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HOME > Religious Fiction > The Death of the Moth, and other essays > Henry James: 3. The Letters of Henry James ** Written in 1920
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Henry James: 3. The Letters of Henry James ** Written in 1920
  Who, on stepping from the cathedral dusk, the growl and boom of the organ still in the ears, and the eyes still shaded to observe better whatever intricacy of carving or richness of marble may there be concealed, can breast the stir of the street and instantly and briskly sum up and deliver his impressions? How discriminate, how formulate? How, Henry James may be heard grimly asking, dare you pronounce any opinion whatever upon me? In the first place only by taking cover under some such figure as implies that, still dazed and well-nigh drowned, our gesture at the finish is more one of exclamation than of interpretation. To soothe and to inspirit there comes, a moment later, the consciousness that, although in the eyes of Henry James our attempt is foredoomed to failure, nevertheless his blessing is upon it. Renewal of life, on such terms as we can grant it, upon lips, in minds, here in London, here among English men and women, would receive from him the most generous acknowledgment; and with a royal complacency, he would admit that our activities could hardly be better employed. Nor are we left to grope without a guide. It would not be easy to find a difficult task better fulfilled than by Mr. Percy Lubbock in his introduction and connecting pararaphs.* It seems to us, and this not only before reading the letters but more emphatically afterwards, that the lines of interpretation he lays down are the true ones. They end — as he is the first to declare — in the heart of darkness; but any understanding that we may have won of a difficult problem is at every point fortified and corrected by the help of his singularly thoughtful and intimate essay. His intervention is always illuminating.

* The Letters of Henry James. Edited by Percy Lubbock.

It must be admitted that these remarks scarcely seem called for by anything specially abstruse in the first few chapters. If ever a young American proved himself capable of giving a clear and composed account of his experiences in Europe during the seventies of the last century that young American was Henry James. He recounts his seeings and doings, his dinings out and meetings, his country house visits, like a guest too well-bred to show surprise even if he feels it. A “cosmopolitanized American,” as he calls himself, was far more likely, it appears, to find things flat than to find them surprising; to sink into the depths of English civilization as if it were a soft feather bed inducing sleep and warmth and security rather than shocks and sensations. Henry James, of course, was much too busy recording impressions to fall asleep; it only appears that he never did anything, and never met anyone, in those early days, capable of rousing him beyond the gay and sprightly mood so easily and amusingly sustained in his letters home. Yet he went everywhere; he met everyone, as the sprinkling of famous names and great occasions abundantly testify. Let one fair specimen suffice:Yesterday I dined with Lord Houghton — with Gladstone, Tennyson, Dr. Schliemann (the excavator of old Mycenae, &c.), and half a dozen other men of “high culture.” I sat next but one to the Bard and heard most of his talk, which was all about port wine and tobacco; he seems to know much about them, and can drink a whole bottle of port at a sitting with no incommodity. He is very swarthy and scraggy, and strikes one’ at first as much less handsome than his photos: but gradually you see that it’s a face of genius. He had I know not what simplicity, speaks with a strange rustic accent and seemed altogether like a creature of some primordial English stock, a thousand miles away from American manufacture. Behold me after dinner conversing affably with Mr. Gladstone-not by my own seeking, but by the almost importunate affection of Lord H. But I was glad of a chance to feel the “personality” of a great political leader — or as G. is now thought here even, I think, by his partisans, ex-leader. That of Gladstone is very fascinating — his urbanity extreme-his eye that of a man of genius — and his apparent self-surrender to what he is talking of without a flaw. He made a great impression on me — greater than anyone I have seen here: though ’tis perhaps owing to my NA?VETé, and unfamiliarity with statesmen. . . .

