Henry James on the Jewish Scene

By Kerker, Milton | Midstream, January 2004 | Go to article overview

Henry James on the Jewish Scene


Kerker, Milton, Midstream


Like almost every leading novelist of 19th-century England, and many not so leading ones, (1) Henry James (1843-1916) found a place in a novel, The Golden Bowl, for Jewish characters, albeit minor ones, and thereby an opportunity to comment upon some aspect of the Jewish scene. But James went further, offering thoughts on Zionist aspirations in his review of George Eliot's Daniel Deronda, maintaining a strong opinion during that litmus test of who was a friend of Jews and who an enemy in the Dreyfus affair, and late in life, ruminating on the Jews during a visit to New York's Lower East Side.

We know nothing of the views of the very young James, although his father, also named Henry James, a prolific writer on religious, literary, and social subjects, despised Jews as being "as near to worthless as a people could be that still wore the human form."

The senior James was equally uncharitable on the subject of black people, and he considered the Catholic Church "a mere scabies upon the life of the nations." (2) Henry, Jr., at least from young manhood on, did not share these prejudices.

In his magisterial biography, Leon Edel(3) observed that "the two Georges ... George Eliot and George Sand ... came to occupy a large place in Henry's life ... both represented for him the art of fiction practiced at its finest pitch." And so it is little wonder that young Henry James, even by 1876 a respected critic, would pour a remarkable burst of energy and passion into his unusual review of George Eliot's last and most ambitious novel, Daniel Deronda; an unusual review because of its length and range and especially so because it takes the form of a dramatic dialogue, a literary form unknown, or at least extremely rare, in Victorian literature. (4)

Daniel Deronda has been called George Eliot's "Zionist novel." The eponymous hero discovers that his widowed Jewish mother had arranged for him to be raised as an English gentleman and a Christian in order to spare him the ravages of life as a Jew. In the course of events, Deronda spurns Gwendolen, a beautiful English lady, in order to marry Mirall, a talented Jewess, and dedicates himself to restoring the Jewish people to a political presence in Palestine. A generation before the emergence of political Zionism, George Eliot expressed her concern for Jews and eloquently proposed "the restoration of a Jewish state, planted in the old ground, as a center of national feeling, a source of dignifying protection, a special channel for special energies and an added voice in the councils of the world." (5)

A new novel by George Eliot was a literary event, and Daniel Deronda, published in 1876, provoked a flood of reviews. (6) Some hailed it as her finest novel. Some were more restrained, even negative, decrying the Jewish theme, especially the portrayal of Deronda. A few could not refrain from snide antisemitism.

Henry James's review was destined to set the standard by which literati were thenceforth to judge this work. In a nutshell, he found that the part of the novel dealing with English characters was "a masterpiece ... but all the Jewish burden of the story tended to worry me ... and is at bottom cold." This judgment came down essentially to his analysis of the portrayal of the central characters. The English woman "Gwendolen is a masterpiece ... [she] is the most intelligent thing in all George Eliot's writing, and that is saying much." James was equally impressed with others of the English, but in his view, the Jewish characters "Deronda, Mordecai and Mirah are hardly more than shadows ... Deronda ... is I think a failure--a brilliant failure." There is only one Jewish character, a musician, most appropriately named Klesmer, who rates praise as "Shakespearean, multitudinous, life-like."

I do not propose to follow the ensuing vicissitudes of the critical analysis of Daniel Deronda (except to note the revisionist proclamation of the Cambridge University critic and doyen of "literary correctness," F. …

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