The Hardship of Henry James


Review of Henry James: Autobiographies, edited by Philip Horne

New York: Library of America, 2016

Why is Henry James so hard? I found myself asking the perennial question about “The Master” again (and again and again) while I worked my way through the volume of his autobiographical writings, published by The Library of America in time to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the author’s death in 1916. Autobiographies consists of the three volumes of memoirs that James composed near the end of his life: A Small Boy and Others (1913), Notes of a Son and a Brother (1914) and The Middle Years (1917), unfinished at the time of his death and published posthumously. The book also contains some extracts from the journals and other relevant writings by James. (As a bonus, we get “Henry James at Work” by Theodora Basanquet, James’s super secretary who was with James from 1907 to his death in 1916.) It is a handsome volume, superbly edited by the eminent Jamesian, Philip Horne, whose historical and biographical notes do as much as such notes can do to illuminate some of James’s most difficult prose. As I say, it is a handsome volume (you know those Library of America editions—amazing production values), though my own copy of it is somewhat less than handsome now. It’s pretty much mutilated with pen, pencil, sharpie marks and enough post-it notes to paper over the Empire State Building—part of a dogged effort to tame the wild and crazy style of the late James—some of those sentences are insane!—into something like serviceable sense. My copy is water-stained as well: that would be the result of my sweat and tears.  (Or it could be that I read it once in the bath: I thought I might be more open to it if I were a bit more relaxed.) It’s also dented in various places, as are the places on the walls of my apartment where I threw it. On the inside flap of the book, the editors at the Library of America assure us with understandable pride that the “page layout” for their editions “has been designed for readability as well as elegance”. Elegant, absolutely, but there is no amount of design in the whole wide world of arts and crafts that will make some of the pages in this particular volume readable, at least not without a lot of work and in some cases not even then.  (Everyone knows that there are sentences in late James that no one has ever understood; subordinate clause that sprawl beyond the lifespan of any mind; orphaned pronouns whose natural antecedents elude all efforts at reunification; abstractions that mock any attempt to draw them into the range of human comprehension.)

I promise you though, this review isn’t going to be one of those hate-on-James-for-being-so hard, bitch sessions. In fact I love Henry James, not in spite of his difficulty, but at least in part because of it: I think James is difficult partly because life is difficult and his difficulty is partly a way he has to help show us the damage done to us by that difficulty. Before I get to that though, I think it’s important once more to acknowledge the elephant in the room. The difficulty of Henry James, especially the late James (and there’s not much later than the volumes that make up these autobiographies): that’s a very big elephant—at least as big as the ones P.T. Barnum used in his shows. James, by the way, loved those shows as a kid, “the Barnumite scenes” of his youth. He loved acrobats and pantomimes and all kinds of overacting. He loved ice cream and pastries and the fun little neighborhood things that mean the world when you’re young, and the way those little things get turned into stories as good as ghosts or the sweetest summer fruit—“local allusions—mystifications always—that flowered into anecdote as into small hard plums”. One of the joys of these late volumes, especially “A Small Boy Among Others”, is the chance they give us to see Henry James as a child. It makes me think of a line from Charles Lamb that you may remember from your own childhood—it’s the epigram at the beginning of To Kill a Mockingbird: “Lawyers, I suppose, were children once”. Henry James, that student of the law who went on to become the supremely magisterial and mandarin advocate for the most complicated cases of personal and impersonal injury, cases so elusive that except for his exacting and surpassingly subtle representation, would have never had their day in court—this profoundly Old Adult Writer (too old even for the young adult category, much less for kiddie lit.): can you think of any lawyer we are less likely to suppose once a child? 

Still, Henry James, I might have supposed, was a child once. One of the great gifts of his autobiographical writings is to confirm it. Here we have a portrait of the recondite stylist not just as a young man, but as a little boy who loved the things that children love and who was thrilled and hurt by the things that thrill and hurt children—small things, sometimes, as small as the smallest of “breakable toys” maybe, but not too small for a child, nor for a man wise enough to keep a child’s hold on memories that other adults might discard as too little to keep—“no particle that counts for memory or is appreciable to the spirit can be too tiny” (18).

As far as hurt goes, James suffered his share, some of which is recorded in these books. There is the feeling, for example, he had as a boy that the older brother he adored didn’t wish to associate with him, for reasons that are perhaps as obvious as contemporary readers interested in recruiting the young James as an avatar of the “queer” (one of James’ own key terms of description and self-description) seem to think they are: “’I play with boys who curse and swear.’ I had to sadly recognize that I didn’t . . . I simply wasn’t qualified” (158).  There is his general terror of competition—“I never dreamed of competing” (110); his feeling that he’s already forfeited the regular games of manhood (marriage, for example, and a real career) before they’ve even started, and that all that’s left for him are the irregular ones to be played on the side—the odd friendship and the craft of fiction.

