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.’

It’s not a secret now, and perhaps not much of a joke. But James would have been pleased to enter this literary monument, and to accept the re-bestowed national identity. In spite of appearances (he left America in 1875, when he was 32; he was naturalised as a British subject in 1915, six months before he died), he was not an American who became something else. He was an American who went somewhere else to write.

The Library of America, which is published in this country by Cambridge, is a series modelled on the French Pléiade. The paper is a little thicker and the print is larger, but the principle is the same: major authors collected in handsome, compact books of a thousand pages or so. There is a nice instance of comparative cultural history in the thought that such a project should seem natural in France, adventurous in America and unthinkable in England. Or do our Penguins and Oxford Classics count? If not, why not? The series is much to be welcomed. I’m not sure it will restore the American literary heritage, as the publishers claim, but it is good to be able to find Poe and Hawthorne as one finds Stendhal and Proust. These two James volumes are particularly useful, since nothing like as complete a gathering of his criticism has ever been made. Two volumes of fiction (from Watch and Ward to The Bostonians) are already out; four more are to come. I puzzled a bit over how complete the collection was, looking in vain for James’s essays on Tennyson’s plays and on Ibsen. Then I unravelled the phrase (offered by the editor, Leon Edel): ‘the complete literary-critical non-fictional writings of the novelist’. Meaning, it seems, not the writing on drama, art or travel, and not the literary criticism contained or enacted in the stories. It is in ‘Greville Fane’, for example, that we read of the ‘torment of form’ which in the criticism crucifies Flaubert.

The two volumes of criticism bring together some three hundred pieces, about a third of them, the editor says, for the first time in book form. It says something about James’s interests and formation that there should be 520 pages on American writers, 712 on English, and 900 on French. The range is quite extraordinary. He reviews biographies, letters, history, gossip about royalty, the memoirs of Fanny Kemble, Zola’s Nana, travels in Africa and the Middle East, a book called What we saw in Australia, another called Hours of Exercise in the Alps. He writes a letter to an American summer school explaining why he can’t come: ‘an ounce of example is worth a ton of generalisations.’ He is always interested in new fiction, always hopeful, often disappointed. He writes more often, and better, about poetry than we might expect, since he is quick to catch what he calls its ‘ache, or regret, or conjecture’. He greatly admires William Morris. He is snappish when young (Dickens ‘has added nothing to our understanding of human character’), stealthy when old (‘What Mr Conrad’s left hand gives back ... is simply Mr Conrad himself’), but he is always severe, and demanding. He is also very funny. The heroine of a novel entitled Moods is ‘a fitful, wayward, and withal most amiable young person, named Sylvia. We regret to say that Miss Alcott takes her up in her childhood.’ He pictures Carlyle as rioting in his disenchantments; suggests that if the writers buried in Westminster Abbey are ‘classics on one ground and another’, some of them are there on that ground alone. At times his wit is so quiet that we may miss it altogether, as when he says our civilisation does not ‘foster a preponderance of morbid speculation’. He means we scarcely stop to think at all. At other times the humour is broad and ample, as in this image of journalism and its needs:

Periodical literature ... is like a regular train which starts at an advertised hour, but which is free to start only if every seat be occupied. The seats are many, the train is ponderously long, and hence the manufacture of dummies for the seasons when there are not passengers enough. A stuffed mannikin is thrust into the empty seat, where it makes a creditable figure till the end of the journey. It looks sufficiently like a passenger, and you know it is not one only when you perceive that it neither says anything nor gets out.

He uses irony as a remarkable woman does in the late story ‘The Jolly Corner’: to express complications and reservations, even mockery, but in the end to endorse rather than to oppose. His irony, like hers, is ‘without bitterness’, and comes from ‘having so much imagination’. We see it most perfectly at work when James has set himself some well-nigh impossible critical task, like celebrating Flaubert’s immense achievement while wishing it was even greater, or divining the precise mixture of Emerson’s gifts and limitations: ‘He has not a grain of current contempt; one feels, at times, that he has not enough.’ ‘We have the impression ... that life had never bribed him to look at anything but the soul.’ James hangs on, intelligently and firmly, to notions that seem to exclude each other, like ‘method, blest method’ and ‘wasteful, purposeless, passionate sympathy’; or composition in a novel and the absolute freedom of the novelist. He regrets the publication of demeaning private letters but wants to know all he can about an artist. He doesn’t care for gossip, but loves to learn how a writer feels about writing: we can’t know, for instance, why Shakespeare wrote Lear or Othello, but not knowing ‘the effect on him of being able to write Lear and Othello’ strikes James as the real loss.

James can be vague as a critic. He uses words like ‘life’ in the woolly and excited way that flourishes on the sidelines rather than the pitch of experience. F.R. Leavis, in his preface to Morris Shapira’s invaluable selection of James’s criticism, says we can’t do without such words, even though we can’t define them. ‘Some of the most important words we have to use don’t admit of definition.’ This is true, but the difficulty with these words is not whether they can be defined but whether they work, whether they will do the job criticism is asking of them. They will, it seems to me, do only the really rough jobs. The same goes for ‘thought’ and ‘feeling’ in T.S. Eliot’s writing. James is silly about Hardy (‘extremely clever ... evidently very much at home among rural phenomena’), grudging about George Eliot (‘Middlemarch is a treasure-house of details, but it is an indifferent whole ... If we write novels so, how shall we write History?’).

