Monday, March 5, 2012

Rambling towards Henry James

Henry James has moved into the top spot of my Humiliation list, I think, the writer who, from the point of view of his status, I should know better than I do.  I have read some of his Greatest Hits – “Daisy Miller” (1878), The Europeans (1878), “The Turn of the Screw” (1898), and a few other much-anthologized stories – and I have read so much about James, just through the ordinary process of reading magazines, that I do not feel so ignorant, although I likely am.

By status I mean – well, I mean the 16* volumes of Henry James published by the Library of America.  Six thick collections of novels, five of “tales” as James called his short fiction, two of criticism, and two volumes of travel writing.  For comparison, Mark Twain and Philip Roth are currently at seven books a piece.  No American writer of similar achievement can compete with the bulk of Henry James.  No writer of similar bulk can compete with his achievement. In retrospect, books by James and his opposite number Twain fill a lot of the imaginary shelf labeled “Late 19th Century American Books We Still Read.”  The 1870s and 1880s would look especially thin without them.  I leave proof of this statement as an exercise for the reader.

How does the neurotic reader deal with this vast mass of stuff, much of it likely mediocre?  By overcoming his neurosis, I hope, by not reading all five books of the short fiction, by not reading Watch and Ward or Confidence or the five volumes of Leon Edel’s biography of James, but instead restricting myself to the one-volume abridgement, and to only the best dozen or so of his novels, and only the most famous thousand or two pages of the tales.  A good plan until the twelfth-best novel turns out to be interesting enough to make me curious about the thirteenth.

Other writers have been leading me to James.  Eliot and Balzac and Hawthorne, for example.  As I  got to know these writers better, a natural question was “What came next?”  The Portrait of a Lady and The Bostonians are good answers to that question.  The un-Jamesian Robert Louis Stevenson led me to James by a different path, as the two writers debated the art of fiction.

I am not sure why I have not pursued James seriously.  One of the writers I admire most, Vladimir Nabokov, loathed James (“Perhaps there is some other Henry James and I am continuously hitting on the wrong one?”); another, Joseph Epstein, calls James “the most artistically intelligent, the most subtle, finally the greatest American writer.”** Both are likely correct, meaning that the artistic qualities most valued by Nabokov are not to be found in James, while the subtleties admired by Epstein are there if I can learn to see them.  This sounds like something that could be profitably written about in blogpost-sized fragments, if I were to read more James.

* If one were to tally up the LoA volumes I mention, one would find fifteen, not sixteen. Fifteen is correct.

**  “Selling Henry James,” Pertinent Players, 1993, p. 181.


  1. I can see Nabokov loathing James. Nabokov strikes me as the sort of writer who has the thing he's trying to do and considers anything that doesn't inform that project to be an irritant. "Henry James is of no use to me!"

  2. James is a writer that I want to read more of in the future. I've only read Daisy Miller, Washington Square and The Portrait of a Lady, but I've been blown away by all of them. I look forward to hearing your explorations of James!

  3. I think VN is a better critic than that. It's more a matter of weighting the difficulty of different aspects of fiction writing. Nabokov puts a high weight not on description exactly but on the elaborate patterns that can be created with descriptive details. I suspect, from my limited knowledge of James - see above post for good reasons to ignore me - that James does not do this sort of thing, and is sometimes even pretty clumsy with sensory detail.

    I do not think that James is a visual writer. Another good critic, James Wood, argues that Nabokov fetishizes the visual. I would not put it that way, but that gets at the difference.

    The two writers both place a low weight on Big Ideas in Fiction.

    Allie, as you show here, I believe you are reading James in the proper spirit, attending to the story's tiny (and big, but also tiny) psychological shifts in the characters.

    Just wait till you see what I explore tomorrow. You may regret waiting. No, it's all good fun, I guess. Minor James, though, minor and then some.

  4. I've read the trilogy (The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, The Golden Bowl) and nothing else since. It's a dreadfully exciting task, finding out which are the "essential James".

  5. When I said I would limit myself to the best dozen novels - of 20! - I was not even kidding. Many of them have at least a medium-high reputations. Those big late novels of course have ultra-high status, and they also attract strong dissenters, which only increases the appeal to me.

    I have read a story from that late period, "The Beast in the Jungle." Concentrated essence of late James, almost abstract.

  6. Perhaps major authors are not always to be trusted as critics. They are so enwrapped in their own artistic vision, they are impatient of any other with which their own does not intersect. After all, Tolstoy’s list of literary hates comprises virtually the entire Western literary canon.

    I had not known that Nabokov disliked James, but that puts James in good company there Nabokov also disliked Dostoyevsky, Faulkner, Tagore (whose poetry he had only encountered in what for any Bengali-speaking reader are embarrassingly poor translations), Pasternak. And many more, I’m sure.

