Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The first published Henry James story - not what I was expecting

The concerns I expressed yesterday about reading Henry James neurotically were the direct result of reading James neurotically.  By discussing my neurosis, I hope to expel it, as with a Freudian talking cure.

My neurotic action was to read the first four stories James published, one from 1864, one from 1865, and two from 1866.  Simultaneously he began his career as a book reviewer for magazines.  At least I was not neurotic enough to read the book reviews.  I went to the library and looked them up in the two Library of America volumes of James’s criticism, but I did not actually read them.  So there is that.

I should read good James first, surely?  And there was no reason to think that these early works were particularly good.  They are not, but I was curious.  The problem builds, though, if I next read his fifth story, and then the sixth, and so on, ignoring Washington Square and “The Pupil” because of a meaningless chronology fetish.*

“A Tragedy of Error,” 1864, 25 pages in the old Complete Tales of Henry James Volume 1: 1864-1868, edited by Leon Edel, that is the first Henry James story.  James was 21 or 22 when it was published.

We are in “a French seaport town.”  A pretty woman receives a letter and faints.  The point of view hovers over the woman and a man who is clearly her lover, and in a clever touch shifts, when they return home, not to either of them but to one of the servants:

The cook looked up from her potato-peeling with a significant wink.

“What can it be,” said she, “but that monsieur returns?”

Part II, another shift, to the docks and to a sinister boatman.  He steals milk from a little boy!  His own nephew.  What a bad man.  The story spends the next fifteen pages in a conversation between the woman and the boatman as they negotiate the terms of a contract to kill her husband.  Then a twist!  The end.

To be clear:  60% of the first Henry James story is about an adulterous woman hiring a contract killer to knock off her hapless husband.  His first story is a noir, except without all of the shadow imagery.  I described the story to ma femme – “It’s Thérèse Raquin,” she exclaimed, and it is, except Zola’s novel was published three years later.  Were boat-related murders a common subject in French magazine fiction at the time?  Or American?  I say French because the story is clearly a French imitation, with Balzac and Mérimée the strongest flavors.

I do not want to claim too strongly that “A Tragedy of Error” is worth reading.  I am sure happy to know about it.

Here we have, thanks to Cornell University, the entire issue of Continental Monthly in which it appeared.  Let me know if you find anything good.

* Emma of Book Around the Corner, pitying me, has kindly suggested we read Washington Square together, which we will do.  Writing may commence in four or five weeks.  If anyone else wanted to read along, we have no legal means to stop them.  Washington Square is a short one.  Thanks, Emma!


  1. I have a new project for you. Come up with a list of shortest/most accessible works of great writers that effectively demonstrates that greatness.
    You've laughed at yourself and others for reading a lesser (or plain dud) work of a great author and then judging the author based on that. And you've mocked those of us who want to read just one Dickens or whatever.
    But you've also commented on the Russian lit. that is great but not long and sent me out to find some really interesting short stories.
    Please compile such finds into a short list.

  2. "Mocked" is kinda strong.

    I know what you mean, though, about the short works. If "The Overcoat" or "The Death of Ivan Ilych" look like duds to a reader, Dead Souls or Anna Karenina will probably not be much fun either. Although you never know. Folks are weird.

    "Daisy Miller" is the obvious one for James. "The Turn of the Screw" is not so typical, although plenty of people genuinely love it.

    Hmm hmm hmm. How short? How great? Just fiction?

  3. I can't quite imagine approaching the formidable ice cliff of James' works and deciding exactly where to attempt to scale it (from the bottom seems quite a sensible choice). I'm always happy to pick up James. While I've made my way fairly far up that cliff, with particularly memorable stops at The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl, I'm also pleased that I have a few of his plumper works left to explore - and a lot of the thin ones too. I'd be delighted to join you for The Aspern Papers.

  4. Really, it is best to pretend it is not there. You read it book by book, so approach it book by book, which is what you will do anyways.

    It is just that, looking at the Library of America set of the complete tales, or the old 10 volume edition, I start to get crazy ideas.

    I see, Seraillon, that I can mark you down as another advocate for Late James.

    Sure, Aspern Papers, but let's not say when.

  5. A friend picked up the entire Bodley Head James when a local bookshop went belly-up. I swear you can spot that thing on his shelves from far outside the 12-mile fishing limit, even on a foggy night.

  6. The Aspern Papers is a pure delight, Washington Square Shocked me with how interested I was in finding out what would happen next- I have recently read some of his short stories, "The Pupil", interesting, "The Alter of the Beast", "Jolly Corners", and "The Beast in the Jungle". The best short secondary source on the short stories of Henry
    James I am aware of is Colin Tobin's introduction to The New York Stories of Henry James-His novel based on the London Years of Henry James, The Master, is a pure delight-

  7. Sparkling Squirrel's idea is a great one. I second it! Also...

    as with a Freudian talking cure

    I will take this as a subtle reference to your doubts about a potential aesthetic revolution hereabouts.

  8. mel - to be honest, I am convinced that James has a huge number of "tales" - he called them tales - worth my time. Just not all of them.

    I should look for the Tóibín essay, thanks.

    I actually meant the business about the talking cure. It's working, too. I have skipped tales #5 and #6 and moved on to #7. And I have a reason to try that one, even though, so far, it is not very good. If I were making an allusion I would have gone with "that Viennese witch doctor."

    I am having doubts about the "effectively demonstrates their greatness" part of the suggested project. The concentration should really be on the books, the texts, not the authors. Authors are great because they wrote great books. And then we argue about "great," but it all runs through the text. "Daisy Miller" is a representative work, which is something different, so I think not quite what was meant.

    I use the author shorthand all the time, myself, perhaps too much.

  9. Is it really Therese Raquin? I am agog. Does the ghost of the husband appear and get squashed nauseatingly between the two lovers? Because ghosts are Jamesian enough, but the squashy part isn't so much. That's really more Zola territory. p.s. my students loved the part in the morgue.

  10. Well, the story is only 25 pages. It shares the adulterous triangle and the boat-related murder with Zola. A big difference right off the top is that this Thérèse has to hire a hitman. Her Laurent is realistically useless.

    Come to think of it, the ridiculous painting subplot of TR is also weirdly Jamesian.

  11. Hi Tom,

    Washington Square is a great novel, I'm looking forward to reading it along with you.

    I'll try to join you for The Aspern Papers, it's on my TBR. I want to read The Coxon Fund too.


  12. Heck, it's going to turn into an ongoing Henry James Readalong Event. Except for short Henry James only, which is good.

  13. Sigh. I feel your neurotic pain. It's such a long road, but you're amazing. I swear you would be much happier going straight to Portrait of a Lady and getting a sense of value and even, odd for James, accessibility, and then picking up all of your loose ends. But you can power through a lot of the earlier stuff pretty quickly I suppose, especially if you can bring yourself to skip over some stories, and try to stick to your "even dozen" pledge. Curious about which 12 novels make the cut.

  14. After this one last story - which is about a painter, a recurring topic for James, so excused - I am skipping to Washington Square and the neurosis will be shattered until the next time I idly pick up a Library of America volume and think "900 pages, please, in my sleep!"

    The 8 HJ novels I am omitting when I count 12 are:

    Watch and Ward
    Roderick Hudson
    The Reverberator (title makes me laugh, though)
    The Tragic Muse
    The Other House
    The Sacred Fount
    The Outcry