Good-bye, dear Gertrude! Shall I see you at Lady Bonar’s tonight? She has discovered a wonderful new genius. He does… nothing at all, I believe. That is a great comfort, is it not? (ellipsis in original)
That is not Henry James but rather the blithering Lady Markby in Act II of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband (1985), ably summarizing James’s “The Coxon Fund” (1894). Wilde and James were addressing the same type, the genius who performs at parties, who does nothing but talk, if that. Geniuses like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, or the old George Meredith, or the young Oscar Wilde.
I am never sure what is meant when reading about the great talkers of the past. Something more than a raconteur, a great talk-show guest, but what? Frank Saltram, the genius of “The Coxon Fund,” makes regular performances in the Mulville’s drawing-room:
I used to call it the music-room, for we had anticipated Bayreuth. The very gates of the kingdom of light seemed to open and the horizon of thought to flash with the beauty of a sunrise at sea. (Ch. IV)
His talk is like the music of Richard Wagner. This is not helpful. But it is clearly meant to be something well beyond story-telling or wit. When Saltram is described more directly, as part of a scene, the narrator reverts to music.
I had of course a perfect consciousness that something great was going on: it was a little like having been etherized to hear Herr Joachim play. The old music was in the air; I felt the strong pulse of thought, the sink and swell, the flight, the poise, the plunge… (Ch. IX)
The narrator, and other characters, think – assume – that Saltram’s wisdom should be encased in a book, or many books, but “[t]he editors and the publishers were the last people to take this remarkable thinker at the valuation that has now pretty well come to be established” (IV, a strange way of putting it). The plot of the story, the title, is about the attempt to give Saltram a kind of MacArthur fellowship, a genius grant. Who gets the money; without the money can this character marry that; etc.
Saltram is not reliable, an alcoholic and perhaps worse, although whatever might be worse is kept as vague as Saltram’s talent. He is estranged from his awful wife. He fathered children out of wedlock. “’I don’t want to know the worst,’” the narrator declares near the end of the story, and he never does, or never tells me. Or perhaps he does tell me in Chapter XI, when the narrator accidentally (?) encounters Saltram in a park.
After I had sat by him a few minutes I passed my arm over his soft shoulder (wherever you touched him you found equally little firmness) and said in a tone of which the suppliance fell oddly on my own ear: “Come back to town with me, old friend – come back and spend the evening.” I wanted to hold him; I wanted to keep him…
It is – it continues along the same lines – the most openly, uncoded, homosexual passage I have ever seen, or at least recognized, in James.
The narrator is incapable of describing Saltram’s talent, and openly refuses to discuss Saltram’s behavior:
These are dead aches now, and I am under no obligation, thank heaven, to be definite about the business. There are things which if I had to tell them – well, I wouldn’t have told my story. (V)
Up to this point, I had been frustrated and mystified by James’s indefiniteness. Sensing that frustration, apparently, James at this point directly tells me that “The Coxon Fund” is about indefiniteness.