Saturday, March 28, 2015

It was most horrible - Henry James in New York - "I like that!"

Aside from James-in-Europe I have been poking at the lesser phenomenon of James-in-New-York, using the contents of the NYRB collection The New York Stories of Henry James, an odd book in that a third of it is the novel Washington Square (1880), the book James wrote to raise cash to fund the writing of The Portrait of a Lady.  It does not look like James took New York that seriously as a subject.

“Crawford’s Consistency” (1876) has a lot of good New York flavor, though.  James never put this story in a collection, so he must not have thought much of it, but I enjoyed it as much as any of the other early James stories.

Crawford is in love with a beautiful, rich woman.  When that engagement falls through, out of cussedness he marries a woman who runs a boarding house.  Out of further cussedness he sticks with her even though the marriage is no good.  The story is a comedy for everyone put poor Crawford.  James is arguing for inconsistency.

I always mention my trouble with the vagueness of James’s world, but that was not a problem here.  There are few passages of descriptive writing, but rather little bits slipped in that do the necessary work.  Lots of good bits.  The narrator is a young doctor:

I see again my shabby little consulting-room, with an oil-cloth on the floor, and a paper, representing seven hundred and forty times (I once counted them) a young woman with a pitcher on her head, on the walls…

What better way to say he did not have many patients?

Here the parents of the rich woman, declaring the end of the engagement to Crawford:

Mrs. Ingram, very pale, and with her thin lips looking like the blades of a pair of scissors, turned to her husband.  “Mr. Ingram,” she said, “rescue me from this violence.  Speak out – do your duty.”

Mr. Ingram advanced with the air and visage of the stage manager of a theater, when he steps forward to announce that the favorite of the public will not be able to play.

All I need for each character.

The new wife, the boarding house-keeper, is at a “concert-garden” in Central Park – I would call it a beer-garden.  She is complaining that Crawford did not take her to see Niagara Falls.

Crawford listened to this, smiling, unflinching, unwinking.  Before we separate – to say something – I asked Mrs. Crawford if she liked music?  The fiddlers were scraping away.  She turned her empty glass upside down, and with a thump on the table – “I like that!” she cried.  It was most horrible.  We rose, and Crawford tenderly offered her his arm; I looked at him with a kind of awe.

What a shame that James was not more interested in writing about working class people.  He is so good with them.  Maybe a little cruel.  Maybe this is all he had.  I can easily imagine it being an incident from life, perhaps from years earlier, that James had tucked way waiting for the right story.

That is enough James for now.  Maybe I’ll be ready for more six months from now.  The Americans and “Daisy Miller” are up next.  That should be fun.

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