Making sentences

Philip Horne

  • The Jameses: A Family Narrative by R.W.B. Lewis
    Deutsch, 696 pp, £20.00, October 1991, ISBN 0 233 98748 7
  • Meaning in Henry James by Millicent Bell
    Harvard, 384 pp, £35.95, October 1991, ISBN 0 674 55762 X

Forty-one years after F.O. Matthiessen’s suicide, and 44 after his big book The James Family: A Group Biography, here is R.W.B. Lewis, Matthiessen’s pupil at Harvard, with one on the same subject, nearly as big. Its very title twists a touch awkwardly to avoid repeating that of its precursor, to which Lewis acknowledges a large debt.

But The Jameses comes out into a different intellectual and cultural world from that which acclaimed The James Family. Matthiessen was, in the James book, as in American Renaissance and The Achievement of T. S. Eliot, asserting a canonical seriousness and establishing lines of inquiry that are now treated by many on the academic scene as ideologically compromised or naive. He was also urgently interested in artistic achievement, and the history of ideas, rather than the creatively psycho-biographical perspectives powerfully applied to the family’s relations and texts, soon after his death, by Leon Edel in his multi-volume life of Henry James.

As a Harvard professor, Matthiessen had been, under the terms laid down by the James estate, one of the very few permitted to use the huge family archive in the Houghton Library: in effect, as a Jamesian, the only permitted person at the time other than Leon Edel, who enjoyed special privileges. He had mined the archive for The James Family and for his long-authoritative edition (with Kenneth Murdock) of The Notebooks of Henry James, which came out in the same year; together with Henry James: The Major Phase (1944), these made him the central force in the field.

With his going, there was only Leon Edel (who in due course encouraged his colleague Gay Wilson Allen to write William James: A Biography, which appeared in 1967). Edel was at first going to produce an edition of Henry James’s letters, but decided to delay for over twenty-five years while he put out his four biographical volumes, edited The Diary of Alice James, and wrote introductions for huge numbers of reissues. By doing so he came, as the Henry James Review has put it, to ‘bestride James studies like a Colossus’.

In the last fifteen years or so Edel’s monopoly has lapsed and the James archives have been much more welcoming to younger scholars, thanks mainly to the friendly attitude of Alexander James, the present literary executor. Many bestridees seem to have continued to assume that the Colossal labour has done it all, but a few have emerged from the shadow and achieved some stature of their own: Jean Strouse in Alice James: A Biography (1980); Ruth Bernard Yeazell in The Death and Letters of Alice James (1981); Howard Feinstein in Becoming William James (1984); Gerald Myers in William James: His Life and Thought (1986); Jane Maher in Biography of Broken Fortunes: Wilky and Bob, Brothers of William, Henry and Alice James (1986); Michael Anesko in ‘Friction with the Market’: Henry James and the Profession of Authorship (1986); Rayburn Moore in Selected Letters of Henry James to Edmund Gosse (1988); and Lyall Powers in Henry James and Edith Wharton: Letters 1900-1915 (1990).

There’s a terrific load of information and perception that was untapped by Matthiessen in this recent shelf-ful, on top of all that’s in the Colossal edifice; and besides, Lewis, as one of the new set of literary biographers, with his 1975 Edith Wharton behind him, probably felt that Matthiessen’s life-and-letters approach, a respectful elucidatory embedding of a tactfully suggestive anthology of family writings, doesn’t read like the real right thing for the 1990s. In fact, it turns out that The Jameses had its origin in a proposed television series (documentary, one supposes): and Matthiessen’s earnest attentiveness wouldn’t thrill a cigar-chewing producer.

Lewis has gone with care over the Edel and Allen and Strouse and Maher biographies, and much else besides, gratefully admitting indebtedness, judiciously comparing and selecting, elegantly cutting and pasting and paraphrasing and commenting, to produce an extremely enjoyable and accessible digest of the state of the biographical art for the whole of America’s most eloquent family, with generous illustrations and fresh research of his own to fill in gaps. (An appendix, for instance, entertainingly tracks the clan down through some colourful figures – a flamboyant, drunken giant in the CIA, a much-imprisoned pacifist who ended walking a squirrel on a leash, a friend of E. E. Cummings, and a wife of Alexander Calder the mobilist – to its living descendants.)

Henry James Senior, father of the novelist and the philosopher, complained in his memoirs of the narrowness of the family world in which he had grown up in Albany in the early part of the 19th century. He deplored ‘a certain lack of oxygen which is indeed incidental to the family atmosphere’ – the way families tend to shut themselves off from the world. The James family he brought up, however, was to be exposed to regular bracing draughts of change, change of abode, country, tutor, school. Any fear of monotony raised by Lewis’s declaration that ‘the emphasis is in all cases on the personal and family aspects’ is laid to rest by the chequered careers befalling or pursued by the bewildered or stimulated offspring. The story is international, artistic, medical, psychological, philosophical, mystical, military, businesslike and invalidical in turn: it heads off in several directions and Lewis has trouble holding the strands together. Yet these children make sense as Jameses; the distinctiveness of each can in large part be traced back to the family identity.

