If I have felt little urgency to read James, I blame his continual presence in my reading. He rivals anyone but Samuel Johnson as a subject of anecdotes, quips, and opinions. He supplies examples of whatever literary subject is at hand somewhere in his fiction or criticism. Henry James is everywhere.
No, but I do feel that I know a lot about him, given how little of him I have read. I know about the first time he met Virginia Woolf:
Henry James fixed me with his staring blank eye – it is like a childs marble – and said “My dear Virginia, they tell me – they tell me – they tell me – that you – as indeed being your fathers daughter nay your grandfathers grandchild – the descendant I may say of a century – of a century – of quill pens and ink – ink – ink pots, yes, yes, yes, they tell me – ahm m m – that you, that you, that you write in short.” This went on in the public street, while we all waited, as farmers wait for the hen to lay an egg – do they? – nervous, polite, and now on this foot now on that.*
I will credit Woolf with some poetic license here, but not much. “In short” is a bit too much like a punchline.
Levi Stahl describes, in a guest-star packed post (Wharton, Spender, Sei Shonagon), a 1948 book of nothing but James anecdotes. “I – I have trifled with the exordia.” It is worth knowing the context of that real-life Jamesian sentence, as good as it is by itself.**
When did I read about Henry James and his odd entanglement with Constance Fenimore Woolson? I have no idea, but I was prepared when, while reading X. J. Kennedy’s The Lords of Misrule: Poems, 1992-2001, I came across “The Ballad of Fenimore Woolson and Henry James.”*** Fenimore may have fallen in love with James:
Now a diffident hat-tilt from Henry
Might fend off her loneliness,
But Henry was wedded already, it seemed,
To his ethical consciousness.
Poor Fenimore perishes by her own hand, but the story has a happy ending:
Henry went back to his writing desk,
Spread paper like an open chart
And he drew dear Fenimore into his arms
And transformed her to a work of art
Transformed her to a work of art.
In a note Kennedy admits that “a subtle history has been crudely simplified,” which is likely also a fine description of my own pieced together scraps of second- and third-hand knowledge of Henry James.
* The Letters of Virginia Woolf: Volume 1, 1888-1912, August 25, 1907. The misuse of apostrophes is Woolf’s. Other errors quite likely mine.
** In the comments of Stahl’s post, I am accused of contributing to the decline of civilization, a rare pleasure.
*** The ballad is also included in In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus: New and Selected Poems, 1955-2007.