And so to the Oxford and Cambridge boat-race. The impression is well and brightly conveyed; what we miss, perhaps, is any body of resistance to the impression — any warrant for thinking that the receiving mind is other than a stretched white sheet. The best comment upon that comes in his own words a few pages later. “It is something to have learned how to write.” If we look upon many of these early pages as experiments in the art of writing by one whose standard of taste exacts that small things must be done perfectly before big things are even attempted, we shall understand that their perfection is of the inexpressive kind that often precedes a late maturity. He is saying all that his means allow him to say. Moreover, he is saying it already, as most good letter writers learn to say it, not to an individual but to a chosen assembly. “It is, indeed, I think, the very essence of a good letter to be shown,” he wrote; “it is wasted if it is kept for ONE. . . . I give you full leave to read mine aloud at your soirees!” Therefore, if we refrain from quotation, it is not that passages of the necessary quality are lacking. It is, rather, that while he writes charmingly, intelligently and adequately of this, that and the other, we begin by guessing and end by resenting the fact that his mind is elsewhere. It is not the dinner parties — a hundred and seven in one season — nor the ladies and gentlemen, nor even the Tennysons and the Gladstones that interest him primarily; the pageant passes before him: the impressions ceaselessly descend; and yet as we watch we also wait for the clue, the secret of it all. It is, indeed, clear that if he discharged the duties of his position with every appearance of equanimity the choice of the position itself was one of momentous importance, constantly requiring examination, and, with its promise of different possibilities, harassing his peace till the end of time. On what spot of the civilized globe was he to settle? His vibrations and vacillations in front of that problem suffer much in our report of them, but in the early days the case against America was simply that “. . . it takes an old civilization to set a novelist in motion.”

Next, Italy presented herself; but the seductions of “the golden climate” were fatal to work. Paris had obvious advantages, but the drawbacks were equally positive —“I have seen almost nothing of the literary fraternity, and there are fifty reasons why I should not become intimate with them. I don’t like their wares, and they don’t like any others; and, besides, they are not ACCUEILLANTS.” London exercised a continuous double pressure of attraction and repulsion to which finally he succumbed, to the extent of making his headquarters in the metropolis without shutting his eyes to her faults. “I am attracted to London in spite of the long list of reasons why I should not be; I think it, on the whole, the best point of view in the world. . . . But the question is interminable.” When he wrote that, he was thirty-seven; a mature age; an age at which the native growing confidently in his own soil is already putting forth whatever flower fate ordains and natural conditions allow. But Henry James had neither roots nor soil; he was of the tribe of wanderers and aliens; a winged visitant, ceaselessly circling and seeking, unattached, uncommitted, ranging hither and thither at his own free will, and only at length precariously settling and delicately inserting his proboscis in the thickset lusty blossoms of the old garden beds.

Here, then, we distinguish one of the strains, always to some extent present in the letters before us, from which they draw their unlikeness to any others in the language, and, indeed, bring us at times to doubt whether they are “in the language” at all. If London is primarily a point of view, if the whole field of human activity is only a prospect and a pageant, then we cannot help asking, as the store of impressions heaps itself up, what is the aim of the spectator, what is the purpose of his hoard? A spectator, alert, aloof, endlessly interested, endlessly observant, Henry James undoubtedly was; but as obviously, though not so simply, the long drawn process of adjustment and preparation was from first to last controlled and manipulated by a purpose which, as the years went by, only dealt more powerfully and completely with the treasures of a more complex sensibility. Yet, when we look to find the purpose expressed, to see the material in the act of transmutation, we are met by silence, we are blindly waved outside. “To write a series of good little tales I deem ample work for a life time. It’s at least a relief to have arranged one’s life time.” The words are youthful, perhaps intentionally light but few and frail as they are, they have almost alone to bear the burden built upon them, to answer the questions and quiet the suspicions of those who insist that a writer must have a mission and proclaim it aloud. Scarcely for a moment does Henry James talk of his writing; never for an instant is the thought of it absent from his mind. Thus, in the letters to Stevenson abroad we hear behind everything else a brooding murmur of amazement and horror at the notion of living with savages. How, he seems to be asking himself, while on the surface all is admiration and affection, can he endure it — how could I write my books if I lived in Samoa with savages? All refers to his writing; all points in to that preoccupation. But so far as actual statement goes the books might have sprung as silently and spontaneously as daffodils in spring. No notice is taken of their birth. Nor does it matter to him what people say. Their remarks are probably wide of the point, or if they have a passing truth they are uttered in unavoidable ignorance of the fact that each book is a step onward in a gradual process of evolution, the plan of which is onward only to the author himself. He remains inscrutable. silent, and assured.

How, then, are we to explain the apparent inconsistency of his disappointment when, some years later, the failure of THE BOSTONIANS and PRINCESS CASAMASSIMA brought him face to face with the fact that he was not destined to be a popular novelist —. . . I am still staggering [he wrote] a good deal under the mysterious and to me inexplicable injury wrought — apparently — upon my situation by my two last novels, the BOSTONIANS and the PRINCESS, from which I expected so much and derived so little. They have reduced the desire, and the demand, for my productions to zero — as I judge from the fact that though I have for a good while past been writing a number of good short things, I remain irremediably unpublished.
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