Lewis’s narrative begins with the arrival in America in 1789, bearing a ‘very small sum of money’, of the ambitious young Irish Presbyterian who became ‘William James of Albany’ and died in 1832 with one of the two or three largest fortunes in the United States. He worked in a store, then opened one of his own; in ten years had five in Albany, one in New York City, and a tobacco factory; and then, graduating as Lewis says to ‘authentic capitalism’, branched out into banking and real estate all over the place. He had ten children by his third wife, including, in 1811, the Henry who speculated not in property but on the true relation of God and man, and who later fathered William (1842), another Henry (1843), Garth Wilkinson or ‘Wilky’ (1845), Robertson (1846) and Alice (1848).

The millionaire’s son, an athletic youth, had half a leg amputated after an accident in 1824, and the upright patriarch briefly stooped to show an intense affection towards him. But soon afterwards the troubled Henry Senior went to Union College in Schenectady (where his dad held a mortgage on the whole campus) and became defiantly extravagant, provoking paternal rage: he was cut out of the will, which characteristically provided for those not initially excluded to be excluded later if delinquent, and demanded of its executors ‘rigid impartiality, sternness and inflexibility’. The will was contested and Henry Senior became ‘leisured for life’, as he’s said to have murmured to himself. The other beneficiaries were overshadowed; Henry Junior recalled them years later as the ‘irresponsibles’, and they mostly came to nothing in their idleness. Henry Senior’s passionate filial revolt against the ruthless self-interest embodied by William of Albany continued in the mystical-theological sphere, where he had an eccentric angle pretty much to himself – which at least gave him a lifetime’s driven work.

It greatly helps The Jameses to hang together, as it helped the Jameses to hang together, that so much of Henry Senior’s thought, in reaction against the airless pious Albany of his upbringing, idiosyncratically engages with the idea of the family and its relation to the world. He attacks in his fragment of memoir the Albany household’s lack of ‘a spontaneous religious culture, or of affections touched to the dimensions of universal man’. Lewis convincingly points out, in this enmity to ‘a bargaining or huckstering attitude towards God’, animosity to the commercial world of the original William.

As an openly loving, constantly present, humorously accessible father, unlike his own, Henry Senior inspired great love in his children, but, by inciting them – on principle – to openness and spontaneity and rebellion, he paradoxically and confusingly pre-empted the gestures of independence to which a tyrannical parent gives a chance. None of the children so overtly attacked the society and beliefs of the time as he did; their revolts against him took the form of comparative conformity to their world; but the constant play of mind he had encouraged in them kept them loyal to his spirit, made them secret rebels – though in the cases of the younger brothers Wilky and Bob, who were mute and inglorious beside William and Henry and Alice, their revolt against the practical world led respectively and miserably, after distinguished youthful service in the Civil War, to business incompetence and to crazed alcoholic binges.

Henry Senior’s offspring, the more and less famous five, seem to have avoided, with the partial exception of William, direct philosophical engagement with what they called ‘Father’s Ideas’, but there is one inheritance which they especially enjoyed, and which we may be especially glad of: a ferocious eloquence, a virtuoso capacity for charged denunciation and for the vivid expression of a taste for life. Henry Junior, perhaps because he was the placid mother’s favourite, seems to me to have most successfully worked to balance and moderate this vehemence, but we can hear the family note, what Alice calls ‘that James asperity’, in many of the best moments of all of them. The father’s ideas are there in the characteristic forms of this idiom: in the comically hyperbolic contrast of living and dead forms, in the surprising ironic turns of attitude that reveal a special underlying purpose, in the delightfully perverse pleasure at provocative ‘flights from the Commonplace’, as Alice called them (mockery of ‘ “flagrant” morality’, for instance), in the high tension between words and intentions in tours de force of affectionate vilification.

Henry Senior was profoundly impressed by Swedenborg’s insights into the relation between the creator and the created soul, but in his unflinching distrust of institutions he wrote appealing to the editor of the Swedenborgian New Jerusalem Messenger against the spiritual poverty of the paper: ‘The old sects are notoriously bad enough, but your sect compares with these very much as a heap of dried cod on Long Wharf in Boston compares with the same fish while still enjoying the freedom of the Atlantic Ocean.’ The letter, though it starts with this blast of what Jean Strouse calls his ‘excoriative tone’, offers what its sender calls ‘all the frankness of friendship’, and ends with a farcical-but-serious plea: ‘Do come out of it before you wither as an autumn leaf, which no longer rustles in full-veined life on the pliant bough, but rattles instead with emptiness upon the frozen melancholy earth.’

