Tuesday, March 24, 2015

scrutinising with ingenious indirectness - Henry James sounds like Henry James

Some time ago I publicly declared that I would not read Henry James neurotically, meaning specifically that I would not be a completist or read in a particular order or read all five volumes of the Library of America Complete Stories, however tempting these options might be.  I do not think I am such a good reader of James, but the most likely way to read better is to read more.

So I have been reading more, non-neurotically, or just a little bit neurotically.  I picked out the short stories James picked himself for his first collection, A Passionate Pilgrim and Other Tales (1875). At this point James had published 27 stories; he picked six for the book, including one masterpiece, one nullity, and four stories that James would build on for the next forty years.

The nullity is “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes” (1868) set among 18th century descendants of Puritans and with a ghost story tacked onto the end.  I did not, as they say, get it.  The masterpiece is “The Madonna of the Future” (1873), which I want to save for a day or two.

I supplemented the James-picked collection with some early choices from The New York Stories of Henry James (NYRB), one of which was excellent (“Crawford’s Consistency,” 1876, saved for later), one trivial (“The Story of a Masterpiece,” 1868), and one – now here is where I wish I in fact had read as a completist, because what I want to say is that “A Most Extraordinary Case” (1868) is the earliest James story that really sounds like Henry James.  But I don’t really know that, do I?  Regardless, it took him four years of magazine writing to find his voice.  Pretty quick.

What do I mean?  I mean that based on style and subject I might not have guessed that “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes” or a number of earlier stories were by James.  But I with “A Most Extraordinary Case” I would have guessed right.

Colonel Mason picked up some kind of deadly non-communicable illness during the Civil War.  Malaria, maybe?  James, in a classic Jamesian move, never names the illness.  “The disorder was obstinate and virulent, but there was no apparent reason why care and prudence should not subdue it.”  Whatever it is.  Mason is recuperating at the Hudson River home of his aunt, where he also finds a beautiful cousin with whom to fall in love.  She in turn falls in love with Mason’s doctor.  Their impending marriage destroys Mason’s will to live, making him an “extraordinary case” to the rationalist doctor.

It was a very simple matter to Miss Hofmann that she should be charmingly dressed, that her hands should be white and her attitude felicitous: these things for her had long since become mechanical.  But to mason, who was familiar only with books and men, they were objects of constant, half-dreamy contemplation.  He would sit for half-an-hour at once, with a book on his knees and the pages unturned, scrutinising with ingenious indirectness the agreeable combination of colour and outline which made up the physical personality of Miss Hofmann.

That sounds like James, right?  And this sickly, sexless man in love with a healthy, vigorous woman is going to reappear many times in James, in The Portrait of a Lady and elsewhere.  This is also the first story where, if you find this sort of thing entertaining, you can pretend that Mason is homosexual and actually in love with the doctor, not Miss Hofmann.

I was planning to include a joke or two, since “A Most Extraordinary Case” is lightly but funny, but they require too much setup.  A scene where Mason almost comes to terms with his illness (and thus knows he cannot have Miss Hofmann)  is poignant, more so even than his death scene.  These are genuine if minor Jamesian pleasures.  I am learning to see them.


  1. "And this sickly, sexless man in love with a healthy, vigorous woman is going to reappear many times in James"
    A sickly, sexless man made so by the Civil War, which James himself did not take part in because of an unspecified "obscure hurt", but which left his brother Wilkie a cripple and his brother Bob an alcoholic.
    There's a lot more of James's essence there.

  2. Roger, that is a very interesting connection. James obviously finds the figure not just useful but meaningful.

  3. My experiences with novels by James have been frustrating and disappointing; however, I embrace and enjoy (if that is the right word) many of his shorter works. I think that says more about me than James.

  4. There is a lot of variety in James, far more than I once thought. Sticking to his shorter works is reasonable.

    The shorter works were more constrained by their origins as magazine writing. They are more "pop," if that does not sound too ridiculous. The long novels are more "rock."

  5. Or . . . "chamber music" v. "symphony"

  6. Yes, that's good. Easier to hear the individual instruments, so to speak, in the shorter works.

  7. I bought the Library of America five-volume set of James's short stories sometime around 2005 with the SPECIFIC goal that I would read them in order when I retired. Well, I retired in April 2008 and it hasn't happened yet. I've dipped in a few times to re-read certain favorites ("Turn of the Screw," "Figure in the Carpet," etc.) but the number of books I've purchased since then makes the goal almost ludicrous at this point, plus, I don't think I have the stamina to stay with James for more than 4,000 pages without a mid-Victorian break of some kind. (And, by the way, as you know, you can almost always pretend that the main male character in James is gay and find a way to make that work).

  8. It is such a good goal, in theory.

    I know that my own stamina for James is limited, even for the lighter stuff I will be writing about this week.

    Your last line - maybe that is what confused me about "A Romance of Certain Old Clothes." A man marries a woman; she dies; he marries her sister (deceased sister is now perhaps a ghost). The "hero is homosexual" game does not work. How is this Henry James?

  9. Because I was not familiar with that story, I decided to read it. I think it is very, very Jamesian, but in tone, not in story line.

    The main character, of course, is the sister, Viola, and I think this is an excellent version of a Hawthorne story as seen through the eyes of a gay man's sensibility. Dickens, while reading Eliot's "Scenes of Clerical Life" was able to discern that the author was likely a woman. Dickens, the quintessential "eye" of 19th century fiction, would have read this story and almost certainly would have declared its author a woman (I know I'm getting dangerously close to gender politics, but I oversimplify to make a point).

    The narrator's attention to detail, those objects and behaviors described, lack any real sense of masculine awareness as it would have been expressed at the time, as if James were channeling Wharton or even Jane Austen. The men's characters and feelings are almost throwaways, and their attitudes toward their wives feel hardly uxorious (except perhaps Lloyd's feelings near the moment of Perdita's death). The person most carefully described is Lloyd, and his physical beauty is described more as a woman might than certainly as a man like Hawthorne or Dickens might have (We shall give Melville a wide berth here, for special reasons best dealt with at another time). Thackeray might have been capable of describing male beauty, but he would have given more than equal time to female beauty, which James does not do here, choosing instead to expend his lavish language on the brocades and jewels (a Wildean aesthetic, don't you think?)

    So this story drips gayness to me and, if Viola is a stand-in for a male thinking that he can dress himself in the semblance of a woman to gain a man, he will be thwarted with instant death from the truth that he will never fit in that dress. Isn't that gay self-hatred another Jamesian trait?

    With those observations (granted, I haven't spent a great deal of time ruminating on my thoughts) could you not have guessed this story as Jamesian, if not by the Master himself? It's straightforward syntax certainly betrays it as early in his writing, far before The Grand Style overtook plot, character, and setting in his hierarchy of artistic goals, but I think its more James than it is anyone else's work.

    Did I convince you?

  10. Convinced! Not exactly. But the cross-dressing theme is in the text. I forgot that you can switch genders in this game.

    It is likely that I do not recognize James's tone well. Style and subject, yes; tone, no.

    It does not seem to me that the description of the man is so unusual or different than that of the women, or that the descriptions of the objects are so lavish. You mean the Huysmans chapter of Dorian Gray? Nowhere close. Maybe I am looking at the wrong passages.

    The phrase "The Master" will never be written by me except, let's say, ironically.

    Well done.