Tuesday, 9 July 2013

The Deathbed Notes of Henry James

by Leon Edel

IT has long been known that during his last illness, in the midst of the 19l4-19l8 war, and when he was in delirium, Henry James called his secretary, the late Theodora Bosanquet, and dictated certain passages that dealt with the Napoleonic legend. The text of the dictation has never been published, although Miss Bosanquet once read an excerpt during a BBC broadcast devoted to the novelist; and in 1927 it was mentioned briefly in Pelham Edgar's Henry James: Man and Author as a "Napoleonic Fragment." I found the document in 1937 when James's nephew and executor gave me access to his posthumous papers. It struck me as curious -- a kind of stream of consciousness of a fading mind still in possession of its verbal power and the grandeur of its style and I took a copy of it, feeling it to be a significant biographical document. Later, when the James family papers were given to Harvard, this manuscript was not included. I learned that the executor had ordered it destroyed along with certain other papers. He felt that it was too tragic a record of a mind in disintegration. I think he felt, too, that the passages hardly constituted a literary work. Miss Bosanquet, who took the dictation directly on the typewriter (as was James's custom), told me that the sound of the familiar machine, and the ability to ease his mind, had helped soothe the novelist in his feverish moments. It had been my intention to use this material in its relevant place in the Life of Henry James, which I am now completing. But I have learned that a certain writer in England, who gained access to Miss Bosanquet's papers, found copies of some of this dictation and is planning to make use of it in a forthcoming book along with other materials long ago made available to me by Miss Bosanquet, and reserved for my use. I have decided accordingly, in the interest of the record and of accuracy, to make this document public, there being no objection now from the James descendants. If I am to be anticipated, it seems to me, I may as well anticipate my own book. It must be noted that Miss Bosanquet did not have the complete document; certain sentences were set down during her absence, were dictated to James's niece, Peggy James, daughter of William James. Peggy, with her mother, the widow of William, had braved the submarine menace of the First World War and crossed the Atlantic to be with Henry James during his last days.

Return to Flashback: Henry James and The Atlantic Monthly

The final dictation is at points an incoherent document. Yet it is less incoherent than one might suppose; and far from mirroring the collapse of a great intellect, it dramatizes its struggle and its power. The grandeur, the majestic rhythm of the great style remain; the vivid phrases are minted as at the very threshold of death. "I am that queer monster, the artist, an obstinate finality, an inexhaustible sensibility," James had written to Henry Adams. And as Proust redictated the death scene of the writer Bergotte in his novel, a few hours before his own death, so James, in his last days, insisted on performing what he called "an act of life."

The facts, briefly, are these:

On the evening of December 1, 1915, Henry James wrote a letter to his niece, then in America. He spoke of renewed heart trouble, of his long sleepless nights, of the constant ache of the war: "One feels very abject . . . in the midst of the huge tremendous thing . . . to have disqualifying personal and physical troubles." He told her his manservant, Burgess Noakes, who had worked for him since boyhood, had been given a "renewable leave" from the army, and that "his devotion is boundless and most touching." He gave Peggy other news, and then wearily ended, "The pen drops from my hand! Your all-affectionate old Uncle, Henry James."

The pen literally dropped from his hand. The next morning, December 2, James's servants in his flat in Carlyle Mansions, Chelsea, heard him calling. It was 8:30 A.M. and James's left leg had given way under him as he was dressing. He was a very heavy man, and with difficulty Burgess and the maid got him into bed. The novelist was fully conscious. He was reported later to have told his friend Howard Sturgis that his thought as he collapsed was, "So here it is at last, the distinguished thing." But he held "the distinguished thing" at bay. Miss Bosanquet, arriving, found him propped up in bed. He announced to her he had had a stroke "in the most approved fashion." And he dictated a cable to his nephew, in New York: "Had slight stroke this morning. No serious symptoms. Perfect care. No suffering. Wrote Peg yesterday." On the next day he hunted in a thesaurus to find a word describing his condition -- the word "paralytic ' did not satisfy him. He continued in this way for several days, with some confusion of mind.

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