After Henry Senior’s death in 1882 his son William the philosopher edited his Literary Remains, writing a long introduction in which he described his father’s style as joining ‘to its great dignity of cadence and full and homely vocabulary ... a sort of inward palpitating human quality, gracious and tender, precise, fierce, scornful, humorous by turns, recalling the rich vascular temperament of the old English masters, rather than that of an American of today’. ‘Vascular’, meaning tubular or conducive to circulation, may be applied to the ‘old English’ but it is a distinctly Emersonian praise-word for ‘full-veined life’, and the family never suffered from excessive Anglophilia. Henry Senior, lauding American democracy and the companionability of the horse-cars, described a winter of commuting into town from St John’s Wood with an omnibus full of Englishmen: ‘I never once caught the eye of one of them. If ever I came nigh doing so, an instant film would surge up from their most vital parts, if such parts there were, just as a Newport fog suddenly surges up from the cold remorseless sea, and wrap the organ in the dullest, fishiest, most disheartening of stares.’ Again the baleful look of the dead fish comes to Henry Senior’s pen to convey his revulsion at a closed-off affectation of self-sufficiency.

All this repertoire of what William called his father’s ‘drastic remarks’ was fully available to the children, as the grandson Henry James III (son of William) was to write: ‘They used often to exaggerate their father’s tricks of utterance, for he would have been the last man to refuse himself as a whetstone for his children’s wit, and the business of outdoing the head of the family in the matter of language was an exercise familiar to all his sons.’ William can be seen carrying on the family business in 1896, writing home from a difficult summer school he was teaching at Chatauqua: ‘I’ve been meeting minds so earnest and helpless that it takes them half an hour to get from one idea to its immediately adjacent next neighbour, and that with infinite creaking and groaning. And when they’ve got to the next idea, they lie down on it with their whole weight and can get no farther, like a cow on a door-mat, so that you can get neither in nor out with them.’ The potentially abstract discussion of values and judgments, as with his father, becomes comically animated with metaphorical suggestions and then with an outrageously escalated simile in ‘homely vocabulary’ – what Henry Junior called William’s ‘extraordinary play of mind’ demonstrating the flexible values whose opposite it deplores. Yet as when Henry Senior turns and appeals to the humanity of his Swedenborgian editor, William here conscientiously qualifies his devastating picture: ‘Still, glibness is not all. Weight is something, even cow-weight’

It was the fate of Henry Senior’s children, except perhaps William in his passionate marriage, to find in their subsequent away fixtures in the world no audience quite so congenial – in respect of wit and shades of feeling, at least – as their original home support. Alice James, who became a career invalid under the immovable weight of emotional strains and physical debilities, and took up a bracing exile near Henry Junior in England, felt what had been half-lost when she had a rare joint visit from Henry and William in July 1889: ‘What a strange experience it was to have what had seemed so dead and gone all these years suddenly bloom before one, a flowing oasis in this alien desert, redolent with the exquisite family perfume of the days gone by, made of the allusions, the memories and the point of view in common, so that my floating-particle sense was lost for an hour or so in the illusion that what is forever shattered had sprung up anew, and existed outside of our memories – where it is forever green!’

For Henry Junior, too, at that time, England, which a decade before had seemed to greet his work keenly, was something of an ‘alien desert’, no longer widely receptive to the subtleties he increasingly dealt in. On the first page of The Tragic Muse, which was appearing serially, Henry Junior takes up where his stared-at father left off with a brilliant comic description of an English family at the Paris Exhibition, representatives in appearance of ‘an inexpressive and speechless race, perpendicular and unsociable’. The lineaments of the family humour, in its knack of crowning metaphorical surprises with a twist of ‘homely vocabulary’, can be discerned here as the bored noble Britishers are inspected: ‘The fresh, diffused light of the Salon made them clear and important; they were finished productions in their way, and ranged there motionless, on their green bench, they were almost as much on exhibition as if they had been hung on the line.’ The splendid cheek of the last-minute substitution of ‘line’ for the expected ‘wall’ deflates the high tone of ‘finished productions’, leaving the unresponsive nobs high and dry. In its poised way the simile lands its catch very much like William’s ‘like a cow on a door-mat’ reeling the world victoriously into the sentence and thus making up for rebuffs and frustrations suffered in life.