Some of the hurt James suffered as a boy and a young man are recorded in these books. The worst of it is the reason they were written in the first place--the deaths that mark and bring on the loss of his youth. James begins his autobiography on the occasion of his older brother’s death--William whom he admired as he much as he admired anyone (so felt and fluent are the passages where he pays tribute to his brother, that I’m tempted to say that he admired him as much as anyone has ever been admired). And then there is his father, Henry James senior and his cousin, Mary Temple, both of whom he adored, and whose deaths also dwell at the heart of these memoirs: “Such then is the circle of my commemoration and so much these free and copious notes a labour of love and loyalty” (5), a circle of commemoration that extends to include not only family and friends, but the now vanished scenes (as vanished as summer fruit in winter) where who and what and how he loved were most present and best represented: “where is that fruitage now . . . the mounds of Isabella grapes and Seckel pears in the sticky sweetness of which our childhood seems to have been steeped?” (46).

James may be at his most conspicuously hard to handle when he’s writing, or avoiding writing, about his share of what’s hardest for all of us to handle: death, for starters: the death of those who have been dearest to us. When he comes to the most dire difficulty, James can be as hard for us to figure out as math, that “dire discipline”, was for him: “the simplest arithmetical operation had always found and kept me helpless and blank”. Isn’t that just the way the mind of a reader of James can feel, drawn to a blank by his strange syntactical operations? In everything he wrote, it seems to me, and in his late work, especially, James converts a feeling of helplessness at the hands of the most awful existential algorithms (the conversion of life into death, first of all) into a sense of blankness, a crippling of mind which makes it all but impossible to understand what he is saying about our worst losses and how we should best address them. What makes James’s late prose so damned difficult I see gathering most thickly at the Grave; at the death and disappearance of who and what he most loved. Take what he says about the awful terror Mary Temple suffered at the hour of her death. Her letters are so beautiful and brave—the last one in particular, and yet, “there came a moment, almost immediately after, when all illusion failed; which it is not good to think of or linger on and yet not pitiful not to note”.  All those negations (a double, a triple negative): who doesn’t get a little confused? Even when you factor the shift in the value of “pitiful” from James’s time to our own (for James the term means something more like compassionate), it still takes a minute for the reader (maybe longer if the reader is bad at math) to figure out that she’s supposed to note (and not, not note) the terrible, terrified death of the twenty four year old Mary Temple. (The reader’s not supposed to think of or linger on it. For the sake of simplicity and space, not to mention respect for the distress of everyone concerned, I’ll let slide what if, anything, the difference might be between thinking of and noting.)

About the math, I admit, I’m being a little bit fanciful. (Like James and like a lot of literary types, I have my own personal problems with math.) But what I’m dead serious about is this: I think James illuminates our emotional troubles by converting them into cognitive ones. What’s hard for the heart to undertake without breaking becomes in James what’s hard for the mind to understand without failing.

It’s not just death: other grave losses (what can feel like death to the heart) bring on this problem in comprehension as well. James is at his most rebarbatively abstract, complicated and confusing when he is grieving the disappearance of the simple and natural and concrete from the social scenes of his youth.  The antecedents of his pronouns are never harder to discover than when what they mark the blessed particulars, and beyond that, the blessing of particularity, that give weight and grace to our individual lives (the particular people and places we love); the blessed particulars, the blessing of particularity, that by the dim view of the likes of James, are lost in the homogenizing movement of modernity.

But the biggest loss in James—what leaves his readers with their most gaping (to use one of James’ words) feeling of loss, may be related to an “obscure hurt” (“Notes of a Son and a Brother”) that he sustained when he was eighteen while helping to put out a fire. This hurt has been heard around the world, by generations of James’s readers, but never definitively identified. Old James Hands, and new ones too, have surmised that the hurt was a sexual wound that mutilated his manhood, or conversely, have insisted that it wasn’t. All we know for sure is that whatever it was, it kept James from fighting in the Civil War with one of his brothers and most the young men of his age. Some have questioned whether or not the hurt was even real—maybe he made it up to get exempted from love and war. Such obscure hurt—is it real or not? —defines, I think, Henry James at his hardest. I think the most difficult loss in Henry James, the loss that makes his writing most difficult, is the loss of the power to even know for sure if and where someone is hurt. We catch a glimpse of such obscure hurt at one of the theatricals that James attended when he was little. This one was at Purdy’s National Theater, which hosted a variety of theatrical spectacles that were amongst the boy James’ most vivid memories of early happiness—adaptations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Nicholas Nickleby; P.T. Barnum’s acrobats; actors of Italian descent.  On the night in question, a relative from out of town accompanies them, who in “a fever of perception,” hears or thinks she hears the cries of children being beaten somewhere behind stage:

“Oh don’t you hear the cries? They’re beating them, I’m sure they are; can’t it be stopped?” we resented the charge as a slur on our very honour; for what our romantic relative had heatedly imagined to reach us, in a hushed manner from behind, was the sounds attendant on the application of blows to some acrobatic infant who had “funked” his little job.

