The Works of Henry James

10 October 2016

You might remember the image from the first lecture on the module: 70th birthday portrait (1913) of HJ by John Singer Sargent in the National Portrait Gallery. PP2 Five years earlier, ‘The Jolly Corner’ was published in the English Review (December 1908). HJ first had the idea in August 1906. There are different definitions of the short story. But if we follow The Complete Tales of HJ, ed. by Leon Edel, it was HJ’s 108th published story. And he only had 5 left to write. So JC is very late HJ. He was 65 when it came out.

He wasn’t to complete another novel, though he left two unpublished at his death on 28 February 1916 – The Ivory Tower and The Sense of the Past. In those last eight years his main achievements were the Prefaces to the NY edition, and two volumes of autobiography: A Small Boy and Others and Notes of a Son and Brother. As I suggested last week, James’s Prefaces to the NY edition offer one important way of understanding Gothic literature. HJ wrote about the ghost story in the Preface to Vol XII (TS) and Vol XVII (the other ghost stories). PP3 But his Preface to an early novel, The American, is also relevant.

HJ doesn’t mention Gothic, but he does talk – as Hawthorne and Walpole before him had done – about ‘romance’ (if you do The Romance of Fiction next year, you will probably return to this famous passage). James here draws a distinction between fiction which surrounds itself with ‘the air of romance’ and fiction which is anchored in ‘the element of reality’. There are no hard and fast distinctions here, and James says that writers like Scott, Balzac and Zola committed themselves both to romance and to realism: these `rich and mixed’ writers washed us `with the warm wave of the near and familiar and the tonic shock … of the far and strange’.

At a later point in the Preface he adds that `it is as difficult … to trace the dividing-line between the real and the romantic as to plant a milestone between north and south’. We are coming at them from a different direction, maybe, but there should be some familiar themes here. Associating romance and mixture (and ambiguity): it looks like HJ is reformulating what Walpole was getting at right at the beginning of Gothic fiction: combining different impulses – the verisimilitude associated with the modern romance and the marvels of ancient romance. But HJ goes further in analysing the romantic.

Not everything `far and strange’ qualifies as romance, he points out. It’s not a matter of boats, caravans, tigers or ghosts (or bats, or trapdoors, or castles). PP4 It’s not the kind of danger or the appreciation of danger which counts, HJ argues. It’s more a difference between ‘the real’, by which he means ‘the things we cannot possibly not know’ and the romantic – ‘the things that, with all the facilities in the world … we never can directly know; the things that can reach us only through the beautiful circuit and subterfuge of our thought and our desire’. Repeat and elaborate.

Genre is defined not externally or in terms of the objects it contains, but internally and psychologically, in terms of particular kinds of experience. And there is another key point in James’s thinking about genre. Realism and romance are part of a spectrum – the names for different tendencies in a given work of fiction. In some cases both tendencies may be present. Realism relates to the things we know – aspects of universal human experience. Romance relates to the things we never can directly know, and these need not necessarily be obvious examples of the ‘far and strange’ like ghosts.

And HJ sums up in a very famous passage: PP5 ‘The only general attribute of projected romance that I can see, the only one that fits all its cases, is the fact of the kind of experience with which it deals – experience liberated, so to speak; experience disengaged, disembroiled, disencumbered, exempt from the conditions that we usually know to attach to it. ’ ‘Experience disengaged’: this fits TS and JC – these tales are romances (or fairy tales or Gothic stories) because of the ‘kind of experience’ with which they deal. OK.

As you have probably noticed, this is a very psychological take on romance: James is thinking about experience as the key factor. But he’s also thinking about technique. In the Preface to The American he goes on to discuss how a writer goes about creating a romance. It’s another very famous quotation in the field. PP6 ‘The greatest intensity may … be arrived at … when the sacrifice of community … has not been too rash. [Romance] must to this end not too flagrantly betray itself; we must even be kept, if possible, for our illusion, from suspecting any sacrifice at all.

The balloon of experience is in fact of course tied to the earth, and under that necessity we swing, thanks to a rope of remarkable length, in the more or less commodious car of the imagination; but it is by the rope we know where we are, and from the moment that cable is cut we are at large and unrelated …. The art of the romancer is, “for the fun of it,” insidiously to cut the cable, to cut it without our detecting him’. The romancer, the Gothic writer – we’ve seen this before with Poe – is striving for intensity. And in order to achieve this it’s as if HJ is saying that romance should be, or seem to be, anchored in reality.

