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.’
To claim that materials about his own and his family’s early life, including the letters, are ‘all my truth’ is not an especially shocking resolve, coming from so great and ambitious a novelist. The problem is that he invokes this licence not for the writing of fiction but in this case of biography/ autobiography and specifically with respect to the passages quoted in it from family letters. He is thus admitting what many readers of A Small Boy will already have assumed: that the book is to be read as a work of fiction, composed entirely to suit himself. Nearly all of it was dictated by James, only occasionally from notes, to his loyal and intelligent secretary Theodora Bosanquet. To a degree, his presumptions were perfectly appropriate, since at many points he is anxious to dramatise those processes going on in the mind of a then close to infant Henry James. It is a mind in which any given event may seem already to have existed as fantasy, as vision or as a collage of related moments. And, all the while, it is being reimagined by the author in his late sixties. The book is a drama of minds and both of them belong to Henry James, as genius child and genius grand old man. It is an entirely solitary and sequestering venture.
The ‘others’ mentioned in the title, including immediate members of the James family, are brought on stage only infrequently, if at all. The mother, Mary Walsh James, is ignored altogether except in general references to ‘my parents’. While all the James siblings were born within a few years of each other – William in 1842, Henry 15 months later in 1843, Garth (‘Wilky’) in 1845, Robertson in 1846 and Alice in 1848 – only William is much in evidence in A Small Boy, and then only intermittently. Henry takes pleasure in the superciliously phrased memory that when he and William happened to be enrolled in the same school, the older brother, destined for the professions, ‘was lost again on upper floors, in higher classes, in real pursuits’. The two were companionable in their walks and visits to public places, but not as playmates. Henry recalls being denied access to William’s gang with an hauteur that he manages, at least in these pages, to transcend: ‘I play with boys who curse and swear!’ he was told. To which Henry, with a half-century to think about it, now offers the seasoned reply:
I wonder scarce less now than I wondered then in just what company my brother’s privilege was exercised; though if he had but richly wished to be discouraging he quite succeeded. It wasn’t that I mightn’t have been drawn to the boys in question, but that I simply wasn’t qualified. All boys, I rather found, were difficult to play with – unless it was that they rather found me; but who would have been so difficult as these?
The older James delights in the small boy’s success in finding himself alone, in being left to his own devices. And much of the credit for his freedom of movement is attributed to his father, in particular to his determination that the education of his children should be as unsystematic as possible. The schooling of the two first-born brothers took them in its initial seven years to a dozen different schools in New York and to as many tutors. After that, they were to enjoy the same variety of educational experience during five years’ wandering in England, France, Switzerland and Germany. James revels in the degree to which this itinerancy ushered in ‘that especial phase of our education from which the pedagogic process as commonly understood was most fantastically absent’. It gave them the broad freedom to wander about the streets, gardens, museums and inspiring curiosities of Paris, to shop for books and to ‘gape’ at café life (‘pedestrian gaping having been in childhood prevailingly my line . . . my sole and single form of athletics’). He and William ‘took long and beguiled walks’, and in the galleries they could study together without supervision – the older brother was then taking lessons in drawing and would later seriously consider a career in painting – the magnificent works gathered in the Louvre, and especially in the Galerie d’Apollon. The Galerie figures crucially in James’s recounting of a visionary nightmare, experienced late in his life, which provides a glorious dramatic high point in A Small Boy.
The father had taken the family to Europe in 1855, partly because American schools were in his opinion unable to provide his sons with a sufficiently ‘sensuous education’. His hopes were fully realised, if we are to believe Henry’s account. Paris at that time offered, as New York couldn’t, unparalleled opportunities for education outside the classroom. There was nothing to constrain their spontaneous appreciation of the prolific evidence, wherever they chanced to look, of the thick investitures of historical lineage, of seasoned human ‘types’ and romantically suggestive vistas. There was no threat whatever of their being contaminated by the ‘inhumanity of Method’, as their father liked to call it. Now within the expanse of a city they could experience what their parents insisted on within the confines of home: ‘an environment that had an air,’ as Henry describes it, ‘of gaiety, of charity and humour. None of it was in the least conducive to the formation of prigs.’ And prigs, we’re told, ‘were the father’s prime horror’. ‘He only cared for virtue that was more or less ashamed of itself; and nothing could have been of happier whimsicality than the mixture in him, and in all his walks and conversations, of the strongest instinct for the human and the liveliest reaction from the literal.’
