Infomotions, Inc.Henry James, Jr. / Howells, William Dean, 1837-1920

Author: Howells, William Dean, 1837-1920
Title: Henry James, Jr.
Publisher: Project Gutenberg
Tag(s): james; isabel; newman; daisy; fiction; novelist; miller; american
Contributor(s): Evans, Sebastian, 1830-1909 [Translator]
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Identifier: etext723
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Henry James, Jr. 

by William Dean Howells  

November, 1996 [Etext #723]

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by William Dean Howells 

The events of Mr. James's life--as we agree to understand
events--may be told in a very few words.  His race is Irish on
his father's side and Scotch on his mother's, to which mingled
strains the generalizer may attribute, if he likes, that union of
vivid expression and dispassionate analysis which has
characterized his work from the first.  There are none of those
early struggles with poverty, which render the lives of so many
distinguished Americans monotonous reading, to record in his
case:  the cabin hearth-fire did not light him to the youthful
pursuit of literature; he had from the start all those advantages
which, when they go too far, become limitations.

He was born in New York city in the year 1843, and his first
lessons in life and letters were the best which the
metropolis--so small in the perspective diminishing to that
date--could afford.  In his twelfth year his family went abroad,
and after some stay in England made a long sojourn in France and
Switzerland.  They returned to America in 1860, placing
themselves at Newport, and for a year or two Mr. James was at the
Harvard Law School, where, perhaps, he did not study a great deal
of law.  His father removed from Newport to Cambridge in 1866,
and there Mr. James remained till he went abroad, three years
later, for the residence in England and Italy which, with
infrequent visits home, has continued ever since.

It was during these three years of his Cambridge life that I
became acquainted with his work.  He had already printed a
tale--"The Story of a Year"--in the "Atlantic Monthly," when I
was asked to be Mr. Fields's assistant in the management, and it
was my fortune to read Mr. James's second contribution in
manuscript.  "Would you take it?" asked my chief.  "Yes, and all
the stories you can get from the writer."  One is much securer of
one's judgment at twenty-nine than, say, at forty-five; but if
this was a mistake of mine I am not yet old enough to regret it. 
The story was called "Poor Richard," and it dealt with the
conscience of a man very much in love with a woman who loved his
rival.  He told this rival a lie, which sent him away to his
death on the field,--in that day nearly every fictitious
personage had something to do with the war,--but Poor Richard's
lie did not win him his love.  It still seems to me that the
situation was strongly and finely felt.  One's pity went, as it
should, with the liar; but the whole story had a pathos which
lingers in my mind equally with a sense of the new literary
qualities which gave me such delight in it.  I admired, as we
must in all that Mr. James has written, the finished workmanship
in which there is no loss of vigor; the luminous and uncommon use
of words, the originality of phrase, the whole clear and
beautiful style, which I confess I weakly liked the better for
the occasional gallicisms remaining from an inveterate habit of
French.  Those who know the writings of Mr. Henry James will
recognize the inherited felicity of diction which is so striking
in the writings of Mr. Henry James, Jr.  The son's diction is not
so racy as the father's; it lacks its daring, but it is as
fortunate and graphic; and I cannot give it greater praise than
this, though it has, when he will, a splendor and state which is
wholly its own.

Mr. James is now so universally recognized that I shall seem to
be making an unwarrantable claim when I express my belief that
the popularity of his stories was once largely confined to Mr.
Field's assistant.  They had characteristics which forbade any
editor to refuse them; and there are no anecdotes of
thrice-rejected manuscripts finally printed to tell of him; his
work was at once successful with all the magazines.  But with the
readers of "The Atlantic," of "Harper's," of "Lippincott's," of
"The Galaxy," of "The Century," it was another affair.  The
flavor was so strange, that, with rare exceptions, they had to
"learn to like" it.  Probably few writers have in the same degree
compelled the liking of their readers.  He was reluctantly
accepted, partly through a mistake as to his attitude--through
the confusion of his point of view with his private opinion--in
the reader's mind.  This confusion caused the tears of rage which
bedewed our continent in behalf of the "average American girl"
supposed to be satirized in Daisy Miller, and prevented the
perception of the fact that, so far as the average American girl
was studied at all in Daisy Miller, her indestructible innocence,
her invulnerable new-worldliness, had never been so delicately
appreciated.  It was so plain that Mr. James disliked her vulgar
conditions, that the very people to whom he revealed her
essential sweetness and light were furious that he should have
seemed not to see what existed through him.  In other words, they
would have liked him better if he had been a worse artist--if he
had been a little more confidential.