    As for James, I often find him maddening; but he was nevertheless a writer of exceptional vision, albeit one for which Nabokov had little sympathy. James had developed a style which could hint at everything while confirming nothing, and, in his later works, his often tortuous prose – so finely hones for his specific purposes – conveys dramas that seem to exist almost entirely in the world of possibility rather than that of actuality. I imagine some readers will be more drawn to this sort of thing than others. Speaking for myself, I can never quite decide whether James delights me more than he maddens me.

    And in contrast to Nabokov, incidentally, Graham Greene, when asked how he prepared for writing a novel, replied that he would read over a couple or so by Henry James.

  7. James himself is a major author who is also a major critic. He more or less invented technical criticism of the novel.

    Something at which Nabokov was an expert - again, I think VN is a fine critic! His arguments are aesthetic, not ideological like Tolstoy's. His objection to Dostoevsky is not prejudice, but a serious critique.

    The Faulkner and Tagore business - those are closer to prejudice. And Nabokov was a great and public admirer of Pasternak's poetry. His (again, serious) criticism was of Zhivago.

    I am not of his temperament - see the link above, to the old Appreciationist post. But as an Appreciationist, I see the strong value of non-Appreciationists.

    When you say James had exceptional vision, Himadri, do you mean that as a metaphor, or that he was a visual writer? I could easily be wrong, although I find it hard to "see" how that late prose style could possibly be sensory. Everything solid melts into those endless clauses and qualifiers.

    I wonder which James novels Greene meant. Not those late ones, not possibly. Which ones do you think he read before The Power and the Glory!

  8. Yes, James was, as you say, himself a major critic, but he had his blind-spots as well regarding those with whose aesthetics he did not see eye to eye: Dickens, for instance, he detested, and was particularly censorious of “Our Mutual Friend”.

    Nabokov’s dislike of Dostoyevsky is, I agree, a serious critique, but Dostoyevsky, as even his admirers (amongst whose ranks I have recently started to count myself) was a deeply flawed author, whose works contain a great many aesthetic flaws. But the failure even to begin to see any hint of compensatory greatness does indicate to me an utter lack of sympathy with Dostoyevsky’s artistic purpose, and with his aesthetics.

    (As for Tolstoy, it is difficult to separate out the aesthetic from the ideological in his literary
    criticism, since he himself did not recognize any such distinction.)

    You’re right about Pasternak, of course: it was only “Doctor Zhivago”, and not the novels, with which Nabokov took issue. I think I might have been on safer ground had I listed Mann instead, a writer Nabokov insisted on seeing merely as an inflated mediocrity.
    I certainly meant “vision” in a metaphorical sense. As he became older, James seemed increasingly uninterested in the material, objective world, and more interested in the subjective impressions his characters have of the material world. In these later works, he focused almost obsessively in the nuances of people’s minds – their thought processes, their changing perceptions, their fleeting sensations. It is the characters’ perception of reality that appeared to interest him more than the reality itself. As you say, “everything solid melts into those endless clauses and qualifiers”. Or, as someone else said (I can’t remember who), he bit off less than he chewed.

    I think Graham Greene admired James’ art in its entirety, from his very early works to his last. (Leavis had famously characterized three phases of James’ literary career as James the First, James the Second, and The Old Pretender.) Although Greene’s own style was very different from that of James, there are, I think, certain similarities in terms of theme. You’ll probably ask me to expand on that, but this is lunchtime in the office in India right now (I am in India for a couple of weeks), and I’d best get back to work now. (How about that for a cop out?)

  9. I see. There may be a difference in how we evaluate critics. I do not care at all if a critic is right ("trusted," "blind-spots," "sympathy"). I care that 1. he writes well and 2. his ideas are useful.

    Good negative unsympathetic insights are still good insights.

    1. I'm not entirely sure what you mean by "useful" in this context. Do you mean it in the sense that good literary criticism is "useful" because it helps us to a better understanding of the work in question? If so, I do not see how a jaundiced view of a work can be "useful".

    2. Ah, we're back up here. I have to figure out how to kill these threaded comments.

      I do not see the yellow tinge that you do, but rather the application of a consistent set of standards. They do not have to be my standards for me to find them valuable, whether in better understanding a work or better misunderstanding it.

      Has everyone poked around in the new all-critic edition of Open Letters Monthly? I will link to Rohan Maitzen's Virginia Woolf piece. The value of "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown" is not very closely related to the fairness of Woolf's assessment of Arnold Bennett's novels. Talk about jaundiced.

  10. "I care that 1. he writes well and 2. his ideas are useful."

    This is rather what I think Nabokov's criteria were when evaluating other writers, and I think that because Nabokov found nothing of use in James, he dismissed it. VN was a bright guy and an insightful observer of art but he was still primarily an artist, and in my experience at least, artists do tend to view the world of art through the lens of whatever they happen to be working on at the time: stuff either is useful or useless in re that work-in-progress. Perhaps I'm also either projecting from my own experience or insisting the VN was himself a Nabokovian character and as such not to be trusted wholly in what he says out loud.

