Henry James

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(As if you care.)

I know, you mention his name to clear out the room. However, the plan of my reading is comprehensive and evolutionary. There was a time in which the mention of James would have sent me running. But I find that James and Hawthorne are presently figures I am returning to again and again. Despite certain similarities in complexity of style, there could not be two more different writers or two more different sensibilities.

Compare, for example, a couple of the masterworks from each The Scarlet Letter and The Golden Bowl. Now, I could probably find two works that had more in common, but there is enough here for the cursory note I want to make. The stories are vaguely similar about distorted and "illicit" love affairs that effect the lives of more than the two or three involved. But James is a psychological realist--to the point where the figures in The Golden Bowl become almost avatars of the psychology within. I remember in reading the book my impression that there were four or five people floating in a cloud of their own anxieties and competition through a ghost-like world. There was no real sense of anchoring in events. I remember hearing about someone making a movie of the book and I thought, "How in the world could they do that?"

Edith Wharton famously commented on The Golden Bowl. She asked the James why his more recent work seem to be so lacking in atmosphere and were ‘more and more severed from that thick nourishing human air in which we all live and move.’

Of The Golden Bowl itself she asked, ‘What sort of life did they lead when they were not watching each other and fencing with each other? Why have you stripped them of all the human fringes we necessarily trail after us through life?’ James looked at her in pained surprise and she wished she had not asked the question. He thought a while and then, plainly disturbed, said, ‘My dear, I didn’t know I had.’” (Quotation from A Backward Glance. (found here)

In some ways, this exactly describes my experience of reading The Golden Bowl and yet, something of the book lingers in my mind several years after the initial read. And this is what I find of the very best of James's work--it is very difficult going, but it stays with you, hauntingly and suggestively and gives other experiences a richer, more robust, more three dimensional feel.

Hawthorne on the other hand, a interesting and subtly amusing prose stylist is the antithesis. He is a romantic, writing romantic tales in romantic mode. In fact, he refers to his novels as romances, and each that I have read is indeed such. While one can sympathize with Hester Prynne, or can follow and believe incidents of The House of the Seven Gables, these are romances. They offer no great insight into life or into how people function, nor are they intended to. They serve more to entertain, amuse, and perhaps act in some cases as allegories.

James admired Hawthorne. Some of his later prose reflects the complexities of Hawthorne's style. Henry James is not easy to read. But reading James is a source of infinite delight and joy. It is also a source of profound frustration. One wishes to fashion sentences like Henry James's. One wants to produce characters as memorable as Quint, Isabel Archer, or Daisy Miller. One want to be able to capture the atmosphere and meaning of "Altar of the Dead," or to be able to recount with as deft a hand the conflict imbedded in The Spoils of Poynton. James is one of those writer relegated to the backs of shelves and to hidden places and times. It's a shame because reading his work is more profoundly affecting than almost any other writer of the time. The paths he explored and the details he noted in human behavior have never since (nor for that matter before) been so successfully recounted. Part of the breathlessness and the "closed" feeling of The Golden Bowl comes not from any deliberate exclusion on James's part, but on the laser-like focus on the state of the four main characters involved in a twisted dance of selfishness and despair.

I suppose that I think of James because one of his great stories "The Turn of the Screw" is the exemplar of a category of "Christmas Ghost Stories" that start in the telling at a club. Robertson Davies in High Spirits seems to take some of his inspiration from James. Stephen King says as much in Four Seasons when introducing the last tale of the book. James may be in some ways out of date and out of fashion, but what he has to say is not confined to any time, and his neglect is due more to the progressive deterioration of the art of reading and the impulse to use reading as recreation and escape rather than as a learning experience. I suppose it is the inevitable result of the training of generations of children in the reading of substandard multi-culti literature. It is a shame that great figures of the past can no longer command attention merely because of their race and sex. In more enlightened times such an attitude would have been labeled, parochial, or perhaps even sexist.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on December 22, 2004 8:11 AM.

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