About halfway through the book, James asks, as by this point the reader himself might want to do, just what specifically in this childhood phase of the brothers’ education could have worked so beneficially to the fostering of the imagination and genius of two boys destined for intellectual and literary greatness? Whatever it was, it worked equally well, if with somewhat different results, for both of them. William could have had a distinguished career in painting but decided instead to become a student at Harvard Medical School, a professor of psychology at Harvard and finally the most renowned member of its philosophy department, being, among other distinctions, the first to offer a coherent and persuasive argument for an American pragmatism.
Henry’s summary explanation of why the results were so spectacular is not, however, a particularly satisfactory one. And the reason, I suspect, is that he really wanted to believe that the emergence of his own quite unique genius wasn’t susceptible to any rational explanation. In any case, it all seems to have worked so well, he proposes, because of the inculcation in the two boys of an ‘inveterate process of conversion’:
It works by converting to its uses things vain and unintended, to the great discomposure of their prepared opposites, which it by the same stroke so often reduces to naught; with the result indeed that one may most of all see it – so at least have I quite exclusively seen it, the little life out for its chance – as proceeding by the inveterate process of conversion. As I reconsider both my own and my brother’s early start – even his too, made under stronger propulsions – it is quite for me as if the authors of our being and guardians of our youth had virtually said to us but one thing, directed our course but by one word, though constantly repeated: Convert, convert, convert! With which I have not even the sense of any needed appeal in us for further apprehension of the particular precious metal our chemistry was to have in view. I taste again in that pure air no ghost of a hint, for instance, that the precious metal was the refined gold of ‘success’ – a reward of effort for which I remember to have heard at home no good word, nor any sort of word, ever faintly breathed.
There seem to me evident signs of discomfiture in these sentences. The term ‘conversion’, however often he repeats it, is at once too vague and too heavy. In the passages leading up to this one, James insists, in fact, that the ‘sensuous’, free-wheeling education of the boys was expressly meant to preclude anything that so audibly suggests premeditated procedures, especially ones inferentially of a mechanical, chemical or even financial nature. ‘Inveterate process of conversion’ is a phrase tonally discordant with the predominant style of a book written in celebration of that very randomness, that unregulated and unregularised deportment, that is then perversely said to have been a source of the ‘process’ itself.
The suspiciously technical phraseology involved, while being unsuited to the Henry of this book, is, however, familiar enough in the writings of brother William. Henry’s adoption of the terminology can best be understood, I suspect, as a posthumous bow to his brother, a gesture that confirms the admission he had made four years earlier that he had always been in essential philosophical agreement with him. On 17 October 1907, he admitted as much to William while congratulating him, a bit tardily, on the publication of Pragmatism. He attributes his delay to
the very fact of the spell itself (of interest & enthralment) that the book cast upon me: I simply sank down, under it, into such depths of submission & assimilation that any reaction, very nearly, even that of acknowledgment, would have had almost the taint of dissent or escape. Then I was lost in the wonder of the extent to which all my life I have unconsciously pragmatised.
These sentences might themselves be taken as a response to William’s letter from four months earlier in which he so forthrightly distinguishes his own style of writing from the later style of his brother. This little human drama aside, Henry has every reason to recognise himself as having always been a pragmatist – even before his brother published his codification of the word. ‘Conversion’ refers ultimately to the act of troping, to the ‘turning’ of words from already established meanings so that they may include additional and more flexible ones. ‘Conversion’ introduces a degree of freedom into linguistic situations otherwise characterised by fixity. And it is this same contrast or interplay between fixity and freedom that Henry, from his early novels onward, had developed into a dramatic contrast among his characters. Thus, in his preface to The Spoils of Poynton, he writes:
We get perhaps a vivid enough little example, in the concrete, of the general truth, for the spectator of life, that the fixed constituents of almost any reproducible action are the fools who minister, at a particular crisis, to the intensity of the free spirit engaged with them. The fools are interesting by the contrast, by the salience they acquire, and by a hundred other of their advantages; and the free spirit, always much tormented, and by no means always triumphant, is heroic, ironic, pathetic or whatever and ‘successful’ only through having remained free.
