HENRY JAMES: WORST WRITER EVER?

Poor Henry James.  He took so long to say something, and when he finally said it, there was nothing there.

With Henry James, there was always something that seemed to want to get out, but somewhow, it couldn’t.

Effort was always present in him: great, even herculean effort, but it was always merely towards a kind of grim self-existence: the loud breathing of one panting because of their own weight.

If Henry James is remembered as a poet, it is precisely because what he was trying to say could never be said.

Henry James was always writing prefaces to his novels, and his prefaces were wonderful—because they teased, even tortured, his readers into such refined impatience: oh do please get on with the novel, already, before I expire!

For instance:

“The Wings of the Dove,” published in 1902, represents to my memory a very old–if I shouldn’t perhaps rather say a very young–motive; I can scarce remember the time when the situation on which this long-drawn fiction mainly rests was not vividly present to me. The idea, reduced to its essence, is that of a young person conscious of a great capacity for life, but early stricken and doomed, condemned to die under short respite, while also enamoured of the world; aware moreover of the condemnation and passionately desiring to “put in” before extinction as many of the finer vibrations as possible, and so achieve, however briefly and brokenly, the sense of having lived. Long had I turned it over, standing off from it, yet coming back to it; convinced of what might be done with it, yet seeing the theme as formidable. The image so figured would be, at best, but half the matter; the rest would be all the picture of the struggle involved, the adventure brought about, the gain recorded or the loss incurred, the precious experience somehow compassed. These things, I had from the first felt, would require much working-out; that indeed was the case with most things worth working at all; yet there are subjects and subjects, and this one seemed particularly to bristle. It was formed, I judged, to make the wary adventurer walk round and round it–it had in fact a charm that invited and mystified alike that attention; not being somehow what one thought of as a “frank” subject, after the fashion of some, with its elements well in view and its whole character in its face. It stood there with secrets and compartments, with possible treacheries and traps; it might have a great deal to give, but would probably ask for equal services in return, and would collect this debt to the last shilling. It involved, to begin with, the placing in the strongest light a person infirm and ill—a case sure to prove difficult and to require  much handling; though giving perhaps, with other matters, one of those chances for good taste, possibly even for the play of the very best in the world, that are not only always to be invoked and cultivated, but that are absolutely to be jumped at from the moment they make a sign.

Before reading a Henry James novel, one needs to be carefully informed of how difficult it was for Mr. James to wrestle with how he was going to “work-out” his inescapable theme.  His prefaces are sort of like having one’s brains dashed out—in order to create that proper impressionistic effect which his impeccable, fictional realism requires, as it portrays dashing men—and the thoughtful ladies who love them—sucking their thumbs.

Henry James, the pampered, life-long bachelor who fled rough-and-tumble America for Men’s Club London, was the sort of person most happy when talking about his own novels (and explaining what he was going to do in them), which is why prefaces were so important to his art.

It is no wonder Henry James failed miserably at the theater.  Audience: We’ll give you an hour, or two. Connect with us.  James couldn’t do it.  He was booed and hissed off the stage by his beloved Londoners.

His father, Henry James, Sr., now forgotten, founded Syracuse, was the richest man in America, and most importantly for his son, Henry, knew Emerson—who told young William Dean Howells to publish Henry Jr in The Atlantic Monthly, which was great, because Henry James was not doing much of anything at the time, laying about, feeling guilty for not fighting in the Civil War, and he and Howells were to discover a ‘movement,’ Tea-Cup Realism, which they were very happy with, and Henry now could tell everyone—thanks to papa’s connection to ‘uncle’ Waldo—that he was a published writer.

Henry Sr.’s eldest son, William, experimented with writing things down while on nitrous oxide, invented automatic writing, and founded the first psychology department, at Harvard—where he eventually had Gertrude Stein—who was good at automatic writing—as a student.

So the James family gave us the city of Syracuse, Tea Cup Realism, Academic Psychology, and Modernist, experimental literature.  Not bad.

But what shall we do with Henry James’ inflated reputation?  Why, lance it, of course.  If not punctured, the inevitable decay will set in—James has already lost millions of readers to Jane Austen, J.R.R. Tolkien, and J.K. Rowling, and has a dwindling readership—and that decay will leave a disturbing odor.  Or, perhaps, James’ empty-at-its-core writing will not rot at all, but drift imperceptibly away?  It will be labor lost, then, to make any effort to dismantle James’ rather bulky notoriety—which yet looms over our Letters.