But that artistic impartiality which puzzled so many in the
treatment of Daisy Miller is one of the qualities most valuable
in the eyes of those who care how things are done, and I am not
sure that it is not Mr. James's most characteristic quality.  As
"frost performs the effect of fire," this impartiality comes at
last to the same result as sympathy.  We may be quite sure that
Mr. James does not like the peculiar phase of our civilization
typified in Henrietta Stackpole; but he treats her with such
exquisite justice that he lets US like her.  It is an extreme
case, but I confidently allege it in proof.

His impartiality is part of the reserve with which he works in
most respects, and which at first glance makes us say that he is
wanting in humor.  But I feel pretty certain that Mr. James has
not been able to disinherit himself to this degree.  We Americans
are terribly in earnest about making ourselves, individually and
collectively; but I fancy that our prevailing mood in the face of
all problems is that of an abiding faith which can afford to be
funny.  He has himself indicated that we have, as a nation, as a
people, our joke, and every one of us is in the joke more or
less.  We may, some of us, dislike it extremely, disapprove it
wholly, and even abhor it, but we are in the joke all the same,
and no one of us is safe from becoming the great American
humorist at any given moment.  The danger is not apparent in Mr.
James's case, and I confess that I read him with a relief in the
comparative immunity that he affords from the national
facetiousness.  Many of his people are humorously imagined, or
rather humorously SEEN, like Daisy Miller's mother, but these do
not give a dominant color; the business in hand is commonly
serious, and the droll people are subordinated.  They abound,
nevertheless, and many of them are perfectly new finds, like Mr.
Tristram in "The American," the bill-paying father in the
"Pension Beaurepas," the anxiously Europeanizing mother in the
same story, the amusing little Madame de Belgarde, Henrietta
Stackpole, and even Newman himself.  But though Mr. James
portrays the humorous in character, he is decidedly not on
humorous terms with his reader; he ignores rather than recognizes
the fact that they are both in the joke.

If we take him at all we must take him on his own ground, for
clearly he will not come to ours.  We must make concessions to
him, not in this respect only, but in several others, chief among
which is the motive for reading fiction.  By example, at least,
he teaches that it is the pursuit and not the end which should
give us pleasure; for he often prefers to leave us to our own
conjectures in regard to the fate of the people in whom he has
interested us.  There is no question, of course, but he could
tell the story of Isabel in "The Portrait of a Lady" to the end,
yet he does not tell it.  We must agree, then, to take what seems
a fragment instead of a whole, and to find, when we can, a name
for this new kind in fiction.  Evidently it is the character, not
the fate, of his people which occupies him; when he has fully
developed their character he leaves them to what destiny the
reader pleases.

The analytic tendency seems to have increased with him as his
work has gone on.  Some of the earlier tales were very dramatic:
"A Passionate Pilgrim," which I should rank above all his other
short stories, and for certain rich poetical qualities, above
everything else that he has done, is eminently dramatic.  But I
do not find much that I should call dramatic in "The Portrait of
a Lady," while I do find in it an amount of analysis which I
should call superabundance if it were not all such good
literature.  The novelist's main business is to possess his
reader with a due conception of his characters and the situations
in which they find themselves.  If he does more or less than this
he equally fails.  I have sometimes thought that Mr. James's
danger was to do more, but when I have been ready to declare this
excess an error of his method I have hesitated.  Could anything
be superfluous that had given me so much pleasure as I read? 
Certainly from only one point of view, and this a rather narrow,
technical one.  It seems to me that an enlightened criticism will
recognize in Mr. James's fiction a metaphysical genius working to
aesthetic results, and will not be disposed to deny it any method
it chooses to employ.  No other novelist, except George Eliot,
has dealt so largely in analysis of motive, has so fully
explained and commented upon the springs of action in the persons
of the drama, both before and after the facts.  These novelists
are more alike than any others in their processes, but with
George Eliot an ethical purpose is dominant, and with Mr. James
an artistic purpose.  I do not know just how it should be stated
of two such noble and generous types of character as Dorothea and
Isabel Archer, but I think that we sympathize with the former in
grand aims that chiefly concern others, and with the latter in
beautiful dreams that primarily concern herself.  Both are
unselfish and devoted women, sublimely true to a mistaken ideal
in their marriages; but, though they come to this common
martyrdom, the original difference in them remains.  Isabel has
her great weaknesses, as Dorothea had, but these seem to me, on
the whole, the most nobly imagined and the most nobly intentioned
women in modern fiction; and I think Isabel is the more subtly
divined of the two.  If we speak of mere characterization, we
must not fail to acknowledge the perfection of Gilbert Osmond. 
It was a profound stroke to make him an American by birth.  No
European could realize so fully in his own life the ideal of a
European dilettante in all the meaning of that cheapened word; as
no European could so deeply and tenderly feel the sweetness and
loveliness of the English past as the sick American, Searle, in
"The Passionate Pilgrim."