    But the main point is: there's a lot of good Henry James to read. Do you know the story The Aspern Papers? It's quite fine. I read The Ambassadors last year and while it is a very "interior" novel, there's a sequence that takes place out of doors, in the country, that's expansive and alive in a 19th-century lit sort of way. Very un-James but quite fine. Though it's also true that in The Ambassadors there's really no difference between England and France except that there are more French people in the French-set parts of the book. London versus Paris? James apparently saw little difference, or he saw little of either city.

  11. Well, I won't push the point, but I think Nabokov was a better critic than that. His Gogol book - which is the high point - was not a spinoff of work-in-progress. It was the work. Similarly with his Madame Bovary classroom lecture. These are the fruits of long-term engagement with Gogol and Flaubert.

    The danger of trying to use his James or Mann dismissals is that they are just fragments from letters or interviews, not developed ideas. I can infer some of the steps of the argument from his other work but I should be careful about making too much of the final judgment, of treating them as more than fillips.

    That London versus Paris business - oh no! I thought James was the one on whom nothing was lost. That is just the sort of thing to make we wonder if there is some other Henry James etc, although I have no doubt I will like it all well enough, since unlike VN I like everything.

    I do not know The Aspern Papers. It does sound like a good one.

  12. I hadn't thought of it before, but I guess the idea of James' greatness (which is true) does kind of hang like a heavy weight over the idea of reading him.

    Maybe approach him instead as a whimsical, quirky, evasive, self-protective, woman-fascinated, fascinating writer?

    And James is better than Nabokov. That explains that comment.

  13. I'll have to give up the Nabokov-as-critic discussion because I don't know what I'm talking about. I base it all on vague memories of his Lectures on Literature (to which I was an inattentive reader) and his notes to his translation of Lermontov. Which adds up to not much, not well-remembered. Also, I tend to imagine that all writers are essentially just like me and I promised myself that I wasn't going to drag any of that baggage away from my own little blog and into someone else's.

    The thing about James is that in general his stories could play out anywhere, and that the setting is largely unimportant from scene to scene. He could've just sent someone trotting across the stage with a sign reading "a city" or "a country road" before he began his long ramble through interior wildernesses. Setting matters in "Turn of the Screw," and that's pretty successfully atmospheric. The action of "Portrait of a Lady" spans what? Half a dozen countries? But I recall it more as postcards than three-dimensional sets. Still, James' art was not based on the physical world much. His narratives lack the weight and solidity--the sharp corners if you will--of the narratives of someone like Nabokov or Dickens.

    The more confidently I talk, the less I seem to know. Which makes me a Henry James character, I guess.

  14. Oh, I don't mind the greatness. I've read greater! It's the sort of stuff Scott reports that worries me, that reinforces my worst - I will, at this point, call them prejudices.

    If I get to the point of agreeing with Shelley's last comment, there will be an aesthetic revolution at Wuthering Expectations.

  15. A good plan until the twelfth-best novel turns out to be interesting enough to make me curious about the thirteenth.

    Haha, yes! James should be toward the top of my Humiliation list I suppose—I haven't even read The Turn of the Screw!—but I just don't feel it. I liked Daisy Miller; I liked Washington Square. A lot, actually. But there's something about James—something about all that reading about him as you've mentioned—that's turned me off, or at least turned down the burner.

    At any rate, it does sound like most excellent blog fodder. Most excellent!

  16. James is ubiquitous. I think that is very much part of why I had him as a low priority. I read about him constantly, because of his long career, because he met so many people, and because of his critical output. And because so many later critics mine him for examples.

    For you, "The Turn of the Screw" and so on is not really something on a path you have been following lately. Well, who knows what I am forgetting. Melville and Conrad are off somewhere else. Maybe Ford, though. I should consult the eccentric, I mean look James up in The March of Literature.

  17. Excited about all of this. I was just trying to remember when James was coming up more recently, and now I recall that it was his relationship with Edith Wharton. He was becoming more "speculative," for lack of a better word (or discursive), and experimental I guess, just as she was moving towards clearer storytelling and more forceful character. He was her older mentor, I think, so the timing of his influence and their careers is tricky.

    Portrait of a Lady is the key entry level text, or at least it was for me. Makes it easy to go forwards and backwards. But this is going to be fun, and you'll be amazed when you get to The Bostonians. I'm guess you'll read his Hawthorne book. The Alice James biography by Jean Strouse is also quite a book, and I wish I knew more about William James too.

  18. Just don't expect anything too fast! This is all hand-waving into the future kind of stuff.

    That the only novel I have read is The Europeans is a book club fluke.

    I do hope to read the Hawthorne book. Thanks for recommending the Alice James bio - I was curious about it.

    Now Wharton, the only Wharton I have ever read is "Ethan Frome." Aaah! - look out for that ---