Having said that, we’ll end with a sampling of another of James’ prefaces—not for one of his novels—we won’t torture you further with them—but for someone he loved, a boy he adored: Rupert Brooke, who died in World War I, only a year before Henry James, himself, passed away.  Rupert Brooke is famous for his lines from “The Soldier”:

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed

Both men, the old novelist and the young poet, adored England.  James met Rupert Brooke a few times in person, and evidently was quite smitten by the lad.  The old novelist wrote the Preface for Rupert Brooke’s Letters From America, in honor of the poet’s death. The small book was published by Scribner’s in 1916, the year of Henry James’ death, a short time after Rupert Brooke’s death in the Great War—and Henry James wrote it while the atrocity known as the Great War was still going on.  Has anyone ever written such ugly, tedious, meaningless bombast?  Read for yourself:

Rupert Brooke, young, happy, radiant, extraordinarily endowed and irresistibly attaching, virtually met a soldier’s death, met it in the stress of action and the all but immediate presence of the enemy; but he is before us as a new, a  confounding and superseding example altogether, an unprecedented image, formed to resist erosion by time or vulgarisation by reference, of quickened possibilities, finer ones than ever before, in the stuff poets may be noted as made of.  With twenty reasons fixing the interest and the charm that will henceforth abide in his name and constitute, as we may say, his legend, he submits all helplessly to one in particular which is, for appreciation, the least personal to him or inseperable from him, and he does this because, while he is still in the highest degree of the distinguished faculty and quality, we happen to feel him even more markedly and significantly “modern.” This is why I speak of the mixture of his elements as new, feeling that it governs his example, put by it in a light which nothing else could have equally contributed—so that Byron for instance, who startled his contemporaries by taking for granted scarce one of the articles that formed their comfortable faith and by revelling in almost everything that made them idiots if he himself was to figure as a child of truth, looks to us, by any such measure, comparatively plated over with the impenetrable rococo of his own day.  I speak, I hasten to add, not of Byron’s volume, his flood and his fortune, but of his really having quarrelled with the temper and the accent of his age still more where they might have helped him to expression than where he but flew in their face.  He hugged pomp, whereas our unspeakably fortunate young poet of to-day, linked like him also, for consecration of the final romance, with the isles of Greece, took for his own the whole of the poetic consciousness he was born to, and moved about in it as a stripped young swimmer might have kept splashing through blue water and coming up at any point that friendliness and fancy, with every prejudice shed, might determine. Rupert expressed us all, at the highest tide of our actuality, and was the creature of a freedom restricted only by that condition of his blinding youth, which we accept on the whole with gratitude and relief—given that I qualify the condition as dazzling even to himself. How can it therefore not be interesting to see a little what the wondrous modern in him consisted of?

What it first and foremost really comes to, I think, is the fact that at an hour when the civilised peoples are on exhibition, quite finally and sharply on show, to each other and to the world, as they absolutely never in all their long history have been before, the English tradition (both of amenity and of energy, I naturally mean), should have flowered at once into a specimen so beautifully producible.

I couldn’t have said it better, myself.

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33 Comments

  1. Bill said,

    July 26, 2011 at 10:26 pm

    Winters is good on James’s limitations, thus defalting the overvaluation (which he does for many reputations, thanks for the tip, but he gives him credit where it is due. I can’t believe you don’t think Golden Bowl, Wings of the Dove, and Ambassadors are superb novels in James’s peculiar mold. Not that I don’t actually prefer Tolkien.

    I would cut him some slack on a eulogy for a dead poet-soldier.

    Thanks for this.

    • thomasbrady said,

      July 27, 2011 at 11:16 am

      Bill,

      Because it was a eulogy, and because Henry James had personally met this young man on more than one occasion, and because James has a reputation as one of the great novelists of all time, I expected a glimpse or two of the real Rupert Brooke in James’ rather lengthy preface, even if it were some tiny, accidental observation—that’s why I was so struck, and I thought to myself, ‘Henry James really is a bombastic robot.’ There is nothing genuine in the entire article, and the over-praise is in bad taste to the point of insult.

      Henry James Jr. couldn’t even suppress his modernist agenda—for James did belong to the clique spawned by Pound, and indirectly by way of Emerson, through Emerson’s friend’s grandson, T.S. Eliot, and Emerson’s godson, William James, Henry’s philosopher brother, who was at Harvard when Eliot and Stevens and Gertrude Stein were there, and Henry James Sr, who was a friend of Emerson’s.

      Emerson’s Poe-hatred and English allegiance (see Emerson’s racial “English Traits”) spilled over into Henry James and T.S. Eliot’s explicit Poe-hatred and English allegiance and the modernist abuse of the Romantics—so there in that preface Henry James feels he has to lower Byron—see the odd reference to “idiots” (the gentility drops momentarily to expose raw animosity)—in order to lift Rupert Brooke. We also see the explicit modernist strategy: Byron was “rococo” and not “modern.” Uncle Henry was setting the agenda already.

      The Great War was still being fought when HJ died and was still being fought when James wrote this Preface for RB and the war is, in HJ’s eyes, nothing but English glory.

      Tom

      • powersjq said,

        March 12, 2014 at 2:01 pm

        “There is nothing genuine in the entire article, and the over-praise is in bad taste to the point of insult.”