What is called the international novel is popularly dated from
the publication of "Daisy Miller," though "Roderick Hudson" and
"The American" had gone before; but it really began in the
beautiful story which I have just named.  Mr. James, who invented
this species in fiction, first contrasted in the "Passionate
Pilgrim" the New World and Old World moods, ideals, and
prejudices, and he did it there with a richness of poetic effect
which he has since never equalled.  I own that I regret the loss
of the poetry, but you cannot ask a man to keep on being a poet
for you; it is hardly for him to choose; yet I compare rather
discontentedly in my own mind such impassioned creations as
Searle and the painter in "The Madonna of the Future" with "Daisy
Miller," of whose slight, thin personality I also feel the
indefinable charm, and of the tragedy of whose innocence I
recognize the delicate pathos.  Looking back to those early
stories, where Mr. James stood at the dividing ways of the novel
and the romance, I am sometimes sorry that he declared even
superficially for the former.  His best efforts seem to me those
of romance; his best types have an ideal development, like Isabel
and Claire Belgarde and Bessy Alden and poor Daisy and even
Newman.  But, doubtless, he has chosen wisely; perhaps the
romance is an outworn form, and would not lend itself to the
reproduction of even the ideality of modern life.  I myself waver
somewhat in my preference--if it is a preference--when I think of
such people as Lord Warburton and the Touchetts, whom I take to
be all decidedly of this world.  The first of these especially
interested me as a probable type of the English nobleman, who
amiably accepts the existing situation with all its possibilities
of political and social change, and insists not at all upon the
surviving feudalities, but means to be a manly and simple
gentleman in any event.  An American is not able to pronounce as
to the verity of the type; I only know that it seems probable and
that it is charming.  It makes one wish that it were in Mr.
James's way to paint in some story the present phase of change in
England.  A titled personage is still mainly an inconceivable
being to us; he is like a goblin or a fairy in a storybook.  How
does he comport himself in the face of all the changes and
modifications that have taken place and that still impend?  We
can hardly imagine a lord taking his nobility seriously; it is
some hint of the conditional frame of Lord Warburton's mind that
makes him imaginable and delightful to us.

It is not my purpose here to review any of Mr. James's books; I
like better to speak of his people than of the conduct of his
novels, and I wish to recognize the fineness with which he has
touched-in the pretty primness of Osmond's daughter and the mild
devotedness of Mr. Rosier.  A masterly hand is as often manifest
in the treatment of such subordinate figures as in that of the
principal persons, and Mr. James does them unerringly.  This is
felt in the more important character of Valentin Belgarde, a
fascinating character in spite of its defects,--perhaps on
account of them--and a sort of French Lord Warburton, but
wittier, and not so good.  "These are my ideas," says his
sister-in-law, at the end of a number of inanities.  "Ah, you
call them ideas!" he returns, which is delicious and makes you
love him.  He, too, has his moments of misgiving, apparently in
regard to his nobility, and his acceptance of Newman on the basis
of something like "manhood suffrage" is very charming.  It is of
course difficult for a remote plebeian to verify the pictures of
legitimist society in "The American," but there is the probable
suggestion in them of conditions and principles, and want of
principles, of which we get glimpses in our travels abroad; at
any rate, they reveal another and not impossible world, and it is
fine to have Newman discover that the opinions and criticisms of
our world are so absolutely valueless in that sphere that his
knowledge of the infamous crime of the mother and brother of his
betrothed will have no effect whatever upon them in their own
circle if he explodes it there.  This seems like aristocracy
indeed! and one admires, almost respects, its survival in our
day.  But I always regretted that Newman's discovery seemed the
precursor of his magnanimous resolution not to avenge himself; it
weakened the effect of this, with which it had really nothing to
do.  Upon the whole, however, Newman is an adequate and
satisfying representative of Americanism, with his generous
matrimonial ambition, his vast good-nature, and his thorough good
sense and right feeling.  We must be very hard to please if we
are not pleased with him.  He is not the "cultivated American"
who redeems us from time to time in the eyes of Europe; but he is
unquestionably more national, and it is observable that his
unaffected fellow-countrymen and women fare very well at Mr.
James's hand always; it is the Europeanizing sort like the
critical little Bostonian in the "Bundle of Letters," the ladies
shocked at Daisy Miller, the mother in the "Pension Beaurepas"
who goes about trying to be of the "native" world everywhere,
Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond, Miss Light and her mother, who
have reason to complain, if any one has.  Doubtless Mr. James
does not mean to satirize such Americans, but it is interesting
to note how they strike such a keen observer.  We are certainly
not allowed to like them, and the other sort find somehow a place
in our affections along with his good Europeans.  It is a little
odd, by the way, that in all the printed talk about Mr.
James--and there has been no end of it--his power of engaging
your preference for certain of his people has been so little
commented on.  Perhaps it is because he makes no obvious appeal
for them; but one likes such men as Lord Warburton, Newman,
Valentin, the artistic brother in "The Europeans," and Ralph
Touchett, and such women as Isabel, Claire Belgarde, Mrs.
Tristram, and certain others, with a thoroughness that is one of
the best testimonies to their vitality.  This comes about through
their own qualities, and is not affected by insinuation or by
downright petting, such as we find in Dickens nearly always and
in Thackeray too often.

