Relentlessly Relevant - The Dangerous Legacy of Henry James

On July 31, the U.S. Postal Office issued an 89-cent stamp in honor of Henry James. The issuance is part of the Postal Service’s Literary Arts series — James is the 31st figure in American literature to be so honored.

It is ironic that the stamp arrives on the centennial anniversary of James’s death and the year he became a British citizen. This was done as an expression of support for England’s war effort in World War I (Americans would not enter the war until April of 1917). Yet for all his gratitude to England, his loyalties never fully strayed from his native land. James’s novels and stories are full of American characters, often naïve and foolish, but also upright and brave — always morally superior to their more worldly European counterparts. It is therefore fitting that he be honored as an iconic American, worthy of his own postage stamp.

It is also fitting that the end of James’s life be celebrated. This was when he ascended to the “major phase” of his writing career — when he became, as his most important biographer and critic, Leon Edel, put it: “the Master.”

Although James’s early writing is more accessible and widely read, his late work is more important in the history of the novel and, arguably, in culture more generally. These late books are stylistically tortuous, prompting one of his friends to remark famously that he “chews more than he bites off.” (The quote has been attributed to a number of people, including Oscar Wilde and Henry Adams. Whoever said it first, others apparently found it so apt that they were prompted to repeat it.)

James’s dense and difficult style meshed with a shift in orientation in his later work. If you can grope your way through late James, you’ll find you have moved out of the Victorian era into the modern and, beyond that, into what we have come to refer to as the postmodern. This postmodern James is a harbinger of some unfortunate trends in our society today. It’s hard to believe that the difficult late writing of this long-dead writer has had a dangerous effect on our time, but — Jamesian enthusiast though I am — I am obliged to admit that this is so. But I’ll get to that.

Henry James was born in 1843 into a New York family of inherited wealth. Encouraged by his eccentric father to be unconventional, he abandoned law school for literature. He moved, gracefully but definitively, away from his geographical roots, expatriating himself first to Paris, then to London, where he would spend the majority of his writing life — though making regular forays into Italy for the art, architecture, and food.

As he moved into late middle age, James revamped the novel form to a point that exasperated many of his readers. Among them was his older brother William who, on the publication of Henry’s especially difficult late novel, The Golden Bowl, wrote:
Why don’t you, just to please your Brother, sit down and write a new book, with no twilight or mustiness in the plot, with great vigor and decisiveness in the action, no fencing in the dialogue, no psychological commentaries, and absolute straightness of style?
William James, a pioneer in the fields of philosophy and psychology, remained attached to realism and clarity in his taste for fiction. But Henry James had left that kind of writing behind as he crossed from the 19th century into the 20th. His superficial kinship was with European modernists like James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, and Virginia Woolf. Late James is often opaque, as his brother’s comments indicate — and opaqueness was a hallmark of the modernist rejection of facile realism.

James was also superficially modern in his predilection for the new tools of the new age. One of these was the typewriter. In his last years, he dictated his novels to his typist. It has even been speculated that the cadences of his late work follow the rhythm of the typewriter, punctuated by the bell as the machine moves from line to line. As he lay on his deathbed after a stroke, he was soothed by the tapping of the typewriter keys as they recorded his garbled dictation.

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