        Interesting. The point of a eulogy is emphatically _not_ to be “genuine,” but rather to speak (-logos) to the good (eu-) using the subject of the text as a basis. James is clearly doing so here. There is no such thing as over-praise in a eulogy, nor over-criticism in a vituperation. Whole generations of literary critics have read Renaissance texts in these molds (such as Erasmus’s _In Praise of Folly_) and found them wanting because they are not reasonable or fair or empirical. Such criticisms misunderstand the whole point of the form.

        I find James’s text here irritatingly bombastic, but I recognize that he’s within the bounds of the form.

        • thomasbrady said,

          March 13, 2014 at 3:38 pm

          Powers,

          There are good eulogies and bad eulogies, and certainly one of the criteria should be ‘does it tell the truth?’ There is such a thing as over-praise, because then it’s a lie, and eulogies that lie are not as good as eulogies which praise, but do not lie. The subject may enjoy the over-praise, but there is a standard, I must assume, above and beyond the subject.

          The larger point, however, is that James was a British imperialist of the worst sort, and felt impelled to knock Byron (who had doubts about the British Empire) in a eulogy for a man glorifying a meat-grinder of a war in support of the British Empire. The other point, which pertains to Poe, and why Poe was hated by men like James and Eliot, is that Poe dared to stand up for American Letters (and writers like Shelley and Keats, who were savaged by the Modernists) against the British Empire.

          • powersjq said,

            March 13, 2014 at 8:33 pm

            Tom,

            “Telling the truth” is not a criterion for a eulogy. Honesty is, but it is only necessary that the speaker adopt the ethos–the mien–of honesty. Actually telling the truth is neither here nor there.

            I remain undecided on the question of whether an artist’s politics should be admitted to a critical assessment of his work. Haven’t we touched on this point before? Good subject + poetic form =/= good poem. The poem has to be judged as an integral whole? So no matter how unsavory James’s politics, and no matter how thoroughly they infiltrate his works, I submit that the works must be judged on their own merits as literature.

            Isn’t that what you want for Poe? That his works should be judged in the light of critical reason and mature taste, not in the light of his unfairly tarnished reputation (which is not a fair measure of his literary genius)?

            • thomasbrady said,

              March 14, 2014 at 12:09 pm

              Powers,

              There’s a certain assumed dichotomy in Art & Letters where we have ranting polemics on one hand and Formalism & Beauty & Pleasure on the other.

              This dichotomy holds only up to a point. Politics, morality, and other ‘rant’ topics are transformed by art, but they don’t disappear. Judgment ought to judge the everything, all that is and all that isn’t—which art is.

              • powersjq said,

                March 14, 2014 at 2:23 pm

                Tom,

                I see what you’re getting at, and I agree. It’s that “transformation” that you’re talking about that’s so tricky, especially transformation that doesn’t completely efface the original form. While James himself may have been an apologist for British imperialism, I submit that his best novels mount a critique of the artificiality of European gentility. His works do not excuse his prejudice—they make _use_ of it. In his best work, James’s own attitudes are transformed (without being effaced) and put to use in the service of a more generous observation of humanity.

                I value enormously your keen eye for the intricacies of the alliance between perceived artistic merit and social power. I also value enormously your impressive knowledge of the social background of modern literature—who edited whom, who funded which prize, who made sure that so-and-as was published where. You have essentially pulled together a refreshingly clear-eyed social history of modern letters. Even the scraps that I’ve learned from you intimate a narrative that has great explanatory power when it comes to questions like, “Why don’t I understand most poems that I see lauded by critics these days?” If you were to package your critical history as a book, I think it would belong next to Gatto’s critical history of the modern (U.S.) school system.

                In short, I see your critique as undermining the self-serving stories that modern lit. tells to itself and about itself. Your critique does _not_, however, provide strong tools for evaluating works of modern literature on their own merits. (This is no particular problem, since such tools are readily available.) I think the conceits of modern lit. have made the production and recognition of great works of letters more difficult. Modernism is a bad artistic policy. But there remain plenty of Modern works that _are_ great, partly despite their Modernity, but also partly _because_ of it.

                James’s proximity to the nerve centers of Modern letters is a good reason to scrutinize his _reputation_. And his nonspecific jabs at other writers may be dismissed as useless. The _core_ of his reputation, however, has always been and always will be that his best works _actually_ please good readers.

                • thomasbrady said,

                  March 14, 2014 at 3:47 pm

                  Thanks, Powers.

                  Yes, you are correct—Scarriet looks to fill a need, and you have pinpointed it very well.

      • powersjq said,

        March 12, 2014 at 2:27 pm

        Tom,

        A writer, like any artist, must be judged by his _best_ work, not by the average success of works within his oeuvre. H.’s novels are sententious and melodramatic–his prose convoluted and over-subtle. These are unarguable _strengths_ for the kind of novels that he writes. How could any sympathetic analysis of Bostonian puritanism succeed without being morally sententious, emotionally melodramtic, intellectually convoluted, and psychologically over-subtle? I’m with Bill that H.’s best novels are worth reading by anyone.