He has, however, the highest and most subtle conception of criticism. ‘It is ... the most complicated and the most particular’ of the arts, offering ‘fine chances for an active mind’. The effect, if not the office, of criticism, he says, is to stir the mind to ‘a reaching out for the reasons of its interest’: ‘This is the very education of our imaginative life.’ James is a good reviewer, deft at giving the gist of the book in hand, but he also likes to ponder and reread, and his most remarkable essays are returns to authors much lived with: acts of gratitude, however tough his assessments may be. Balzac, Browning, Hawthorne, Emerson, Flaubert, Maupassant, Stevenson all come in for this treatment, are covered, to use a recurring image of James’s, by the critic’s generous wings, sheltered in the imagination’s irony.

The irony may help us in a current critical dilemma, since it mediates delicately between theory and practice, acknowledging complexities we are quite keen to forget. James saw himself as surrounded by too much writing purporting to be critical, a ‘deluge of doctrine suspended in the void’ – which sounds familiar enough. ‘Few people will deny that the development of criticism in our day has become inordinate, disproportionate’ – the day was 1879. Of Sainte-Beuve James says: ‘it was by his very horror of dogmas, moulds and formulas, that he so effectively contributed to the science of literary interpretation.’ That certainly seems closer to Christopher Ricks than to Geoffrey Hartman. But James doesn’t say Sainte-Beuve had a horror of science, only of hardened, inflexible science, and James’s complaint against Taine, by contrast, is that he enjoys his simplifications rather than settles for them, as we all must. And James insists, too, on ‘the high ground, which is the ground of theory’. The irony hovers beautifully when he says that the English novel is of course none the worse for not having a theory behind it: ‘it would take more courage than I possess to intimate that the form of novel as Dickens and Thackeray (for instance) saw it had any taint of incompleteness.’ But ‘the theory too is interesting.’ James may not mean quite what we do by theory. (Do we know what we mean?) He often seems to want to evoke speculation, reflection, ideas, everything that comes up during what he calls a ‘second rummage’ through a work. But at times he clearly means what our theorists (ought to) mean: a philosophical answer to a philosophical question.

Thus he says that fiction has ‘never philosophically met the challenge’ created by its fictionality. Why should people bother with invented stories, when there are so many un-invented ones around? How can they find the time? Well, because fiction mirrors life: ‘A novel is in its broadest definition a personal, a direct impression of life.’ But that is to rephrase the question, not to answer it. What is ‘life’, what do we want the mirror for when we’ve got the real thing? And in any case fiction is not just a mirror: it is, as James slyly says, ‘admirably treacherous’ (his italics). Fiction’s real answer, James continues, has always been simply practical. It delivers a masterpiece from time to time and says: ‘There!’ I think a philosopher might now argue that this is a philosophical response: ostensive definition. But it only says what a novel is, not what it does. Certainly we should have nothing for criticism and theory to get exercised about if we didn’t have the masterpieces, and all the good work that prepares and surrounds them. It may even be that fiction can give no other answer, or can only give too many: but the challenge surely remains, and a theory of fiction ought to meet it. Meanwhile, a proper account of why we can’t meet it would be no small thing. Even the solipsist, Wittgenstein said, doesn’t expect the chair not to be there when he sits down. He wants to know why we can’t prove it will be there. We shall not pacify him philosophically by sitting down on it again and again. Dr Johnson didn’t refute Bishop Berkeley by kicking a stone: he refused to argue with him. Theory, then, if it doesn’t swagger too much, may express a yearning, what James calls an intellectual torment – the critic’s echo, perhaps, of the artist’s torment of form. The trouble with contemporary theory may be that it is not tormented enough, or that it has too narrowly, cosily chosen its torments.

‘With Henry James,’ Tony Tanner says in his thoughtful and well-paced little book, ‘English writing about the theory of the novel comes of age.’ I’m not sure whether it’s grown older or younger since. Tanner’s Henry James was originally three British Council pamphlets and is now reprinted, with some amendments, as ‘a short biography of James’s imagination’. James’s career, choices, achievement become ‘a single story’, which turns out to be both grand and rather desolate. James, haunted by a sexuality which dared not speak its or anyone else’s name, was an expert in discreet horror and veiled despair; in what he calls ‘the thing hideously behind’, and also in what Tanner eloquently calls ‘the terrible silent rapacity of civilised people’. Tanner’s preface is diffident and more than a little glum (‘If our civilisation still has any kind of a “human voice” then Henry James is indisputably part of it’), but the book is really very cheering. An intelligent introduction to this elusive author can only be good news, and if we see the pen dropping helplessly from James’s hand, in a famous quotation, as it approaches ‘the infinite pity and tragedy of all the past’, we also hear James insisting, against Henry Adams’s melancholy, that the artistic sensibility is inexhaustible, even when it looks exhausted, and that writing is ‘an act of life’.

How American was Henry James? He was shocked to be treated as an alien in wartime England. He was bewildered by America on his returns there. In his fiction, as Tanner says, it is ‘always a less than desirable fate’ for an American to be sent or taken back. Yet he remains, it seems to me, the prodigious child of the New England he found so thin and thought he had left behind. His greatest debt – Tanner proposes – is ‘not to Balzac but to Nathaniel Hawthorne’. We need to remember what Europe meant for an American of James’s class in the 19th century, how much it was what James called the ‘fond alternative’. And even for other classes, even when it wasn’t fond and wasn’t an alternative, Europe dogged the vision of Americans. They resented it, rejected it, remembered it, used it as a measure. Henry James’s father thought the English ‘not worth studying’, but he needed the notion of the dim old world in order to be able to talk about the bright new one: ‘American disorder is sweet beside European order.’ James himself usually puts inverted commas round the word ‘Europe’, and when he leaves them off expects us to supply them. Europe is a dream of the American mind, just as America was an answer to dissenting European prayers. We have only to think of the trouble Europeans have with the idea of Europe to get the picture. James was perhaps most American, to adapt a paradox belonging to Borges, when he dreamed of Europe; and although he lived there, he could only dream of it.