The Wings Of Henry James

One night nearly thirty years ago, in a legendary New York boîte de nuit et des arts called Tony’s, I was taking part in a running literary gun fight that had begun with a derogatory or complimentary remark somebody made about something, when one of the participants, former Pinkerton man Dashiell Hammett, whose “The Maltese Falcon” had come out a couple of years before, suddenly startled us all by announcing that his writing had been influenced by Henry James’s novel “The Wings of the Dove.” Nothing surprises me any more, but I couldn’t have been more surprised then if Humphrey Bogart, another frequenter of that old salon of wassail and debate, had proclaimed that his acting bore the deep impress of the histrionic art of Maude Adams.

I was unable, in a recent reinvestigation, to find many feathers of “The Dove” in the claws of “The Falcon,” but there are a few “faint, far” (as James used to say) resemblances. In both novels, a fabulous fortune—jewels in “The Falcon,” inherited millions in “The Dove”—shapes the destinies of the disenchanted central characters; James’s designing woman Kate Croy, like Hammett’s pistol-packing babe Brigid O’Shaughnessy, loses her lover, although James’s Renunciation Scene is managed, as who should say, rather more exquisitely than Hammett’s, in which Sam Spade speaks these sweetly sorrowful parting words: “You angel! Well, if you get a good break you’ll be out of San Quentin in twenty years and you can come back to me then.” Whereupon he turns her over to the cops for the murder of his partner, Miles Archer (a good old Henry James name, that). Some strong young literary excavator may one day dig up other parallels, but I suggest that he avoid trying to relate the character in “The Falcon” called Cairo to James’s early intention to use Cairo, instead of Venice, as the major setting of his novel. That is simply, as who should not say, one of those rococo coincidences.

“The Wings of the Dove” is now fifty-seven years old, but it still flies on, outward bound for the troubled future. Since 1902, it has become a kind of femme fatale of literature, exerting a curiously compelling effect upon authors, critics, playwrights, producers, and publishers. Seemingly, almost every playwright, from hack to first-rate talent, has been burned by the drama that glows within the novel’s celebrated triangle, and has taken a swing at adapting it for stage or screen, usually with less than no success. It was James’s own original intention to present his plot and characters in play form, but guardian angel or artist’s insight caused him wisely to refrain from diverting into the theatre his delicately flowering, slowly proliferating history of fine consciences, which belongs so clearly between covers and not between curtains.

This doesn’t keep people from adapting it, though. In 1956, Guy Bolton made a play out of it, “Child of Fortune,” which was produced on Broadway by the usually canny Jed Harris, who had earlier touched with art (“art schmart,” he himself once disdainfully called it) his directing of “The Heiress,” based on Henry James’s novel “Washington Square.” The Bolton “Dove” died miserably after twenty-three performances. That debacle did not deter television’s “Playhouse 90” from having a go at dramatizing the novel just last January. This adaptation, made by a young man named Meade Roberts, seemed to me closer to the James tone and mood, closer to perfection of total production, than any other dramatization I have seen, and I have seen plenty. (The first one I ever encountered was shown to me by a young professor of English in Ohio forty-one years ago.) The success of “The Dove” on television lay in a discipline that gave it Henry James’s key and pitch, if not his depth and range. Because my sight has failed, I could not see Inga Swenson, who played Milly, and this was probably fortunate, since I was told she looked as healthy as one of Thomas Hardy’s milkmaids. But her words fell persuasively upon the ear, and she was the dying Milly to me. The direction gave the play a proper unhurried pace (“sluggish,” wrote one restless newspaper critic), and there were moving offstage effects—the sound of distant bells in one scene, the haunting cry of gondoliers in another.

In my own college years, 1913-17, the literature courses in the modern English novel that were offered west of the Alleghenies included Hardy and Meredith, and sometimes Trollope, Samuel Butler, and Conrad, but rarely James. My own professor in this field, the late Joseph Russell Taylor, of Ohio State, rated James higher than the rest, and assigned “The Wings of the Dove” as required class reading, with this admonition: “If you can’t make anything at all out of the first hundred pages, don’t let it worry you.” It was James’s method to introduce his principal characters late, or, as John McNulty once put it, “to creep up on them in his stocking feet.” Since only about one student in every thirty could stand, or understand, Henry James’s writing, there were few persons with whom you could discuss the Old Master in those years. It was in 1930 that the Modern Library first introduced Henry James to its readers, with its edition of “The Turn of the Screw,” which has sold to date ninety thousand copies. The so-called Henry James Revival did not take place until the nineteen-forties, and centered on the hundredth anniversary of his birth. In 1946, the Modern Library brought out “The Wings of the Dove,” which has sold more than forty-one thousand copies. In 1958, “The Dove” lost its American copyright and fell into the public domain, and in January, 1959, Dell’s Laurel edition of paperbacks printed seventy-five thousand copies of the novel, a little more than two-thirds of which either were sold or are out on the newsstands or in the bookstores.

The James Revival deserves the capital “R,” because the increased sales of his books and the rapidly expanding literature on the man and his life and his work began crowding library shelves all over the country. In 1932, I bought the complete 1922 edition of James, issued by Macmillan of London, but it had not been easy to find. It was available in no New York bookstore then, and I finally got my set through a collector. It came from a private library on Park Avenue, which was then being sold, and not a single page of any of the more than thirty volumes had been cut. It was as if the owner of this particular edition had said, “I want to buy about two and a half or three feet of the works of Henry James.” Interest in the Revival spread from Broadway to Hollywood. For years, David O. Selznick held the movie rights to “The Dove,” but he never produced an adaptation of the novel, unquestionably because of the difficulty of casting the three principal roles and of finding an adapter who could satisfactorily cope with the dramatization.

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