It loses intensity if we cut the cable at the beginning – or if the reader feels that the cable has been cut. TS would lose intensity without the real world setting, the device of the document, and the fidelity to verisimilitude. The story is set amidst the ‘near and familiar’, and this makes the arrival of the ‘far and strange’ more effective. And we could say something similar about JC. It’s a romance – it deals with ‘things that we never can directly know’ (in this case an alter ego which represents what Spencer Brydon might have become had he stayed in NY rather than spent his life in Europe).

But it is set in a seemingly realistic and familiar world: NY, and Brydon’s family home. OK. I’ll come back to NY later in the lecture. But now I want to sketch out the main ways in which JC was read until at least the 1970s. Two influential accounts: PP7 Saul Rosenzweig, ‘The Ghost of Henry James’, Partisan Review 11. 4 (1944), 436-55 Leon Edel, The Life of Henry James (1972) Rosenzweig. Like Edmund Wilson, who claimed in 1934 that the governess in TS was a ‘case of neurotic sex repression’ and that the ghosts ‘are not real ghosts at all’ but merely the governess’s delusions.

Both R and EW belong to the early American school of Freudian literary criticism. Rosenzweig. Reads fiction in the light of biography. Family experiences familiar to James. Henry James Snr’s ‘vastation’ (Society: The Redeemed Form of Man, 1879) and William James’s description of ‘a horrible fear of my own existence’ which connected itself with the image of a patient in an asylum – ‘That shape am I, I felt, potentially’ (Varieties of Religious Experience, Lectures 6 and 7). But Rosenzweig is also thinking about James’s own traumatic experiences.

HJ ghost stories linked by Rosenzweig to an injury experienced while putting out a fire in 1860, just before the outbreak of the American Civil War (back to early HJ tales). What connects these personal experiences? For Rosenzweig, J’s ghosts from the beginning tend to arise from paths not taken, futures not realised, other selves not lived. HJ and the ‘obscure hurt’ (described in Notes of a Son and Brother). A wound causes ‘passional death’ (eg ‘The Story of a Year’, 1865). The traumatic event, repeated again and again.

James responds by writing fantasies in which characters achieve compensatory victories. HJ’s hurt = attempt to repeat his father’s own youthful injury. Oedipal (son v. father). It’s a case of castration anxiety, then. JC represents a return of the repressed – an attempt to achieve victory over another more ‘masculine’ self. HJ – the wounded young man who did not serve in the Civil War and at some level felt inadequate as a man. For R, HJ in writing JC was trying ‘to repair, if possible, the injury and to complete the unfinished experience of his youth.

He was, as it were, haunted by the ghost of his own past. ’ Brydon’s alter ego = the man who stayed, who could perform a normative masculine role because he fought in the Civil War (he suffers the injury). So if the castration narrative is going to be resolved successfully, Brydon has to triumph over his alter ego. But for R. HJ unable to fantasize a satisfactory resolution for Brydon. Leon Edel. Influenced by Rosenzweig and makes particular reference to James’s youthful injury.

Develops the idea of a compensatory fantasy of mastery, of masculinity retrieved and reasserted, with reference to a dream described by HJ in A Small Boy and Others PP8 It’s not clear exactly when HJ had this dream, but it was probably in later life. And the dream was set in the Galerie d’Apollon in the Louvre (contains Gericault’s painting ‘The Raft of the Medusa’). HJ, terrified, trying to defend himself against an assailant pushing open a door. Manages to turn the tables and finds his enemy fleeing before him: PP9 Routed, dismayed, the tables turned upon him by my so surpassing him for straight aggression and dire intention, my visitant was already but a diminished spot in the long perspective, the tremendous, glorious hall … over the far-gleaming floor of which … he sped for his life, while a great storm of thunder and lightning played through the deep embrasures of high windows at the right’. It was, J wrote in SBO, an `immense hallucination’. HJ’s encounter and Brydon’s might be linked. But in HJ’s dream he is victorious and in JC Brydon collapses in a faint.

An entry HJ’s notebook tells an even more interesting story. And it also tends to confirm the idea that the dream and the story are indeed linked. Because James at first describes his idea for JC as if it did indeed follow the triumphant trajectory of the dream: PP10 ‘My hero’s adventure … takes the form so to speak of his turning the tables … on a “ghost” or whatever, a visiting or haunting apparition otherwise qualified to appal him; and thereby winning a sort of victory by the appearance, and the evidence, that this personage or presence was more overwhelmingly affected by him than he by it’.