        But of course these traits are only strengths in the context of a successful work. For myself, I rather _like_ how the James brothers write, though I’ve also found that only H.’s best novels are pleasing. (I also think that W. is by far the better writer.) So I haven’t read more than a handful of H.’s novels, and I doubt I’ll read more. I don’t seem to tire of W.’s prose, though.

  2. Bill said,

    July 27, 2011 at 10:47 pm

    Good point about the absence of RB from his eulogy. That makes it a good stand-in for the novels, which lack novelistic reality. But the display of psychological and moral hair-splitting does add up to something dramatic, persuasive and insightful. Maybe the three I mentioned are great romances, not great novels. Bill

    • powersjq said,

      March 12, 2014 at 2:35 pm

      “But the display of psychological and moral hair-splitting does add up to something dramatic, persuasive and insightful.”

      This is it exactly.

  3. Nooch said,

    July 27, 2011 at 11:04 pm

    Writer Florence King liked Leon Edel’s biography of James,
    Saying of it, “All the James you want without having to read him.”

    • thomasbrady said,

      July 28, 2011 at 3:19 pm

      Truth is stranger than fiction, they say—
      Every play: a play within a play—
      Life is more real than real can seem:
      A truth within a play within a dream.

  4. thomasbrady said,

    July 28, 2011 at 1:18 pm

    There’s also books out there on the James family; one must really understand the whole family, the friendship with Emerson, the wealth, the influence, the way the various siblings were treated, to get a good picture of what that family, rather cynically, represents.

  5. marcusbales said,

    July 29, 2011 at 1:20 pm

    What’s your source that Henry James Sr was ‘the richest man in America’ or that he ‘founded Syracuse’? Sure, $3 million is a lot of money even today, but in the US from the early to late 1800s which is when he must have lived, a time of boom and bust that produced canal systems, railroad systems, a major war, the meat-packing industry, coal and steel, that that can’t be even close to the biggest total. No doubt he was rich enough for literary purposes, but James Sr was a sort of Swedenborgian writer sort, wasn’t he? Didn’t he inherit, come to think of it, his money? I think it was Henry and William James’s grandfather who made the family fortune — and not in Syracuse, either.

    So, with two out of three offered facts wrong, what price your assertion that HJ Sr was the sole reason for Emerson to recommend Henry James
    to the Atlantic Monthly, or that Emerson’s recommendation was the sole reason it was accepted?

    • thomasbrady said,

      July 29, 2011 at 4:00 pm

      My apologies. It was the grandfather, William, who made the money.

      http://www.infobritain.co.uk/Henry_James_Biography_And_Visits.htm

      “Henry James’s grandfather, William James, an irish emigrant from Bailieborough in County Cavan, sailed to America in 1789. He was to become extremely rich, buying up vast areas in the new state of Illinois and western New York state. He bought the whole of Syracuse, then a swamp, knowing the future value of its salt springs. The money William James was to make from Syracuse was to aid his grandson Henry James through much of his literary career.”

      Considering the first American millionaire, Mr. Derby from Salem, MA, made his fortune around the turn of the century, 3 million in the early 19th century would have been a large fortune.

      Emerson was very close to the James family and Howells, Atlantic editor, came east with a letter of intro to Emerson.

  6. January 14, 2012 at 10:25 pm

    Nick Tosches wrote, “Privacy is not as important as a good laugh; we herewith present a packet of dirty love letters which might have been written by some of America’s most important authors, who shall remain anonymous. These letters are fake, of course; but, then again, so is the greater part of literature.” Tosches’ piece, “Lust Among the Adverbs,” contained “letters” by Hemingway, Jacqueline Susann, Faulkner, Henry James, Mailer, Fitzgerald and Capote.

    May 7, 1873
    Rome

    Mother Dearest:

    Your devoted son Henry has come to be possessed of a most delicate and disconcerting perplexity. It is this perplexity that compels me, once again, Mother, to seek to lay my head in your softly enclosing lap; to gain the counsel of your patient wisdom and the solace of your exquisite maternity.

    There is a young lady, Mother, whom I have encountered here amid the grandeur and gloom of the Eternal City. I hasten to assure you, Mother, lest you succumb to the wages of an hasty interpretation of the foregoing disclosure, that this young lady is not a native of the place, but, rather, like myself, a civilized—or, so I thought—person abroad. Her name is Elena Lowe, and she is the daughter of the eminent Bostonian Francis Lowe.

    I met her at Assisi, where I had journeyed to celebrate the eve of my thirtieth birthday—oh! how your little Henry has grown, Mother!—by absorbing myself in the frescoes of Giotto that adorn the Basilica Superiore of St. Francis. As I encountered her, she was regarding, with a most particular species of bemusement, a likeness of Gregory IX. She was extraordinarily white, and her every element and item was pretty: her eyes, her ears, her hair, her hands, her feet—to which her relaxed attitude as she leaned against an arch gave a great publicity—and the numerous ribbons and trinkets with which she was bedecked.