The art of fiction has, in fact, become a finer art in our day
than it was with Dickens and Thackeray.  We could not suffer the
confidential attitude of the latter now, nor the mannerism of the
former, any more than we could endure the prolixity of Richardson
or the coarseness of Fielding.  These great men are of the
past--they and their methods and interests; even Trollope and
Reade are not of the present.  The new school derives from
Hawthorne and George Eliot rather than any others; but it studies
human nature much more in its wonted aspects, and finds its
ethical and dramatic examples in the operation of lighter but not
really less vital motives.  The moving accident is certainly not
its trade; and it prefers to avoid all manner of dire
catastrophes.  it is largely influenced by French fiction in
form; but it is the realism of Daudet rather than the realism of
Zola that prevails with it, and it has a soul of its own which is
above the business of recording the rather brutish pursuit of a
woman by a man, which seems to be the chief end of the French
novelist.  This school, which is so largely of the future as well
as the present, finds its chief exemplar in Mr. James; it is he
who is shaping and directing American fiction, at least.  It is
the ambition of the younger contributors to write like him; he
has his following more distinctly recognizable than that of any
other English-writing novelist.  Whether he will so far control
this following as to decide the nature of the novel with us
remains to be seen.  Will the reader be content to accept a novel
which is an analytic study rather than a story, which is apt to
leave him arbiter of the destiny of the author's creations?  Will
he find his account in the unflagging interest of their
development?  Mr. James's growing popularity seems to suggest
that this may be the case; but the work of Mr. James's imitators
will have much to do with the final result.

In the meantime it is not surprising that he has his imitators. 
Whatever exceptions we take to his methods or his results, we
cannot deny him a very great literary genius.  To me there is a
perpetual delight in his way of saying things, and I cannot
wonder that younger men try to catch the trick of it.  The
disappointing thing for them is that it is not a trick, but an
inherent virtue.  His style is, upon the whole, better than that
of any other novelist I know; it is always easy, without being
trivial, and it is often stately, without being stiff; it gives a
charm to everything he writes; and he has written so much and in
such various directions, that we should be judging him very
incompletely if we considered him only as a novelist.  His book
of European sketches must rank him with the most enlightened and
agreeable travelers; and it might be fitly supplemented from his
uncollected papers with a volume of American sketches.  In his
essays on modern French writers he indicates his critical range
and grasp; but he scarcely does more, as his criticisms in "The
Atlantic" and "The Nation" and elsewhere could abundantly

There are indeed those who insist that criticism is his true
vocation, and are impatient of his devotion to fiction; but I
suspect that these admirers are mistaken.  A novelists he is not,
after the old fashion, or after any fashion but his own; yet
since he has finally made his public in his own way of
story-telling--or call it character-painting if you prefer,--it
must be conceded that he has chosen best for himself and his
readers in choosing the form of fiction for what he has to say. 
It is, after all, what a writer has to say rather than what he
has to tell that we care for nowadays.  In one manner or other
the stories were all told long ago; and now we want merely to
know what the novelist thinks about persons and situations.  Mr.
James gratifies this philosophic desire.  If he sometimes
forbears to tell us what he thinks of the last state of his
people, it is perhaps because that does not interest him, and a
large-minded criticism might well insist that it was childish to
demand that it must interest him.

I am not sure that any criticism is sufficiently large-minded for
this.  I own that I like a finished story; but then also I like
those which Mr. James seems not to finish.  This is probably the
position of most of his readers, who cannot very logically
account for either preference.  We can only make sure that we
have here an annalist, or analyst, as we choose, who fascinates
us from his first page to his last, whose narrative or whose
comment may enter into any minuteness of detail without fatiguing
us, and can only truly grieve us when it ceases.    

End of Project Gutenberg's Etext of Henry James, Jr., by Howells


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