Fine Chances

Michael Wood

  • Literary Criticism by Henry James, edited by Leon Edel
    Cambridge, 1500 pp, £30.00, July 1985, ISBN 0 521 30100 9
  • Henry James: The Writer and his Work by Tony Tanner
    Massachusetts, 142 pp, £16.95, November 1985, ISBN 0 87023 492 7

Henry James was a great haunter of drawing-rooms and dining-rooms, but it is not easy to picture him in a place called the Library of America, which is the name of the edition of which these volumes form a part. How does he look, posing for posterity alongside Poe, Jefferson, Melville, Mark Twain, Jack London, Harriet Beecher Stowe and others? Is he smiling at some of the company he is keeping; frowning momentarily at the presence of Whitman, who at first he thought was not a poet but a man merely ‘bullied by the accidents’ of experience? Does he make one of his oblique and courteous jokes, expressing surprise that America, in view of everything he thought it lacked, should have a library? ‘No sovereign,’ he said, wryly itemising his country’s social and cultural austerity, ‘no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church, no clergy, no army, no diplomatic service, no country gentlemen, no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old country-houses, nor parsonages, nor thatched cottages nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals, nor abbeys, nor little Norman churches; no great Universities nor public schools – no Oxford, nor Eton, nor Harrow; no literature, no novels, no museums, no pictures, no political society, no sporting class – no Epsom nor Ascot!’ Of course James was speaking of America in the 1830s, the world the young Hawthorne looked out on, and he was exaggerating anyway. He knew America had changed, was changing as he wrote, and we can see that several of these apparent deficiencies have happily and not so happily been met. The interesting thing about the list is its slither from the civic to the picturesque, and its mocking little leap from Oxford to Ascot. The American lack is (or was) real enough: but we begin to wonder how we should feel about our own prissy possessions. James goes on to offer back-handed compliments in both directions. ‘The natural remark’ – for a European, he means – ‘in the almost lurid light of such an indictment, would be that if these things are left out, everything is left out. The American knows that a good deal remains; what it is that remains – that is his secret, his joke, as one may say.’

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