    “Pardon me, Miss,” I said, daring the impropriety of a casual introduction, “I suspect that we are compatriots. My name is Henry James. Risking both backache and gastric fever, I have ventured abroad to compose a novel.”

    She smiled as I tugged at the bell rope of my brain for a feeble tinkle of conversation. Her smile mesmerised me. It was beautiful, mysterious, melancholy, inscrutable. In no way, however, did it prepare me for what she was about to say.

    “Don’t you find this place to be filled with a great erotic electricity?” she asked insouciantly.

    My heart struck a single mighty beat, and I fairly felt that the sacred walls of St. Francis would tumble down upon us. I stammered the most anxious of adieux and improvised an escape. Returning hurriedly to my rooms at the Hôtel de Rome, I bolted my door and repaired to my bed. I wept and trembled until, mercifully, sleep overtook me.

    Imagine, dear Mother, my horror upon discovering in the morn that Miss Lowe was also occupying rooms at the Hôtel. She bade me to take breakfast with her, and, like the most unwitting fool in the most shabbily written penny dreadful, I complied. She apologized for frightening me the previous day, and she asked me to send her something of my writing. Inexplicably, I soon became quite relaxed and began to converse with great ease. This relaxation and ease cast a balmy haze over my remembrance of the past day, and I found myself, at breakfast’s finale, inviting her to ride with me that afternoon in the campagna, to traverse the flower-carpeted slopes and hills of the Tiber, to watch the play of sapphire and umber as the sirocco whispered through the Sabine mountains.

    “I know a better way to spend our afternoon,” Miss Lowe suggested. She smiled her beautiful, mysterious, melancholy, inscrutable smile, and maneuvered her tongue to extend in subtle dalliance between her lips.

    “Better than watching the play of sapphire and—?” I began.

    “Much better, Mr. James,” she spoke in a tone that fairly pierced the starch and patent leather of my being, a tone that fairly stirred within me a new and splendid chord.

    Moments later, I found myself in Miss Lowe’s bedchamber. She explained to me—or, rather, I now suspect, feigned to explain—that when a young man and a young lady of breeding are alone in the quarters of the latter, certain precautions must be taken so as to insure that there will be no violations of decorum.

    “Quite,” I said, hesitantly, as she began to bind my wrists and ankles to the teak curvatures of an armchair. She excused herself. Several minutes later, she returned—wearing naught! I shut my eyes and struggled to suppress my tears.

    Then—and here you must excuse me, Mother, for I must lapse into a plain and direct prose—she unbuttoned my trousers and withdrew my urinary organ. Her mouth commenced to perform a deed which was at great variance with the pacific pastoral pleasures of the campagna which she claimed we might this afternoon surpass.

    “Haven’t you ever been with a woman before?” Miss Lowe inquired, in an almost cruel manner.

    “Not in any vulgar way,” I stammered, tasting the salt of my tears.

    “Do you prefer making love to men, then?” she asked, in a more than almost cruel manner.

    “Oh, no! I should imagine that to be even more dreadful!”

    As the ferocity of her ministrations increased, my urinary organ seemed to ossify—perhaps Brother William, with his medical training, might shed some light upon this for us—and I grew decidedly faint. Of a sudden, she raised her rump upon my lap and let fall her weight, so that my urinary organ was swallowed by that dark and purpling item that resided at her groin. Mercifully, I lost all consciousness of any further proceedings.

    Upon awakening, I found that I had been untied. Miss Lowe, in a flowery robe, reclined on her bed, regarding me with cold eyes. I buttoned myself and fled. Within a matter of hours, I had relocated at a smaller hostelry farther from the center of the Corso.

    These past weeks, I have been abed, fretting, in a condition of great anxiety. I dare not walk the streets of Rome, for fear of encountering Miss Lowe. This most unspeakably horrible situation must be remedied. I await your advice, Mother. Please don’t speak a word of this to Father. He would simply defecate.

    Junior

  7. thomasbrady said,

    January 15, 2012 at 4:19 pm

    “There is a difference between one and another hour of life, in their authority and subsequent effect. Our faith comes in moments; our vice is habitual. Yet there is a depth in those brief moments which constrains us to ascribe more reality to them than to all other experiences. For this reason, the argument which is always forthcoming to silence those who conceive extraordinary hopes of man, namely, the appeal to experience, is for ever invalid and vain. We give up the past to the objector, and yet we hope. He must explain this hope. We grant that human life is mean; but how did we find out that it was mean? What is the ground of this uneasiness of ours; of this old discontent? What is the universal sense of want and ignorance, but the fine innuendo by which the soul makes its enormous claim? Why do men feel that the natural history of man has never been written, but he is always leaving behind what you have said of him, and it becomes old, and books of metaphysics worthless? The philosophy of six thousand years has not searched the chambers and magazines of the soul. In its experiments there has always remained, in the last analysis, a residuum it could not resolve. Man is a stream whose source is hidden. Our being is descending into us from we know not whence. The most exact calculator has no prescience that somewhat incalculable may not balk the very next moment. I am constrained every moment to acknowledge a higher origin for events than the will I call mine.”

    Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Over-Soul”

  8. elisabethmorgan said,

    June 1, 2012 at 6:25 am

    I am glad to see I am not the only one who can’t bear James’ stilted, telescoping prose, (though I will admit I didn’t mind The Turn of the Screw as much as the others.) The last couple of days I’ve trying to slog my way through What Maisie Knew. I’d always been confused by my lack of enjoyment of his work and a bit insecure about it so last week when I read somewhere that this book was more interesting and less typical James I thought this might be my chance to finally understand his appeal.

    Unfortunately this book was even worse than Portrait of a Lady and Washington Square. Each sentence is impossibly convoluted and the meaning in it so paltry when you’ve actually managed to unravel it. What is the purpose of using five times as many words and an impossibly roundabout syntax to say what could have been put simply? It it supposed to make pedestrian observations sound profound? Worse than that, after trying for 100 pages I realize I still have no interest in the characters or what happens to them next. I hate to start a book and walk away from it, but in this case I’ve decided to invoke the “life’s too short” principle and take it back to the library.

    As I’d heard James praised by so many and so often cited as someone’s favorite author I wondered if maybe it was just me. I thought maybe I was not perceptive, intelligent or educated well enough to perceive the genius that lies somewhere hidden from me in his books. Seeking validation I googled the phrase “Henry James tortured prose” and found your website, which has brought me great relief about the soundness of my mental faculties.

    • noochinator said,

      June 1, 2012 at 11:39 am

      Professor Epstein likes him,
      But he’s biased towards things that are lime-
      Y, plus the thing about Henry James
      Is that you need a LOT of free time.

    • thomasbrady said,

      June 1, 2012 at 6:39 pm

      Dear Elisabeth,

      it’s not you!

      It’s him—Henry James.

      Glad you found us!

      Tom.

  9. noochinator said,

    June 1, 2012 at 2:14 pm

    I read somewhere that James bought
    A wheelbarrow with one book’s earnings—
    Could that be the red wheelbarrow
    Of W.C. Williams’ yearnings?

    • thomasbrady said,

      June 1, 2012 at 6:57 pm

      Pound met a Harvard man, aged twenty-two,
      New Directions, his project—and it grew.
      Published Pound Williams, and James, too,
      A wheel barrow full of shit, glazed with dew…

  10. David said,

    June 2, 2012 at 2:52 pm

    As I’d heard James praised by so many and so often cited as someone’s favorite author I wondered if maybe it was just me. I thought maybe I was not perceptive, intelligent or educated well enough to perceive the genius that lies somewhere hidden from me in his books.

    Reading that lament of a bullied reader, we are refreshed by the authorial humility of Andre Gide:

    It is appropriate, in opposition to the manner of Meredith and James, to let the reader get the advantage over me — to go about it in such a way as to allow him to think he is more intelligent, more moral, more perspicacious than the author, and that he is discovering many things in the characters, and many truths in the course of the narrative, in spite of the author and, so to speak, behind the author’s back.

    • thomasbrady said,

      June 2, 2012 at 4:26 pm

      Nice quote, David.

      It reminds me of this one by Poe, from his tale, “Never Bet the Devil Your Head:” http://www.eapoe.org/works/tales/dvlhdc.htm

      CON tal que las costumbres de un autor,” says Don Thomas de las Torres, in the preface to his “Amatory Poems” “sean puras y castas, importo muy poco que no sean igualmente severas sus obras “ — meaning, in plain English, that, provided the morals of an author are pure, personally, it signifies nothing what are the morals of his books. We presume that Don Thomas is now in Purgatory for the assertion. It would be a clever thing, too, in the way of poetical justice, to keep him there until his “Amatory Poems” get out of print, or are laid definitely upon the shelf through lack of readers. Every fiction should have a moral; and, what is more to the purpose, the critics have discovered that every fiction has. Philip Melanchthon, some time ago, wrote a commentary upon the “Batrachomyomachia” and proved that the poet’s object was to excite a distaste for sedition. Pierre la Seine, going a step farther, shows that the intention was to recommend to young men temperance in eating and drinking. Just so, too, Jacobus Hugo has satisfied himself that, by Euenis, Homer meant to insinuate John Calvin; by Antinöus, Martin Luther; by the Lotophagi, Protestants in general; and, by the Harpies, the Dutch. Our more modern Scholiasts are equally acute. These fellows demonstrate a hidden meaning in “The Antediluvians,” a parable in “Powhatan,” new views in “Cock Robin,” and transcendentalism in “Hop O’ My Thumb.” In short, it has been shown that no man can sit down to write without a very profound design. Thus to authors in general much trouble is spared. A novelist, for example, need have no care of his moral. It is there — that is to say, it is somewhere — and the moral and the critics can take care of themselves. When the proper time arrives, all that the gentleman intended, and all that he did not intend, will be brought to light, in the “Dial,” or the “Down-Easter,” together with all that he ought to have intended, and the rest that he clearly meant to intend: — so that it will all come very straight in the end.