For the example of Henry Senior spelt failure, incomprehension and neglect – he had to pay for the publication of his books – as well as brilliance and warm-hearted sympathy. His amputation seems to have been matched by every child with a more or less real equivalent disability: Williams had severe back and eye problems in youth and almost-suicidal periods of depression; Henry Junior suffered his ‘obscure hurt’ (maybe a back injury) and from chronic constipation; Wilky got real, so to speak, and as a member of Shaw’s black regiment was gravely wounded in the assault on Fort Wagner; Robertson cultivated a drinking problem and dismaying mood swings; and Alice’s state of nervous prostration worsened until breast cancer finally relieved her of the lonely, bedridden life to which she had found herself condemned.

Henry Senior’s life was changed by a night-marish experience in Windsor in 1844, which he later came to understand as a Swedenborgian ‘vastation’, when after a ‘comfortable dinner’ he was taken with fear and trembling, and sensed ‘some damned shape squatting invisible to me within the precincts of the room, and raying out from his fetid personality influences fatal to life’. This prostrated him and set him on the search for ‘something better’ than the cosy illusion of self-sufficiency thus ripped away. William came closest to this in 1870 with a ‘horrible fear of my own existence’, a vision of an epileptic patient he’d seen in an asylum, ‘a black-haired youth with greenish skin, entirely idiotic ... looking absolutely non-human’. The idiot represents ‘the pit of insecurity beneath the surface of life’: ‘That shape am I, I felt, potentially.’ And out of this, as Lewis helps us to see, arises William’s sense of life as all risk, as heroic and free-willed, which fostered in him a hearty relish for ‘good square-chested talks’, and for the bracing manly hikes that fatally weakened his heart, but which, more importantly, kick-started him, after years of havering, into a career which powered its way from field to field, medicine to psychology to philosophy, with a dauntless fidelity to his own interests and, in words by which he praised others, with ‘hot running on the trail of truth, regardless of previous conventions and categories’.

Alice, too, had her crises, and especially one in 1868, when, as for William, the envelope of sanity threatened to tear open: ‘it used to seem to me that the only difference between me and the insane was that I had not only all the horrors and suffering of insanity but the duties of doctor, nurse and straitjacket imposed upon me.’ One of the ‘waves of violent inclination’ she had to restrain was the fancy of ‘knocking off the head of the benignant pater as he sat with his silver locks, writing at his table’. Ten years later Alice had another terrible phase and discussed her temptation to suicide with the pater himself, who put her off the idea with characteristically unorthodox wisdom: ‘I told her so far as I was concerned she had my full permission to end her life whenever she pleased; only I hoped that if ever she felt like doing that sort of justice to her circumstances, she would do it in a perfectly gentle way in order not to distress her friends.’ She seems to have been reconciled to living painfully on, and was ‘making sentences’, it is reported, doing the family thing, even on her last day of life.

Henry Junior was less excitable than William and Alice, taking after their much-loved reliable self-effacing mother, and though the risks of vocation remained a live issue for him, his choice of life was made early and sustained. But he too had bad patches, financial as well as emotional, when his work was ignored or attacked. The booing that greeted him when he mounted the stage after the premiere of his play Guy Domville in 1895 was a brutal negation of his hopes; and the crowning failure of the New York Edition of his works in 1908 threw him into a near-suicidal state of hypochondriacal depression. The project to which he returned, and which re-inspired him after the deaths of William and Robertson in 1910 left him the last of the five siblings, was a pair of ‘Family Hooks’. First in A Small Boy and Others, then in Notes of a Son and Brother, he acted upon the same need he had expressed in his journal in 1881, the need ‘to see again lesmiens, to revive my relations with them, and my sense of the consequences that those relations entail.’ R.W.B. Lewis’s James family book tells the family story without his enchanted rememberings or epic syntax or impassioned wit, but it is full of gathered facts about ‘those relations’ which have consequences for our sense of them all.

Being able to trace in this synoptic account the shapes of the lives of the ‘Others’ Henry James the novelist knew helps us to guess at his feelings about what their lives might mean. His novels help us in another way, with the meanings of lives, and Millicent Bell’s fine book Meaning in Henry James reminds us that a character’s experience at a given moment in our reading is alive with plottable possibilities. As she says, ‘because he believed that human life was itself a path picked out, like a tapestry design, upon a canvas of innumerable sacrificed possibilities, he could perceive the shadow of paths not chosen in the most clearly determined life-story.’ Her readings intensively pursue this trail of other trails in 13 works with admirable independence of mind, and we can see the shadow of Henry Senior’s emphasis on the freedom of ‘being’ as against the narrowness of ‘doing’ in her vision of Henry Junior dialectically playing with multiple plots for characters whose potentialities often exceed the scope of the action that threatens to contain them. The possible other cases James’s imagination moved among have never been taken so seriously.