OK. As we’ve seen, both Edel and Rosenzweig’s readings of JC are informed by Freudian theory. But to modern readers there are a number of problems with how these theories are being used: PP11 •‘Vulgar’ or `wild’ Freudianism – saying that explanatory factor is sex, as if that was the answer to everything. •Psychoanalysing characters – what sense does this make, really? They aren’t patients. What does a diagnosis mean? •Biographical readings of texts – are these really what we are trying to produce? Can we really psychoanalyse authors?

Contemporary Freudian theory is more subtle: it tends to use psychoanalytical concepts to elucidate textual meaning without claiming that they explain characters or offer some privileged insight into author’s intention. So what other approaches might we take to JC? I said that the idea for JC came to James in August 1906. Between 1904 and 1905 he had, like Brydon, revisited US for the first time in a quarter of a century. And in 1907 he published an account of his travels, The American Scene. AS is now recognized as one of the great documents of late ‘gilded age’ US (1865-1914).

And the relation between this text – between HJ’s visit to US and JC itself – is crucial. PP12 At one level, HJ’s first impression of NY = one of stark reality (if we define the real by external features, by objects). He talks of ‘the same old sordid facts, all the ugly items that had seemed destined so long ago to fall apart from their very cynicism … the rude cavities, the loose cobbles, the dislodged supports, the unreclaimed pools, of the roadway; the unregulated traffic … the corpulent constables … red-faced, off their balance, as from too conscious an affinity with “saloon” civilization. But then HJ’s tone subtly changes. He talks of ‘some shy principle of picturesqueness’: NY reminds James of Naples, Tangiers or Constantinople. He becomes excited, thrilled even. HJ now begins to write about ‘the romantic … circumstance of one’s having had to wait till now to read … such meagre meanings as this into a page at which one’s geography might so easily have opened’. James is beginning to have an adventure: his experience of New York is an uncanny mixture of the real and the romantic, the things one cannot not know and the things that can only be imagined.

New York is a place of money and power, railways and hotels, but also of ‘mystery’, of ‘wonder’ and also of ‘florid ghosts’ from the past. Something really strange has happened here. In HJ’s earlier work – up to and including TS – the place for ghosts and for romance (at least for an American tourist like HJ) was Europe. In ‘A Passionate Pilgrim’ (1871), for example, the character Clement Searle, an American, arrives in England hoping to establish his claim to an ancestral seat abandoned by one of his forebears. He falls in love with England – with the whole sense of the past.

He feels that he is the double or ghost of his ancient forebear. At one point the narrator describes the following scene: PP13 ‘I heard the great clock in the little parlour below strike twelve, one, half-past one. Just as the vibration of this last stroke was dying on the air the door of communication with Searle’s room was flung open and my companion stood on the threshold, pale as a corpse, in his nightshirt, shining like a phantom against the darkness behind him. “Look well at me! ” he intensely gasped; “touch me, embrace me, revere me! You see a man who has seen a ghost! ”’

For the young James, Europe = romantic; America represents the reality he is trying to escape. To find transatlantic Gothic, one travelled east from New York or Boston to Paris or Rome. For James in his 60s, however, the relations have reversed: now it’s America which represents, beneath its obvious surface reality, possibilities of romance. To find the transatlantic gothic, one must go west. PP14 (Also used on New York, New York). Go to Open Hyperlink on right click. Subway 1905 briefly. Elevated railway 1905. Panorama from Times Square 1905. Meanwhile read pp. 74-5 of The American Scene: The aspect the power wears then is indescribable; it is the power of the most extravagant of cities, rejoicing, as with the voice of the morning, in its might, its fortune, its unsurpassable conditions, and imparting to every object and element, to the motion and expression of every floating, hurrying, panting thing, to the throb of ferries and tugs, to the plash of waves and the play of winds and the glint of lights and the shrill of whistles and the quality and authority of breeze-borne cries–all, practically, a diffused, wasted clamour of detonations–something of its sharp free accent and, above all, of its sovereign sense of being “backed” and able to back. The universal applied passion struck me as shining unprecedentedly out of the composition; in the bigness and bravery and insolence, especially, of everything that rushed and shrieked; in the air as of a great intricate frenzied dance, half merry, half desperate, or at least half defiant, performed on the huge watery floor.