The claim in the letter to William that he had pragmatised all his life is inferentially an assertion that William’s pragmatism is essentially a theory of language congenial to practices Henry made his own from the very outset of his career. It is a theory, that is, of ‘turning’ or troping. William uses the word ‘turning’ repeatedly in Pragmatism to describe the ways ideally to make use of inherited vocabularies, carrying as these do the burden of what he calls ‘previous truths’. It is necessary, he proposes, to ‘convert’ them, ‘convert’ but not displace. The Jamesian conversion process takes full cognisance and grateful possession of the inherited values of which words are the carriers. But in the process it transforms and revivifies them. Thus, new realities emerging on a page will extend the life of old ones, though under a different name. ‘In our cognitive as well as in our active life,’ William writes, ‘we are creative. We add both to the subject and to the predicate part of reality. The world stands really malleable, waiting to receive its final touches at our hands. Like the kingdom of heaven, it suffers human violence willingly. Man engenders truths upon it.’ Or, at another point: ‘Our acts, our turning-places, where we seem to ourselves to make ourselves and grow, are the parts of the world to which we are closest, the parts of which our knowledge is the most intimate and complete.’
But whatever the similarities between William’s conception of ‘turning’ and Henry’s little disquisition on ‘conversion’, the disquisition itself runs disruptively counter to the book’s central claim. Which, simply, is that Henry’s capacity to recognise the transformative portents vividly at work in the world around him, especially in Europe, were in evidence long before they could have received any theoretical or educational formulation, much less prompting. His genius involved nothing learned or even self-conscious; it oughtn’t to be confused with any acquired skill, with mere talent, schooling, even with family nurturing. The small boy’s powers of ‘conversion’ or ‘turning’ or troping were instinctive even before he could speak. As far back as he can now remember, whatever the child looked at might look back, with ‘gleams’, as he likes to call them, or ‘glimmers’, shadowed intimations, all of them asking for recognition and translation. Objects appeared on the spot to be funded with meanings attributable to their past existence. Things were in themselves hieroglyphic.
The book is marvellously full of what James calls ‘imaginative traffic’, as in the scene in which the boy is filled with wonder while passing through the immediate neighbourhood of one of his Parisian schools, the charmingly and eccentrically staffed Institution Fezandié on rue Balzac:
I speak of that direct promiscuity of insights which might easily have been pronounced profitless, with their attendant impressions and quickened sensibilities – yielding, as these last did, harvests of apparitions. I positively cherish at the present hour the fond fancy that we all soaked in some such sublime element as might still have hung about there – I mean on the very spot – from the vital presence, so lately extinct, of the prodigious Balzac; which had involved, as by its mere respiration, so dense a cloud of other presences, so arrayed an army of interrelated shades, that the air was still thick as with the fumes of witchcraft, with infinite seeing and supposing and creating, with a whole imaginative traffic.
Even as James rather excitedly allows these visionary and potentially literary powers to be ascribed to this small boy, he also prompts the reader to be sceptical of them. Not an unfamiliar practice of his, designed as it is to stimulate conjecture, uncertainty and, ultimately, a will to believe in one or another alternative, even though that, too, will surely turn out to be inadequate to the situation. Finally, the inference to be drawn is that there can be no explanation for the emergence of his literary genius; it is a mystery that can’t possibly be explained as a consequence of some acquired facility, like ‘conversion’. He wants not to allay but by his writing to stimulate uncertainty, along with the allowance that there must surely have been in the boy some very early evidence of the author’s literary prowess. And the fact that this evidence at its first emergence, and in its much later rendition in this book, is at times inexplicable only means that literary genius is (and always will be) something to be wondered at.
To reach back to his earliest years, as James here sets out to do, is for him and the reader to discover that looming on the horizon, sustaining the narrative, is one question only, to which he can bring his by now accumulated and proven powers as a writer – a writer with a particular talent for generating the vocabulary of bedazzlement. And that question, put simply, is this: how, by what magic, are the barely legible events that are said to have occurred in the mind of this frail and quite lonely little boy transformed into persuasive evidence that he was destined to become the great Master, the Henry James who, near the close of his life, could write this intriguing and often amazing book?