Did Henry James’ “romantic relative” (from everything James says, I hear the distressed voice as “her”, though as with so much, he never quite tells us so) really just imagine the cries of a child being beaten? Anyone who has ever entered the House of Fiction that James built will be familiar with the strange passages like this: the hushed sounds emanating from behind closed doors along the carpeted corridors of country houses—cries of children requiring rescue; cries either heard or hallucinated (it’s often hard to say which—sometimes downright impossible); and then the cascading ambiguities that fall from the possible pain of that possible sound: who, if anyone, is hearing what, if anything? As I say, this will sound familiar to anyone who’s heard a word of James has had to say; it will strike a chord of recognition in anyone even remotely familiar (and in some of the most telling cases, what can one be, but remotely familiar?) with the ambiguous reverberations that emanate from James at his most anxious and anguished.

James laughs off the possibility that the cries (if they are coming from anywhere aside from the imagination of his romantic relative) could be coming from inside the “temple of illusion” (104) where he and his family have taken the romantic relative. With mock solemnity James calls the imputation that the pain could be coming from within the theater “a slur on our very honour”. But then he ushers such possible pain on to the center of the stage, and from there it is conveyed, out to the audience. After having dismissed the distress of the “romantic relative” and what she think she’s heard from behind the scenes at the theater, James and his family “publically we[eep]” at the sight of the “final agony” of the melodrama on stage—“the final agony” brought on by “some cruel bullet,” like the one that John Wilkes Booth (whose performance in Schiller’s “The Robbers” a few years later brother William found “crudely extravagant”) used to murder Lincoln at a performance of “Our American Cousin” staged not far from or long after the show whose tragic violence the boy James and his brothers “could scarce bear”—“a strain on our sensibility to which our parents repeatedly questioned the wisdom of exposing us” (104).

The pain of the playgoer: how to describe such distress? To say that such pain is about something imaginary isn’t to say that it doesn’t draw real tears. Thus the cries of another sequestered child, this time, not the acrobatic infant whom the romantic relative imagines she hears, but rather an imagining one who holds the sight of such acrobats dear: the hushed child James, listening in the dark to a romantic relative read scenes from David Copperfield to his mother, listening quietly until the anguish of the spectacle defeats his discretion: “I listened long and drank deep while the wondrous picture grew, but the tense chord at last snapped under the strain of the Murdstones and I broke into the sobs of sympathy that disclosed my subterfuge” (75).  How do we characterize such pain? Is it real or not? No one has ever been able to say for sure, least of all one of its principle conveyors—Henry James, whose childhood love for Dickensian melodrama only deepened with age.

The implication of pain that can never be quite defined or denied casts its shadow all over the work of Henry James—this most obscure hurt seems to have started for James when he was very young. Consider how the flickering figure of a frozen scream seems to shadow him and his brother after they have left after the “house of pain” (“A Small Boy and Others”, 44), the dentist’s office where James, awaiting his turn in the chair hears “the music of my brother’s groans”: “the great reward dispensed to us for our sessions in the house of pain” was “the house of delight”—“of ice cream, deemed sovereign for sore mouths” (44). Consider how the house of pain, by James’ assessment, is everywhere ambiguously absorbed into the house of delight—the House of Ice Cream and Figure and Fiction; and how, everywhere, the cries of pain are kept near and far (evading all locating devices, simple or sophisticated) by a kind of control that James will ultimately define as a singular perogative of the aesthetic faculty. Thus James remembers his father’s sister’s “protest and her grief”, removed from her dying husband, and herself near death—“I remember being scared and hushed by it and stealing away beyond its reach. I remember not less what resources of high control the whole case imputed to my father; and how, creeping off the edge of the eminence above the Hudson, I somehow felt the great harmonies of air and space becoming one with my rather proud assurance and confidence” (114). And we somehow feel that those great harmonies are haunted by the very cries of grief that the hushed boy has sought to escape. 

But how haunted, who can say for sure? And who can say for sure how haunting is the deathbed agony of our most romantic American cousin, Mary Temple, whose last anguish becomes an “image” of the “essence of tragedy”, the “ghost” of which James “lays” “in the beauty and dignity of art” (569). Is that pain displaced or developed when it is inducted into the house of fiction and renamed Millie Thrale? Behind all this there may be a child being beaten—beaten at the games of men before he’s even started to play; beaten by the math his father thought he needed to know instead of the novels to which he gave his life; beaten by the knowledge—it came to him so young-- that no letter can be fine enough to keep what is dearest alive. And there may be a writer—we may call still him the Master—who seeks with all his might to draw us toward the rescue of that possible child, ungoverned by the specter of madness that such an effort at rescue might mean.

Posted on 18 May 2016

JEFF NUNOKAWA teaches at Princeton University. He is the author, most recently, of Note Book, a collection of writing that he's done on Facebook over the past few years. Right now, he's working on a book that will be called something like "Things We Learned at Home," about being raised by Old School, New Deal Melting Pot, Types at the end of the last century.