Magazine | March 28, 2016, Issue

Inside the Master

Autobiographies, by Henry James (Library of America, 850 pp., $37.50)

The autobiographical works of Henry James (1843–1916) are from the Master’s later period, and we all know what that means: The style is ornate, and reading it is no picnic.

James would pace around the room and dictate this prose to an assistant at her typewriter. (His main assistant, Theodora Bosanquet, left a fine remembrance of him that’s included in this collection.) “If I may parenthesize,” the author of Daisy Miller, The Turn of the Screw, and The Ambassadors will say — giving his reader a sinking feeling. Discussing his cousins in Albany, for example, he writes:

It must be allowed that there was nothing composite in any spell proceeding, whether directly or indirectly, from the great Albany connection: this form of the agreeable, through whatever appeals, could certainly not have been more of a piece, as we say — more of a single superfused complexion, an element or principle that we could in the usual case ever so easily and pleasantly account for.

To make it through the thickets of words, you have to put yourself in a kind of trance. While the Middle Years (posthumous, 1917) portion of the volume doesn’t to my mind yield much of interest, the memoirs of his early life richly reward perseverance. A Small Boy and Others (1913) and Notes of a Son and Brother (1914) give us what he called “that intensely ‘reacting’ small organism,” the young Henry James, and evoke with great vividness what Victorian America was like.

James’s third-person descriptions of himself are of a child thrilled “just to be somewhere — almost anywhere would do — and somehow receive an impression or an accession, feel a relation or a vibration.” As to “what it at all appreciably gave him,” that would “be difficult to state.” He gamely tries — this is after all James we’re talking about. His apparently photographic memory conveys the New York, Albany, Newport, London, Paris, Geneva, and Bonn of his youth, down to “smell[ing] the cold dusty paint and iron as the rails of the Eighteenth Street corner rub his contemplative nose.”

Shy, sickly, and lacking confidence in his abilities (whether physical, intellectual, or artistic), he projects a surface docility beneath which ferocious powers are developing. The boy hardly looks so much as he “gapes” — that word is used again and again, reflecting the boy’s vulnerability but also his zeal to add to his “impressional harvest.”

His earliest years were spent in Lower Manhattan, where many James cousins lived. Little Henry Jr. was allowed to wander the streets of Greenwich Village all by himself. The memory stirs in him

wonder at the liberty of range and opportunity of adventure allowed to my tender age; though the puzzle may very well drop, after all, as I ruefully reflect that I couldn’t have been judged at home reckless or adventurous. What I look back to as my infant license can only have had for its ground some timely conviction on the part of my elders that the only form of riot or revel ever known to me would be that of the visiting mind.

He may have been a milquetoast, but milquetoasthood had its privileges.

Circuses and the theater were an obsession for James and his friends and relations, in New York and in the European cities to which his dilettantish, kindly parents took him. Discerning the varying quality of the productions he saw, he started to grasp something crucial: that the authentic critic criticizes not out of animus but from an essentially benevolent position. His boyhood experiences of being spellbound by staged versions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the works of Charles Dickens taught him that it was only “onto the shoulders of appreciation” that the “wings” of “conscious criticism” were meant to fit.

This sensibility is in his fiction, too. G. K. Chesterton remarked of James that “his whole world is made out of sympathy” — and so the characters endear themselves to us despite their being weird (Olive Chancellor), or full of inadequacies (Lambert Strether) or even criminal-level duplicities (Madame Merle).

James fans can pick up from the life many connections to the work. We gain insight into such Jamesian literary themes as the nature of artistic inspiration and the constant measuring of the manners and morals of the New World against those of the Old, as well as into the painterly aspects of modern storytelling and the inspiration for the spiritual/material emanations in James’s ghostly tales.

The restless Jameses sailed back and forth across the Atlantic a lot, depositing their five children in far-flung places in search of a good education. That education was highly unsystematic, though. The family sometimes pulled up stakes abruptly. Henry James Sr. lived off investments of the wealth that had been earned by his father, so a downturn in the financial markets could cause a sudden need to economize.

Henry Sr. emerges here as a wonderfully quirky figure: an energetic but not too disciplined public intellectual, an indulgent parent who cultivated in his children, particularly William and Henry, independent-mindedness and an ambition for creative achievements of which he himself was not capable. A disciplinarian he was not. With great affection James writes of him: “Weakness was never so positive and plausible, nor could the attitude of sparing you be more handsomely or on occasion even more comically aggressive.”

The Jameses’ repatriation under financial pressures in 1860 was also, ironically, a return to America from Europe for the sake of high culture. William James wanted to study painting and sculpture under William Morris Hunt in Rhode Island. The apprenticeship was not only William’s but also his brother Henry’s. The future philosopher and founder of American psychology would not end up pursuing the plastic arts, nor would his brother, but it was a key moment.

The future muralist John La Farge was a student of Hunt’s alongside William James. While the pupils were with their teacher, the tagging-along younger brother was allowed to muck around with casts and canvases in another part of the studio. “No one disturbed me,” writes James. “The earnest workers were elsewhere; I had a chamber of the temple all to myself, with immortal forms and curves, with shadows beautiful and right, waiting there on blank-eyed faces for me to prove myself not helpless.” The forms were “company just then for muddled me and for the queer figures projected by my crayon. Frankly, intensely — that was the great thing — these were the hours of Art, art definitely named, looking me full in the face and accepting my stare in return — no longer a tacit implication or a shy subterfuge, but a flagrant unattenuated aim. I had somehow come into the temple by the back door.”

Just as important as the Jamesian independent-mindedness was a particular stance — idealistic and skeptical at the same time — toward religion and morality. Henry Sr., like his friends among the Transcendentalists, was less than impressed with the accomplishments of the leading scientists, clergymen, and businessmen of the day. This attitude was impressed upon the next generation. It shows in the stories and novels of the younger Henry James, which explore what he calls “the Puritan residuum” of the Americans — and by that phrase, he means something pure, something that is able to survive the corruptions of life abroad. It is not conventional; it knows how to distinguish moralism from morality in the true sense.

A highlight of the memoirs is William’s career switch from the arts to “strenuous Science in all its exactitude.” Henry calls his brother “addicted to ‘experiments’ and the consumption of chemicals.” William’s “boldly disinterested absorption of curious drugs” — he famously ingested nitrous oxide to test its effects on the brain — was “often appalling to a nature so incurious as mine in that direction.” Henry goes on to say that although he himself was not interested in “visibly provoked or engineered phenomena, by that same amount was I open to those of the mysteriously or insidiously aggressive, the ambushed or suffered sort.”

That’s indeed what we get in the stories and novels — the spurned lady in The Aspern Papers, the conspiracy of Gilbert Osmond and Madame Merle against Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady, and so many others. Henry is here defining his young self in contradistinction to William, but when we step back, we see two peas in a pod. It is characteristic of both of them to find odd things to appreciate, including the faculties of appreciation themselves. The famous novelist wrote like a psychologist, and the famous psychologist wrote like a novelist, goes the saying, and it’s borne out in spades in this volume.

As is the fact that the return to the homeland was crucial to the eventual success of both. This success, Henry Jr. hints, was in a way built upon the failure of the father: The elder Henry, a promoter of Emanuel Swedenborg’s theology, had “gradually ceased to ‘like’ Europe” because, “as a worker in his own field and as to what he held most dear,” he was “scantly heeded” over there. The greatness he nurtured, of course, was to take hold here, after his literary son made a writing life for himself — on both sides of the Atlantic.

– Lauren Weiner is the associate editor of Law and Liberty (www.libertylawsite.org).

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