    • powersjq said,

      March 12, 2014 at 2:48 pm

      It is refreshing to know that some writers at least practice their craft aware that the _reader_, and not the _letter_–etymology notwithstanding–is the supreme principle of literature.

      “‘Tis the good reader that makes the good book; in every book he finds passages which seem confidences or asides hidden from all else and unmistakenly meant for his ear; the profit of books is according to the sensibility of the reader; the profoundest thought or passion sleeps as in a mine, until it is discovered by an equal mind and heart.” –R. W. Emerson

  11. August 1, 2012 at 12:23 pm

    Cynthia Ozick interviews Henry James:

    http://www.threepennyreview.com/samples/ozick_w05.html

    • thomasbrady said,

      August 1, 2012 at 1:45 pm

      Ah, Fenimore puts an end to the interview.

      One cannot tell whether Ozick hates or worships James. Better, I think just to ignore him. He almost singlehandedly ruined the novel and has made pretentious twits of thousands, if not millions, with his writing.

  12. June 1, 2013 at 4:07 pm

    THE MASTERS ON THE MOVIES

    Now, Voyager (1942)

    (Henry James in 1885, the same year he publishes (serially) The Bostonians)

    Poor old Boston! Better still, or worse, poor Back Bay! Inevitably synonymous with every cramp and curb and suffocating check the flesh is heir to, heiress in this instance—Charlotte Vale, indentured to a gorgon Ma, and doomed to be undone by lonely lovelessness: happily, here, the gorgon turns to stone, her ugly duckling being metamorphosed (medical magic and the mystic manipulations of modiste and parlor-maid) to a wandering Wanton of the Caribbean, returning as a swan and odorous with erotic reminiscence to take up charitable works in cheerless Boston, for which she has no likely capacity…

    The thing is dim to me: Charlotte and her married lover—what they did and what they should not have done; chiefly there glows for me the figure of a Changed Woman who understands when she is spoken to, a peculiarity I prize, as I find it more and more rare. For the rest, on the mild midnight of our actual screen, I see a phosphorescence, not a flame: mostly abuse of voluminous dialogue, absence of all the other phases of presentation, so that line and point are replaced by a vast formless featherbediness, billows in which one sinks and is lost. And all so unrewarding: it takes us our whole life to learn how to live at all, and having learned we die. I make out Charlotte is flexible, as Walt enjoins, with all his enviable talent for simplifying… Be it so! Even if, my dear, we don’t reach the sun, we shall at least have been up in the balloon.

    Lost Horizon (1937)

    (Joseph Conrad in 1907, the year The Secret Agent was published)

    Do not be deceived: the best of such songeries are but trash. I hate them, one and all—ineptitudes which constitute surely the lowest form of amusement, affording nothing more in the way of art than a flickering distraction to dolts condemned to sit in darkness, mental life utterly suspended, watching patterns of pretence gibber and squeak before them. A sharp-witted child can make mere shadowgraphs in pantomime (Borys has devised a wonderful wolf!) do more for us than these delusive shades disporting in an overheated hall…

    Yet hold! I have seen one movement of a “movie” which has made sight into Vision, all the blind soul craves: that moment when a creature who enacts the Eternal Feminine—Margo? Bargo? Garbo, it must be!—becomes before your eyes a ruined hag once she quits the sacred haunts (lost indeed!) of a hardly Himalayan Tibet… Instantaneous and incredible that human matter could accomplish such disintegration without passing through long-lasting pangs of inconceivable agony. Here was warrant of the long and loathsome dreams dreamed in the instant of waking, a whole past life lived with dire intensity in one last pulse. Yet such mirages—sudden! slow!—can serve us only in the incomprehensible alliance of their irreconcilable antagonisms, compelling us to admit what we always dreaded and denied, that ages of pain can be lived between two blinks of an eye: the horizon found!

    Woman of the Year (1942), The First Hepburn-Tracy Film

    (George Meredith in 1891, the year The Amazing Marriage was published)

    The shambles, the charnel, the wrinkle—none of these to be encountered where the sleekest of amazon daughters reigns in superior health, and will reign for some three decades, speaking in sentences like scissors, walking as if born to armor (Woman’s gait) in a heartbreaker’s dozen of tourneys-to-come, playing opposite (opposing) a masculine adversary—grizzled chin and chiseled grin—consternated to be turned, by the very carapace he employs as defense, into a lump of no account. Soon she will learn to live out of or inside herself (it comes to much the same), deprecating principle for mere success, visibly undisturbed by the prospect of intellectual value inseparable from bodily strife! Here’s an artful pother to rouse excitement at the several stages of their story: catechize the sacred Laws of the Great Game, lay open Secrets of the Hearth… So may the peplum of even the most classical goddess be clipped. Tongue to speak and contend versus body laid out for probing. Moral: slack beds make slick battlefields. Since they err, imagine they are human.

