Sunday, January 29, 2017

engrossed at times, to the exclusion of everything else, with the study of the short story - Henry James in 1900, and a bit later

She had other play for her pen, as well as, fortunately, other remuneration; a regular correspondence for a ‘prominent Boston paper,’ fitful connections with public sheets perhaps also, in cases, fitful, and a mind, above all, engrossed at times, to the exclusion of everything else, with the study of the short story.  (“Flickerbridge,” 1902)

After The Awkward Age (1899), Henry James turned to short fiction, publishing eleven stories in 1900, which I think is his record (compared to ten in 1892).  Then one in 1901 and two in 1902, as he turned his attention back to novels.  James used short fiction to work on ideas and techniques he would need for his masterpieces, and the run of The Wings of the Dove (1901), The Ambassadors (1902), and The Golden Bowl (1903), the defining works of the “late James” style, are where it turns out James is going.

I don’t know that any of the ten I have read from the period are themselves masterpieces, not compared to “The Beast in the Jungle” (1903).  I am trusting John Bayley, editor of Collected Stories: Volume 2 (1892-1910, Everyman’s Library) to make the right choices.  “The Abasement of the Northmores,” maybe, that one is unusually good.  But now that I have come to understand James’s experimental method, I am as interested in figuring out what James is trying to do as anything else.  I am reading the biography of his creativity.

So, what is new?  The stories are short.  These are not the forty and fifty page “tales,” but short stories, twenty pages or less.  A few characters, one action.

Stylistically, they are all over the place.  “The Two Faces” is a return to The Awkward Age, dialogue-heavy, the story depending entirely on my inference.  Several move towards the long, complex sentences of “late James,” full of second thoughts and shadings – as in my header from “Flickerbridge” –  but then “Miss Gunton of Poughkeepsie” – what a title – is, for James, transparent, almost plain.  But it is, as the title suggests, also a return to a theme of twenty years earlier, the American girl in Europe, so the style is also twenty years old.  Maybe James salvaged it from the drawer.

Several stories star portrait painters.  Questions about writing, especially the creation of characters, are deflected onto painters.  In “The Beldonald Holbein,” the portrait painters do not even have to paint a portrait.  They change – possible ruin – a woman’s life just by saying she ought to be painted.

The two biggest surprises to me were “The Story in It,” which is poor stuff as a story but is really an essay in dialogue form about the purpose of fiction, and “The Great Good Place,” which is a genuine example of Utopian fantasy, and should be included in all anthologies of such works, if there are any.  A place of perfect rest for James.

I will dig in to these stories for a couple of days.  Any suggestions for others I ought to read are welcome.  “What, Bayley omitted ‘Broken Wings?’”  Or whatever.


  1. I continue to enjoy your James postings. I'm off to my Kindle collection to check out "The Great Good Place." Thanks for highlighting it.
    BTW, the wind has blown this whirligig off course again, and I have to move my blogging to a different address; today I focus on Robert Frost, but perhaps in a few days I will be focusing on Henry James! Here is the link:
    The welcome mat is always out!

  2. It is nice of James, at this point, to begin writing stories of a more sensible length. Easier to nibble at them.