A Small Boy and Others is his Prelude, always remembering Wordsworth’s subtitle: Or, Growth of a Poet’s Mind, An Autobiographical Poem. James is anxious to suggest nearly everywhere in his book, as Wordsworth was in his, that there was nothing systematic or calculated or predictable about that growth. It cannot even be attributed to an individual will. Thus, the significances divined by Wordsworth in, say, a ruined cottage or the white doe of Rylstone or by the infant James in a Paris street scene are not merely ascribed to things or places. Rather, they are discovered also to be there already, already existent, a sort of afterglow or mark left behind by one’s ancestors. It is as if, to paraphrase a formula of Kenneth Burke’s, words are not simply the signs of things but rather, and to a crucial degree, things are themselves the signs of words.
A densely suggestive passage early in the book is meant to hint at these possibilities, and particularly at the child’s delighted bewilderment at his participation in them. It brings into conjunction three ‘conversion’ scenes in which the boy cannot himself be sure whether what he is seeing is actually going on or if, instead, he is inventing most of it. One scene, at place Vendôme, occurs in 1844-45 when he was between one and two years old; a second, between the ages of three and four, in the home of relatives in New York City during the initial stages of the war with Mexico (1846-48); and a third when, at the age of five, he heard it announced, again at the home of New York relatives, that the Revolution of 1848 in France had forced Louis Philippe to escape from Paris to London. These scenes are not, however, presented in chronological order: the child’s introduction to the wonders of place Vendôme appears last in James’s sequence. Evidently he wants to avoid any inference that an easily measured chronological or causal effect is at work among scenes of a potentially historical resonance. Instead, he creates the suspenseful impression that even now, in the writing of this memoir, he remains curious and speculative about the working of the boy’s and, indeed, of his own mind in its acts of recollection. There are traces here of the prodigiously suspenseful The Turn of the Screw, where no one telling the story, listening to it or now reading it can be sure of what is actually going on, or of how to find out.
A Small Boy takes full dramatological advantage of the possibility that even as he is dictating his recollections of these earlier moments, he is himself being visited by some of the same ghostly, haunting presences that the boy seems at the time to have encountered and wondered at.
The not very glorious smoke of the Mexican War, I note for another touch, had been in the air when I was a still smaller boy, and I have an association with it that hovers between the definite and the dim, a vision of our uncle (Captain as he then was) Robert Temple, USA, in regimentals, either on his way to the scene of action or on the return from it. I see him as a person half asleep sees some large object across the room and against the window-light – even if to the effect of my now asking myself why, so far from the scene of action, he was in panoply of war. I seem to see him cock-hatted and feathered too – an odd vision of dancing superior plumes which doesn’t fit if he was only a captain. However, I cultivate the wavering shade merely for its value as my earliest glimpse of any circumstance of the public order – unless indeed another, the reminiscence to which I owe today my sharpest sense of personal antiquity, had already given me the historic thrill. The scene of this latter stir of consciousness is, for memory, an apartment in one of the three Fifth Avenue houses that were not long afterward swallowed up in the present Brevoort Hotel, and consists of the admired appearance of my uncles ‘Gus’ and John James to announce to my father that the Revolution had triumphed in Paris and Louis Philippe had fled to England. These last words, the flight of the King, linger on my ear at this hour even as they fell there; we had somehow waked early to a perception of Paris, and a vibration of my very most infantine sensibility under its sky had by the same stroke itself preserved for subsequent wondering reference. I had been there for a short time in the second year of my life, and I was to communicate to my parents later on that as a baby in long clothes, seated opposite to them in a carriage and on the lap of another person, I had been impressed with the view, framed by the clear window of the vehicle as we passed, of a great stately square surrounded with high-roofed houses and having in its centre a tall and glorious column. I had naturally caused them to marvel, but I had also, under cross-questioning, forced them to compare notes, as it were, and reconstitute the miracle. They knew what my observation of monumental squares had been – and alas hadn’t; neither New York nor Albany could have offered me the splendid perspective, and, for that matter, neither could London, which moreover I had known at a younger age still. Conveyed along the rue St-Honoré while I waggled my small feet, as I definitely remember doing, under my flowing robe, I had crossed the rue de Castiglione and taken in, for all my time, the admirable aspect of the place and the colonne Vendôme. I don’t now pretend to measure the extent to which my interest in the events of 1848 – I was five years old – was quickened by that souvenir, a tradition further reinforced, I should add, by the fact that some relative or other, some member of our circle, was always either ‘there’ (‘there’ being of course generally Europe, but particularly and pointedly Paris) or going there or coming back from there: I at any rate revert to the sound of the rich words on my uncles’ lips as to my positive initiation into History.
