Master of reality: on Henry James' non-fiction

Henry James was the originator in ­English of novel-chauvinism, the idea that the extended prose fiction is, as he put it, “the book par excellence”. Between 1871 and 1904, during which time he published 19 novels, including The Europeans, Washington Square, The Portrait of a Lady and What Maisie Knew, plus novellas such as Daisy Miller, The Aspern Papers and The Turn of the Screw, James also wrote dozens of reviews, essays on “The Art of Fiction” and “The Future of the Novel”, and half a dozen stories about the novelist’s earthly tribulations and posthumous mistreatment. In the words of a later novel-chauvinist, F R Leavis, James set out to accomplish “a general full recognition among the educated that creative talent – creative genius – was at least as likely to go into the novel as into any mode of art”. In this effort, James employed all the big rhetorical guns, not just French tags (“par excellence”), but capitals and superlatives. In the closing words of his preface to The Ambassadors, which he considered “the best, ‘all round’, of my productions”, he stated that “the Novel remains still, under the right persuasion, the most independent, most elastic, most prodigious of literary forms”.

The chauvinist position had a limiting effect on his relationship with non-novelists. T S Eliot, a fellow uprooted American and like-minded elegist for the unlived life, looking back on the arid years of his apprenticeship, said that he “learned something, no doubt, from Henry James”. That “something” went a long way, in terms of borrowed images and allusive phrasing. But Eliot felt he would have learned more if not for James’s “exclusive concentration on his own kind of work”. James moved through the world in a pair of novel-blinkers. Confronted with the volumes of Browning’s The Ring and the Book, he claimed, in a 1912 lecture, to experience “the sense, almost the pang, of the novel they might have constituted”. He called this phantom novel “a work of art . . . smothered in the producing” – hardly an orthodox way to mark the hundredth birthday of a poet.

But, for all this, the most prominent new publications during the centenary of James’s death, on 28 February 1916, do not relate to his fiction: a Library of America edition of his autobiographical writing, edited by Philip Horne, and Oliver Herford’s Henry James’s Style of Retrospect, a diligent and minutely argued study of the “late personal writings”. It is true that the Library of America has already produced 11 volumes of James’s fiction; that Cambridge University Press is in the process of doing a scholarly version of the same thing in 34; and that the James industry has already yielded writing on every inch of that work. Still, for almost three decades there has been a growing critical and editorial engagement with his non-fiction writing from the decade after his “major phase” novels – The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl – during which he published virtually no fiction. This work, amounting to a “second major phase”, includes the contentious travelogue The American Scene, an account of his 1904-05 tour of the much-changed United States he had left for Europe 30 years earlier; the long explanatory prefaces to the 24 volumes of the New York Edition of his fictions; the essays collected in Notes on Novelists (1914); and the autobiographies A Small Boy and Others (1913) and Notes of a Son and Brother (1914), which are printed alongside essays, notebook entries and an uncompleted third instalment in the Lib­rary of America volume.

If the late novels, with their snaking, ­nuance-laden sentences and relentless tracking of the characters’ inner lives, show that James was in at the beginning of literary modernism, the later non-fiction shows why he might be considered modern and even modish. The recent writing on him as a novelist talks of impressionism, vagueness, religious experience, melancholia. In the non-fiction, we meet James the Freudian, the explorer of family dramas and selfhood, the proto-psychogeographer given to flâneries, a figure whose descendants are neither self-conscious Jamesians such as Alan Hollinghurst and Cynthia Ozick nor self-declared modernists such as Eimear McBride and Tom McCarthy, but rather the likes of Karl Ove Knausgaard and David Shields, who embrace the literary potential of the memoir and the essay. In a letter written in 1908, when the prefaces had followed The American Scene in monopolising his attention, he spoke about being taken away from “‘creative’” work, throwing the primacy of the novel into doubt many decades before somebody offered the first graduate seminar in “literary non-fiction”.

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