Relations will stop at nothing

Philip Horne

Henry James was a perfectionist, though not a humourless one, about his public appearance and appearances: hence the pleasure taken by certain anecdotalists in showing him out of control – of situations, conversations, himself, others. That he danced a cake-walk in 1899 and was photographed with a mouthful of doughnut intrigues us, as a treasurable departure from the magisterial dignity we mainly like to impute to him. Cakewalk and doughnut were taken at a party at the Cranes’, a private affair. The Whole Family, which became a book at the end of 1908 after 12 months in Harper’s Bazar, is a public party game for Harper’s authors, an improvised collaboration (or sequence, rather, of solo turns). What, one asks, is the author of The Golden Bowl doing dans cette galère?

James was apt to put the same question to himself when things went wrong, as when the booing of Guy Domville from the gallery in 1895 brought down his highest hopes for theatrical success: ‘Even in the full consciousness of the purity and lucidity of one’s motives (mine are worthy of Benjamin Franklin) one asks one’s self what one is doing in that galère.’ Michael Anesko’s strikingly authoritative ‘Friction with the Market’: Henry James and the Profession of Authorship gives a good many detailed and salutary answers in its essential account of exactly what James was doing in his conduct of his career as a professional author, and of how far his motives were pure and lucid. For James to launch his prose into the galleys of The Whole Family comes as less of a surprise when Anesko, who must have done years of painstaking and overdue archival research, has focused our attention on the constant element of compromise and calculation in James’s dealings with editors and publishers – and on the neglected fact that for the first half of his writing life he had to earn his living entirely by the pen. Anesko mentions indeed that thanks to James’s time-consuming labours on the New York Edition of his works ‘his literary income in 1908 was smaller than it had been in 25 years’: which made him all the readier, no doubt, to come down from the ivory tower for money.

The tough and sometimes unscrupulous James who appears in much of Anesko’s book is an adept player of the market, and one can understand as characteristic motives for his joining the family the need for money, the desire to keep his place in the American market, and the wish to maintain his useful friendships with W.D. Howells, the originator, and Elizabeth Jordan, the editor, of the strange Harper’s project. If these are plausible causes for James’s involvement, however, they don’t seem wholly to account for the way in which, when his turn came, the creative James showed an intense engagement with the story in itself – a commitment not just mercenary or polite or patriotic, but fiercely imaginative. Anesko argues convincingly that James was in general more stimulated than inhibited by the pressures of the commercial world of publishing: his title comes from an unpublished letter of 1912 advocating ‘that benefit of friction with the market which is so true a one for solitary artists too much steeped in their mere personal dreams’. The stimulation is much in evidence in James’s portion of The Whole Family: but we can see the considerable friction in this case as not working to James’s benefit, and it is his incongruous expense of vision, the story of his inevitable frustration when he gamely attempts to fit in with a run of more ordinary authors, that makes the book of absorbing interest and Ungar’s reissue of it a welcome surprise.

The Whole Family is now revived primarily on James’s account, but we have to revive the whole thing to get the bearings of his contribution, in which he engages with the six chapters written before his and points a way for those following. Elizabeth Jordan concluded her account of the affair in Three Rousing Cheers, her autobiography, with the glum avowal that ‘The Whole Family was a mess!’: but its doomed yearlong struggle to achieve the ‘wholeness’ advertised in its title caught other imaginations than James’s, and attains the illustrative exemplariness of the truest disasters. To follow it through, chapter by chapter, has something of the fascination of watching a multiple pile-up in slow motion.

From the first, the set-up was improbably free and democratic. Howells, the father-figure of American letters, was to begin with a neighbour’s descriptions of ‘The Father’ and of the ten members of the family who got chapters to narrate, leaving his successors absolutely free to cook up a plot – something to do with the daughter’s engagement – between them. A ‘Friend of the Family’ would provide the concluding chapter. The only formal framework was the timetable of authors and characters (determined in considerable part by the schedules of the contributors). Each could take the plot where he or she wished. The chapters, then, were written in the sequence in which they appear, each author having about a month to do the job; proofs of each new chapter were sent to all contributors throughout. Harper’s Bazar played understandably safe with a work so cliff-hangingly improvised and did not begin to serialise it until it was completed. The decision to give the book a preliminary private publication in proof form, which landed on the unwitting Elizabeth Jordan a hornet’s nest of anxious, wheedling, confidential or indignant authorial correspondence, and apparently fostered much gossip in New York, gives the compositional history of The Whole Family a further intensity and interest. Elizabeth Jordan called the authors thus put into relation with each other the ‘members of the family’: which is accurate, so long as we understand families to contain – and occasionally fail to contain – tension, conflict and contradiction.

The writers involved were all professionals, most forgotten now, but judged to have got over a certain threshold of competence and to command some facility; and the project was to be an amiable display of their powers in succession, a show of harmonious teamwork among members of a profession where individuality is often made a criterion of excellence and egocentricity has up to a point been sanctioned. The freedom to improvise which Howells and Elizabeth Jordan remarkably granted their contributors no doubt speaks for their hope of an unforced unanimity, with variety assured by the assortment of styles and of points of view rendered: those of the Old-Maid Aunt, Grandmother, Daughter-in-Law, School-Girl, Son-in-Law, Married Son, Married Daughter, Mother and School-Boy, and finally of the daughter Peggy, whose marriage to someone or other is the plot’s only real given, and of the Friend of the Family. Variety was as things turned out only too easy to secure, becoming in a number of connections more or less unyielding variance. The friendly display of powers became also a matter of shows of strength; authorship seemed to have given a taste for undemocratic exercises of authority, and to watch the vertiginous transition for each author from the powerlessness and marginality of readership to the brief potency of control and centrality, and then back again, uncomfortably dramatises for us the contingency and arbitrariness of the government of much fiction.

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