At most points in this passage, James makes it hard to know which of the two memories at work – the child’s or the elderly novelist’s – is the more active. They are complexly and delicately conjoined, though by a process, he likes to remind us, long since mastered by the novelist, fully in possession of his artistic prowess. At a later point in the book he will refer to ‘my instinct to grope for my earliest aesthetic seed’, and we see here what he means by ‘groping’. Even as a very young boy he seems to have been actively though not consciously engaged in the effort. Somewhere between three and four years old, during the war with Mexico, his glimpse of his uncle in dress uniform is described as having been, even as it will seem to the novelist, ‘an odd vision of dancing superior plumes which doesn’t fit’ – and here the voice of the older James is particularly audible – ‘if he was only a captain’. A cautionary note, but not meant to suggest that the older James is disowning either the vision or its oddity. Far from it: ‘I cultivate the wavering shade merely for its value as my earliest glimpse of any circumstance of the public order.’ As it happens, however, he is himself reminded that this wasn’t his ‘earliest glimpse’. The boy turns out to be a rather demanding shade, and now seems to remind his older self, the reminiscing author, that there had been an earlier such ‘glimpse’, the most historically bedazzled of them all. But first there is a hint, for the reader who may choose to take note of it, that perhaps the questionable plumage sported, or so he imagined, by his military uncle, was in the nature of costuming transposed – it could be – from some still earlier imperial vision, involving a military officer of the most exalted rank: the Emperor Napoleon. Meanwhile, again in the New York apartment of relatives, he had overheard news of still another French sovereign, the announcement that, in the Revolutions of 1848, Louis Philippe had been forced to flee Paris for a life of exile in London.
This will remind the novelist of how even in infancy he had become accustomed to the fact that some family relative or other was always just returning from Paris or going to Paris or about to embark in the one direction or the other. Indeed, he now remembers that even as a babe in arms he had himself been taken on that pilgrimage, before either the Revolution of 1848 or the war with Mexico. It seems to have been then, when he was barely two years old, that he experienced his first vision of ‘public’ or historical moments and monumentalities, his ‘positive initiation into History’. He hadn’t, at the time, even acquired the power of speech. But when, not long afterwards, he was able to tell his parents about his presentiments, he reports their being stunned and amazed by the clarity and fullness of his recollections. These included his wonder at the ‘tall and glorious column’ that occupies the centre of the place Vendôme. And here the reader may himself want to intrude with mention of an episode neither the elder nor the infant James would ever be able to recollect. It is of a final moment in James’s life some three years after the book was published. In 1916, James, having just been granted British citizenship, which he had requested out of sympathy with England’s suffering in the war, is on his deathbed. Even in this plight, he begins once again to dictate to his secretary. Perhaps the letters he dictated were to be part of a new story, perhaps in his delirium he meant that they should be sent out. In any case he signed the letters with the name ‘Napoleone’, adopting the old Corsican spelling, and addressed them to ‘Dear and most esteemed Brother and Sister’. In one letter he ordered them to oversee the decoration of certain apartments in the Louvre and the Tuileries, and in another suggests that they are destined to assume ruling positions in ‘our young but so highly considered Republic’.
His ‘earliest aesthetic seed’ was, it appears, to be found not in the young Republic but in Europe, a Europe haunted by the pursuit of imperial glory and conquest. It is brilliantly to the point that in A Small Boy, when he recalls his infant vision of the place Vendôme and its Napoleonic column, he quite insistently reminds himself and us that, unlike his other visions in this sequence, this one is without any bewilderment or doubt or shading. The baby seems to know where he is, happily in his element. About this vision there is nothing hazy or uncertain or bewildering. Both as infant speaking to his parents and as revered Master near the end of his life, his recollection is of ‘the clear windows of the carriage’ and now, as then, he ‘definitely remembers’ that ‘I waggled my small feet under my flowing robe.’ Nous voilà!
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