The Ineluctable Charms of Henry James

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Many accuse James of being prolix, abstruse, and obtuse. They mistake elegance and stateliness in prose for meandering and they do not give their minds to the subtle currents that pervade the deep waters of his short stories, novels, and, yes, even travel writing. Take for example this excerpt:

from Italian Hours--"The Autumn in Florence"
Henry James

Florence too has its “season,” not less than Rome, and I have been rejoicing for the past six weeks in the fact that this comparatively crowded parenthesis hasn't yet been opened. Coming here in the first days of October I found the summer still in almost unmenaced possession, and ever since, till within a day or two, the weight of its hand has been sensible. Properly enough, as the city of flowers, Florence mingles the elements most artfully in the spring—during the divine crescendo of March and April, the weeks when six months of steady shiver have still not shaken New York and Boston free of the long Polar reach. But the very quality of the decline of the year as we at present here feel it suits peculiarly the mood in which an undiscourageable gatherer of the sense of things, or taster at least of “charm,” moves through these many-memoried streets and galleries and churches. Old things, old places, old people, or at least old races, ever strike us as giving out their secrets most freely in such moist, grey, melancholy days as have formed the complexion of the past fortnight. With Christmas arrives the opera, the only opera worth speaking of—which indeed often means in Florence the only opera worth talking through; the gaiety, the gossip, the reminders in fine of the cosmopolite and watering-place character to which the city of the Medici long ago began to bend her antique temper.

The refinement of the piece in its final form (present here in its entirety) is only known from acquaintance with its earlier incarnation as a piece in either The Independent or The Nation (The website that yielded these originals has subsequently vanished along with the wonderful texts. I have preserved the memory of it in the form of an e-book for PDA). The subtle twists of phrase and the delicate irony and humor that are so prominent here stand out from the rather more bold reportorial front that shows up in the articles. One can spend time with James and come to know Italy very little, but have a profound knowledge of a man of great sensibility and sense. Too bad as a society we spend so little time with those who have so much to tell us about how to observe, how to write, how to go about thinking, and how to analyze. It is unfortunate that we are often in too great a hurry for the majestic pace at which James moves. But given my druthers, I'd rather tour Italy with James or Hawthorne than with Michelin. What companionable company, what rare insights, and what refined humor. I have come to love Henry James more and more as I read more of the work. It is not for one who needs to come to the point, but rather for the person who relishes the journey as much or perhaps even more than the destination. Surely that is the first lesson in how to travel.

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I, of course, appreciate him as one of the great masters of fiction, though he languishes, ignored these days by the academy. I trust you've read "The Beast in the Jungle." In our literature book, there are stories by all sorts of people, but not one by him.

Dear Bill,

Both "The Beast in the Jungle" and "The Altar of the Dead" are splendid stories. In fact, I'm hard-pressed to think of one that isn't at the very least an amusing trifle. Most of them stand head and shoulders above almost any other such work with the possible exceptions of de Maupassant and Chekhov.

He is much neglected by the Academy, and in some ways, given the Academy today that may be a good thing. I would hate to see him resurrected as a ambisexual pre-post-imperialist disaffected American genderist. (The distortions they would contrive from his private life are myriad and disturbing.)

I love Henry James's short stories, the Novel even more, and the travel writing only slightly less. But it was a taste long in the aquisition. It is not something that immediately clings to the palate begging savor. Rather on first approach it seems much like a gristly piece of beef smothered in an overwhelming sauce. It is only after we have spent some effort and risen to his expectations of the reader that we realize we have Beef Wellington.

And many thanks for commenting on this thread of things. Others will rush in to hush you and say, 'Don't encourage him. He goes through phases like this and its best that he be left alone to recover. The slightest disturbance and he'll release a tide of James and Hawthorne upon us."



P.S. Just thought of another reason why he no longer appears in college anthologies--our public school system (overtaxed as it is with preparing students to take innumerable, largely meaningless tests) no longer has the capacity to prepare a student to read Henry James. When your basic texts are multi-culti politically correct mishmashes of the Canon and Eminem, one could hardly claim any basis on which to approach and appreciate James. It's just beyond the scope of many readers being produced today. (Outside of homsechoolers, of course. They are the only group that on the whole has been sufficiently prepared to tackle the thickets of James's elaborate, eloquent, and elegant prose.



All true. It's theoretically possible for an English major not to encounter James until grad school. All depends on the professor. Instead of being part of the "canon," he's now just another choice. Enjoyed your speculations on what they'd do to his personal life. The personal lives of the dead are raw meat these days.



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on April 29, 2004 10:45 AM.

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