor of theater at Columbia University, he says: “Never has England in all her time, gone at anything with cleaner hands or a cleaner mind and slate.”
James was angry that the United States remained neutral and told the American ambassador that the United States should do more for Britain. In January 1915 he wrote to an American friend that Woodrow Wilson “seems to be aware of nothing but the various ingenious ways in which it is open to him to make difficulties for us.” By “us” he meant Britain.
On May 7, 1915, the Lusitania was sunk by German torpedoes. James knew several people who had drowned. Two weeks later he wrote Wharton: “I am learning to take for granted that I shall probably on the whole not die of simple sick horror . . . . One aches to anguish & rages to suffocation, & one is still there to do it again.”
Though James was shocked by the war and angered by America’s neutrality, he recognized that the war had helped him in his continual battle with depression. In October 1914 he told his niece Mary Margaret James, “I have been finding London all this month . . . agitating and multitudinously assaulting, but in all sorts of ways interesting and thrilling.” Percy Lubbock, James’s literary executor, recalled that “the challenge of the war with Germany roused him to a height of passion he had never touched before . . . and if the strain of it exhausted his strength . . . it gave him one last year of the fullest and deepest experience.”
A well-known novelist, James occasionally hobnobbed with leading British politicians. In December 1914 he wrote Walter Berry, a close friend of Wharton’s, that he had “dined and lunched successively with several high in authority—the Prime Minister [Asquith], Lord Chancellor [Viscount Haldane], Winston Churchill, Ian Hamilton, etc., people I don’t, in my sequestered way, often see.” Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty; General Sir Ian Hamilton was Commander of the Central Force from 1914 to 1915. In mid-January 1915 James wrote his nephew Harry James of another occasion with the great and good at Walmer Castle: “I don’t do such things easily nowadays: but I thought this, in all the present conditions, almost a matter of duty, really not to be shirked.” Many years later Violet Asquith—by that point Violet Bonham Carter—recalled that Churchill had no idea who James was and that he found James tedious. Why did Prime Minister Asquith invite James to Walmer Castle? Perhaps he thought James—a leading American writer—might have some influence on American public opinion.
A few months after the weekend at Walmer Castle, James asked Asquith to support his application for British citizenship. Asquith agreed, and on July 26, 1915, James wrote to his friend Edmund Gosse (another sponsor): “Civis Britannicus sum!” A month earlier James had told his nephew Harry why he was taking this step:
Hadn’t it been for the War I should certainly have gone on as I was . . . but the circumstances are utterly altered now, and to feel with the country and the cause as absolutely and ardently as I feel, and not offer them my moral support . . . affects me as standing off or wandering loose in a detachment of no great dignity. I have spent here all the best years of my life—they practically have been my life . . . . There is not the least possibility, at my age, and in my state of health, of my ever returning to the U.S.
In “Within the Rim,” which was written for a fundraising book edited by Elizabeth Asquith, James describes his love of England. Though he was a “technical alien,” he says that everything about England—its “shared instincts and ideals”—was “a splendour to which I hoped that so long as I might yet live my eyes would never grow dim.”
James gave his agent an extract from his application for British citizenship; he wanted it to be publicized. The application says:
Because of his having lived and worked in England for the best part of forty years, because of his attachment to the Country and his sympathy with it and its people, because of the long friendships and associations and interests he has formed here—these last including the acquisition of some property: all of which things have brought to a head his desire to throw his moral weight and personal allegiance, for whatever they may be worth, into the scale of the contending nations’ present and future fortune.
James had another reason for becoming a British citizen: his strong disapproval of America’s policy of neutrality. In June 1915 he wrote the wife of an American friend: “There are times when I feel the long aching anguish of it all scarcely to be borne—the nervous strain is so sore a thing.” He mentions Germany’s aerial attacks: “Zeppelins are all over the place even as I write.” Bombs from zeppelins killed almost 600 Britons and injured more than 1,300.
James had another reason for becoming a British citizen: his strong disapproval of America’s policy of neutrality.
James told John Singer Sargent that he wouldn’t have become a British citizen if American policy had been different. “I daresay many Americans will be shocked at my ‘step’; so many of them appear in these days to be shocked at everything that is not a reiterated blandishment and slobberation of Germany.” James seems to have meant that the United States was treating Germany the way a dog might slobber over its master. James says he waited “long months” for the American government to show some sign of “intermitting these amiabilities to such an enemy—the very smallest would have suffered for me to throw myself back upon it.”
James’s decision to become a British citizen was attacked in the American press. In Britain, however, he was praised. The Times of London thanked him for his decision. So did the many Britons who wrote letters to him.
Wharton at first disapproved of James’s decision, but in her autobiography, A Backward Glance (1934),she reconsidered:
after the “Lusitania,” and the American government’s supine attitude at that time, James felt the need to make manifest by some visible, symbolic act, his indignant sympathy with England. The only way open to him, he thought, was to renounce his American citizenship and be naturalized in England; and he did this. At the time I considered it a mistake; it seemed to me rather puerile, and altogether unlike him. Not knowing what to say, I refrained from writing to him; and I regret it now, for I think the act comforted him, and it deeply touched his old friends in England.
Soon after James became a citizen his health declined rapidly. In late September he wrote Wharton: “I grieve to say that I have for all these weeks, ever since the end of July, been having the most damnable difficulties of physical condition.” Wharton, who came over in early October 1915, thought James had declined mentally as well as physically. In mid-January, after James had suffered several strokes, she told a friend that she would not visit the dying James because he is “just a shadowy substitute” of what he was, adding that “Our Henry was gone when I was in London in October.”
James himself was aware of his decline. In mid-November he told Hugh Walpole that “the past year has made me feel twenty years older, and, frankly, as if my knell had rung.” He added that he still took an interest in life: “Still, I cultivate, I at least attempt, a brazen front.” Three weeks later he had a major stroke. He died on February 28, 1916, two and a half years before the end of the war.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 6, on page 33
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