This appearance of the bold lacing-together, across the waters, of the scattered members of the monstrous organism–lacing as by the ceaseless play of an enormous system of steam-shuttles or electric bobbins (I scarce know what to call them), commensurate in form with their infinite work–does perhaps more than anything else to give the pitch of the vision of energy. One has the sense that the monster grows and grows, flinging abroad its loose limbs even as some unmannered young giant at his “larks,” and that the binding stitches must for ever fly further and faster and draw harder; the future complexity of the web, all under the sky and over the sea, becoming thus that of some colossal set of clockworks, some steel-souled machine-room of brandished arms and hammering fists and opening and closing jaws.

The immeasurable bridges are but as the horizontal sheaths of pistons working at high pressure, day and night, and subject, one apprehends with perhaps inconsistent gloom, to certain, to fantastic, to merciless multiplication. In the light of this apprehension indeed the breezy brightness of the Bay puts on the semblance of the vast white page that awaits beyond any other perhaps the black overscoring of science. ’ In New York in 1905, then, and a few years later in JC, HJ had begun to find his ghosts not in the Old World but the New. Uncannily, there is romance in the seemingly realistic, a new strangeness in what for HJ was known of old and long familiar. And we can see this uncanny reversal in JC too: PP15 Proportions and values were upside-down; the ugly things he had expected, the ugly things of his far-away youth, when he had too promptly waked up to a sense of the ugly – these uncanny phenomena placed him rather, as it happened, under the charm; whereas the “swagger” things, the modern, the monstrous, the famous things … were exactly his sources of dismay. ’ OK. What have we been thinking about so far? PP16 •JC and AS •Uncanny reversibility of real and romantic •‘Cutting the cable’: modern NY and Brydon’s experience •Freudian themes: individual and family traumas, return of the repressed, alter ego, compensatory fantasy of power in Galerie d’Apollon dream if not in JC itself. We’ve also seen some of the limits of the Freudian approach. And we’ve gone outside this to begin to think about the story in its time and as a response to the huge phenomenon of NY itself (anybody doing NYNY? ).

But what Freudian readings do bring to our attention, I think, is the theme of gender and in particular of masculinity. And I now want to pursue this in a more specifically biographical and historical context in the remainder of the lecture. PP17 Brydon – leisured self, European and aestheticized self seen in some ways as feminized self. In spite of his wound (castration? ), Brydon’s alter ego seems to incarnate a masculinity he can’t aspire to. And this brings us to some contemporary research on JC. In a recent article, Philip Horne proposes that JC has a more specific historical reference than has previously been recognised. Theodore Roosevelt and HJ met only 4 times.

TR in a letter once called HJ ‘a miserable little snob’. Essay on ‘True Americanism’ (1894): PP18 ‘Thus it is with the undersized man of letters, who flees his country because he, with his delicate, effeminate sensitiveness, finds the conditions of life on this side of the water crude and raw; in other words, because he finds that he can not play a man’s part among men, and so goes where he will be sheltered from the winds that harden stouter souls. This emigre may write graceful and pretty verses, essays, novels; but he will never do work to compete with that of his brother, who is strong enough to stand on his own feet, and do his work as an American. ’

A coded attack on HJ as unpatriotic and unmanly. But who was Theodore Roosevelt and what did he stand for? Roosevelt self-consciously embodied ‘rugged masculinity’ in a series of political roles: as NY Police Commisioner 1895-7, Assistant Secretary of the Navy 1897-8, leader of the Rough Riders who invaded Cuba during the Spanish American War 1898 and subsequently, following the assassination of McKinley, as 26th President of the US, serving two terms between 1901 and 1909. (He is also one of the 4 Presidents carved into the side of Mount Rushmore). TR in office when HJ published JC. Roosevelt: well known in younger life as a boxer and hunter.

And now, think of the language Brydon uses as he wanders around the house on the jolly corner in the depths of the night: he’s stalking, he’s on the track of big game. Then think of the final description of Brydon’s encounter with his alter ego: the man’s formal dress and, most particularly, his ‘dangling double eye-glass’. A TR trademark, as we can see in this image: PP19 Perhaps, then, HJ used the figure of TR to inform his portrait of Brydon’s other, the representative of a modern, acquisitive Americanism and of an active, violent masculinity. Brydon himself on the other hand stands, perhaps, for an alternative masculinity based on subtlety of perception and of consciousness.

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