All My Truth

Richard Poirier

  • A Small Boy and Others: Memoirs by Henry James
    Gibson Square, 217 pp, £9.99, August 2001, ISBN 1 903933 00 5

Published in 1913, when Henry James was 70, A Small Boy and Others is the first of three late volumes that taken together have sometimes been called the ‘autobiography’ of Henry James. The focus of A Small Boy is on the years of his infancy and boyhood up to the age of 15, and it was soon followed by the publication in 1914 of Notes of a Son and Brother, which takes him to the age of 27. That book ends with an elegiac, idealising evocation of his cousin Minny Temple, who died in 1870 from tuberculosis. Her death ‘marks the end of our youth’, though James hoped she would live on in his portraits of Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady (1881) and Millie Theale in The Wings of the Dove (1902). The third (uncompleted) volume, The Middle Years, published in 1917, a year after James’s own death, brings his life to early maturity in 1878, when he was 35.

The only single-volume edition of the three books, edited by Frederick Dupee, was published in 1956 and is long out of print. Dupee provides an index, much needed for books so massively populated with relatives, friends and literary personalities, with references to public places, works of art and a variety of cities and towns in America and Europe. There are also some helpful notes, but not nearly enough of them. In this most recent printing of A Small Boy there are no notes of any kind, no index and a cursory two-page foreword. It’s worth owning if you can’t find a copy of an earlier edition, since conceptually and stylistically it’s one of James’s most audacious, charming and puzzling works. It will reward all the intensity of interest long and deservedly bestowed on two other novelistic reminiscences written at about this time and centring, as A Small Boy does, on the phenomenon of emergent genius in the childhood years of their authors: Du côté de chez Swann, also published in 1913, and A Portrait of the Artist, published in 1916.

James began writing A Small Boy when he was 68. Two events had recently come together in his life which in combination help explain not only his motives for starting to write it, but also, in my view, its dazzling originalities. There was first of all his bitter disappointment and shock, beginning in 1908, at the indifferent public reception of the initial volumes of the New York Edition of the Tales and Novels of Henry James. Its sales were miserably below his expectations. He had hoped it would secure his fame in perpetuity and, more immediately, provide some financial security for his final years. But except for letters from faithful admirers like Conrad and Wharton, who in 1911 would nominate him for a Nobel Prize, the reception was nugatory. It hadn’t been given, he complained, ‘the least critical justice’. Within a few months he suffered a nervous and physical collapse more severe even than his breakdown in 1895, after he was booed off the stage by rowdy elements during a curtain call for his play Guy Domville. The play had represented only a relatively small aspect of his work, while the New York Edition was supposed to represent its essence. As late as 13 June 1910 he could still write, to Edmund Gosse, that ‘black depression – the blackness of darkness & the cruellest melancholia – are my chronic enemy and curse.’

And just as he began to feel some stirrings of improvement, he suffered a second crushing loss with the death – in August 1910, a few weeks after the fatal heart attack of his youngest brother, Robertson – of his ‘ideal Elder brother’, William. William died at his summer home in Chocorua, New Hampshire with Henry at his bedside. Only a week earlier Henry had arrived from England with William and his wife, Alice, along with their son Henry (familiarly known as Harry), all of whom, despite William’s own dire heart condition, had crossed the Atlantic in an attempt to nurse Henry back to health. ‘He had an inexhaustible authority for me,’ he wrote to H.G. Wells on 10 September 1910, ‘and I feel abandoned and afraid, even as a lost child.’

It has often been assumed that the death of William was the strongest incentive for the writing of A Small Boy. Thus in his immensely useful compilation, A Henry James Encyclopedia, Robert Gale maintains that William is ‘the hero of James’s autobiography, especially its earlier parts’. James had himself indicated as much when he first discussed a ‘family book’ with William’s heirs during the months, stretching to nearly a year, when he stayed with them at their home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was in the unaccustomed role of head of the family. In a letter to William’s widow, he assured her that it was to be ‘a book of recollections about the James family’, and on his return to London he wrote to his nephew Harry of ‘the yearning effort really to get more surely and swiftly now, up to my neck into the book about WJ and the rest of us . . . almost a brotherly autobiography, a filial autobiography’.

He had begun to read William’s correspondence, not only in preparation for this ‘brotherly autobiography’ but with the intention of eventually preparing an edition of his brother’s letters. It apparently hadn’t occurred to him that this was a responsibility coveted by Harry, who went on, in 1920, to publish a scrupulously edited and still admired selection in two volumes of The Letters of William James. Harry had found good reason not to entrust the venture to his uncle. It didn’t so much matter to Harry that none of William’s letters, a batch of which Henry had taken with him back to England, was destined to appear in A Small Boy. What did matter, disturbingly, was that those that had cropped up in Notes of a Son and Brother turned out at many points to have been substantially altered, and not in obedience to any known instructions from their author. Harry also discovered that his uncle had revised some letters written by Henry James Sr, along with still others written by William which Henry had no expectation of including anywhere in the emerging autobiography. Henry had unilaterally decided that his own preferred and widely recognised style was henceforth officially to be the family’s style, his self-presentations theirs. In response to his nephew’s complaints about these practices, he at one point excuses his meddling by claiming that it was a compassionate response to a plea he had imagined coming from the dead, his brother calling out: ‘Oh, but you’re not going to give me away, to hand me over, in my raggedness and my poor accidents, quite unhelped, unfriendly: you’re going to do the very best for me you can, aren’t you?’ A curious plea from a brother who, when writing to Henry in 1907, about The American Scene, had very spiritedly mocked the by then firmly entrenched and elaborate style of the later works:

You know how opposed your whole ‘third manner’ of execution is to the literary ideals that animate my crude and Orson-like breast, mine being to say a thing in one sentence as straight and explicit as it can be made, and then to drop it for ever; yours being to avoid naming it straight, but by dint of breathing and sighing all round and round it, to arouse in the reader who may have had a similar perception already (Heaven help him if he hasn’t!) the illusion of a solid object, made (like the ‘ghost’ at the Polytechnic) wholly out of impalpable materials, air, and the prismatic interferences of light, ingeniously focused by mirrors upon empty space. But you do it, that’s the queerness!

Henry is of course aware of the difference his brother describes, and in the same letter to Harry finally comes clean, with that unapologetic forthrightness that he exhibits when he cannot otherwise disarm an epistolary challenge. He confesses that in writing A Small Boy and Notes of a Son and Brother (which included the alterations he had made in some of the letters): ‘I did instinctively regard it at last as all my truth, to do what I would with.’

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