    King Kong (1933)

    (Rudyard Kipling in 1894, the year he publishes The Jungle Book)

    Once upon a time a Saxon scop heard of or saw (in those days men commonly saw what they wrote about) the ruins of an old Roman city, half buried and falling to pieces in the jungle somewhere in the south of England. And the tale he made of his weird discovery—we too can almost see the band of hunters or raiders scrambling through bushes, picking the thorns out of their legs, standing stock-still in the presence of that mysterious dead city—his saga was my paragon for “The Cold Lairs” overrun by a Monkey People.

    Well, I had hoped for something like that, nothing like the shaky travesty I was shown: Denham lost on an “island” where he finds natives offering Kong their annual maiden… How could he fail to ask himself: What happens to those girls? What does the ape do with them? Surely Miss Wray herself was aware of the terrible and transcendental—sublime, as Burke would have it—experience of being loved by Kong. Could it be lost on her, being preferred by a god to all those consensual black beauties—does it not signify the White Woman’s Burden? Even old friend Haggard, he of She, who shares with me the Empire’s enemies—would he so moralize a huckster’s conquest? I scorn the evasion, relieved these failing eyes could make out no more than a white rag fluttering in a black fist. Nor can I believe New York was the end, especially that business (sic) of the Dark God’s death, falling off a skyscraper! For can Kong die? ‘Twas in the jungle that we lost our Simian Lord, shambling past some indiscriminate dinosaurs to true Doom: identity and time ever defenseless against Desire.

    Queen Christina (1933)

    (Willa Cather in 1934, when a second film version of ‘A Lost Lady’ was set in Chicago, and Barbara Stanwyck given an affair with an aviator)

    Increasingly, conclusively, I am confirmed in my unalterable choice (surely it was a choice, I do not make chance decisions) never again to allow
    anything of mine anything I write to be taken away from me and turned into “material” I have not written: a play, an opera or (God help us!) a screenplay, as Hollywood proclaims it. The ultimate wisdom of my resolve was impressed upon me only tonight, when a ludicrous account of one more Roman conversion had me giggling and horrified: I am and ever shall be emulous of the young queen’s embracing a practice so much in accord with her aspirations (and her accomplishments!), but the film elided all such matters — Descartes’ friendship, Pascal’s dedication of the just-invented adding-machine to “Madam la Reine,” and above all her political astuce in establishing her cousin Charles on the throne of Sweden. Only Garbo’s features were convincing, and a certain waywardness which I am tempted to take on faith, despite the terms of that trumpery romance. What stuff!

    I suppose it is feckless to look for anything more from the movies. My own imaginative knowledge is of loss, the consequent action of what I write is of loss as well; necessarily whatever celebration I can make of my experience will be of loss. Call it poverty who will. There had been a grain of truth in one moment — the scene where Garbo (absurd to call that lovely creature traipsing about in velvet boots Christina) tries to memorize the room, running her hands (unforgettable hands!) over the mantelpiece and around the walls. But even Garbo is not worth my words… Leaving the “film palace,” I could see my own breath in the air—numb October in mournful retreat—and a sickle moon.

    Richard Howard

  13. Anonymous said,

    March 10, 2014 at 11:55 am

    Relieved…I’ve been searching the internet for anything that would point out the pretentious profundity in the writing of Henry James. There’s another article, gladly found, a blog by Sam Jordison in The Guardian who felt tired in reading his works too. I was just only on the first few pages of Portrait Of A Lady, reading the preface twice, and then stopped even before chapter 1 finished when I felt a hard yawn and grappling to find sense in any of the words that despite the hundreds of them could not connect with me.

    • thomasbrady said,

      March 10, 2014 at 12:43 pm

      Thanks, Anonymous. Yup, Henry James came from a very rich, influential family…Henry James Sr was the richest man in America…the other son William invented ‘stream-of-consciousness,’ taught Gertrude Stein at Harvard, and founded the first Psychology Dept. Henry James, the novelist, who ran back to the Mother Country, is held aloft as this titan of fiction (and James made condescending and denigrating remarks about Poe). The swindle has gone on long enough. James is a horrible writer and his teacup fiction pales next to Poe’s truly innovative output.

      • powersjq said,

        March 12, 2014 at 2:53 pm

        “James made condescending and denigrating remarks about Poe.”

        It is strange to me that you do not read this sort of behavior as backhanded _praise_. Not a swindle, but _vituperation_. As, similarly, your strong denigrations of James’s works tend to produce a sense rather a sense of the _importance_ of the works rather a sense of their superfluity.

    • noochinator said,

      March 10, 2014 at 11:26 pm

      Don’t miss comment 6 above for Nick Tosches’ dead-on parody of Hank’s style.


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