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.