HENRY JAMES and the AMERICAN IDEA

By Goodman, Susan | Humanities, July/August 2011 | Go to article overview

HENRY JAMES and the AMERICAN IDEA


Goodman, Susan, Humanities


Of the many contributors who supported and found support from the Atlantic Monthly, Henry James stands apart. James, who came into his own in the pages of the magazine, published stories, reviews, and novels through half a century - and with the Atlantic ocean between himself and the editors in Boston. The second son of the eccentric Swedenborgian philosopher for whom he was named, James spent his peripatetic childhood traveling between the United States and Europe, studying with tutors in Geneva, London, Paris, Bologna, and Bonn. About people raised abroad like James and herself, Edith Wharton would say that they had been "produced in a European glass-house." They were "wretched exotics," none of them American; "We don't think or feel as the Americans do." In 1864, the James family moved to Boston, before putting down roots in Cambridge. Two years earlier, James had followed his older brother, William, to Harvard, where he studied law until literature asserted itself as his calling.

Inheriting his father's wanderlust, James visited London in 1869 and made the acquaintance of artists and intellectuals, including George Eliot, William Morris, Gabriel Rossetti, and Leslie Stephen. After extended periods in Paris, where he wrote letters for the New York Tribune, and Rome, James moved permanently to England in 1876. His house in Rye, purchased in 1898, became a center for friends as different as Joseph Conrad and Stephen Crane.

Today the broader public knows James through films of his novels, notably Merchant Ivory productions of The Golden Bowl, The Bostonians, and The Europeans. He holds a special place in the Atlantic's pantheon of writers for a number of reasons, chief among them the many novels that explore the cultural and psychological differences between Europeans and Americans. To his contemporaries, James represented the quintessential artist, laboring at his craft to the exclusion of much else. In a May 1885 Atlantic review of a biography of George Eliot written by her husband, John Cross, James presents the author of Middlemarch as many saw James himself. The "creations" which "possessed" her and "brought her renown," James wrote, "were of the incalculable kind, shaped themselves in mystery, in some intellectual back shop or secret crucible, and were as little as possible implied in the aspect of her life."

What is remarkable ... is that this quiet, anxious, sedentary, serious, invalidical English lady, without animal spirits, without adventures, without extravagance, assumption, or bravado, should have made us believe that nothing in the world was alien to her; should have produced such rich, deep, masterly pictures of the multifold life of man.

Mere Hving might suit others, but, as James told H. G. Wells in 1915, "It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance . . . and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process." Wharton addressed her letters to James as "Cher Maître" because she bowed to his mastery of form. James's experiments with limited third-person narration place the reader in the consciousness of a narrator - him or herself an actor in the story. The process allowed readers to see the narrator's process of thinking, the slow dawning of consciousness, accompanied by a loss of innocence.

James's first signed story, "The Story of a Year" appeared in the Atlantic's March 1865 issue. Though melodramatic, it mimics and rejects the conventional endings of Civil War fiction by not having the pretty, young heroine immolate herself on the altar of her fallen lover's memory. Those who associate James with ambiguous prose and drawing-room dramas might be surprised to think of him beginning his career like any hack writer intent on boiling the pot, or plot. In 1871, the Atlantic serialized Watch and Ward, a novel that pushed conventional boundaries of fiction by having a bachelor adopt and groom a twelve-year-old girl for later marriage. …

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