Criticism: The Foundations of Modern Literary Judgment

By Mark Schorer; Gordon McKenzie et al. | Go to book overview

Order of Merit. But I do not think that anybody has yet done justice to the genius that, overriding personal deficiencies of a peculiarly disabling kind, finding its bearings in a social situation almost as bewildering as the astronomical one with which the mathematics of relativity deals, surviving the ridicule and indifference of the two peoples whose critic he had made himself, was able to re-create itself to the end and actually to break fresh ground at seventy.

For Henry Jamesis a great artist, in spite of everything. His deficiencies are obvious enough. He was certainly rather short on invention; and he tended to hold life at arm's-length. Yet when a novelist with a real inventive gift--say Compton Mackenzie--can invent till the cows come home without his inventions' making any lasting impression on us, the things that Jamesdoes invent have so perfect an appropriateness and beauty, even floating though they sometimes are in rather a gray sea of abstract exposition, that they remain in our minds as luminous symbols; and the objects and beings at the end of James's arm, or rather, at the end of his antennae, are grasped with an astonishing firmness, gauged with a marvelous intelligence. His work is incomplete as his experience was; but it is in no respect second-rate, and he can be judged only in the company of the greatest. My argument has not given me an occasion to call attention to the classical equanimity, the classical combination of realism with harmony--I have tried to describe them in writing about Pushkin-- which have been so rare in American and in English literature alike and of which James is one of the only examples.*


EDMUND WILSON: Justice to Edith Wharton*

BEFORE Edith Wharton died, the more commonplace work of her later years had had the effect of dulling the reputation of her earlier and more serious work. It seemed to me that the notices elicited by her death did her, in general, something less than justice; and I want to try to throw into relief the achievements which did make her important during a period--say, 1905-1917--when there were few American writers worth reading. This essay is therefore no very complete study, but rather in the nature of an impression by a reader who was growing up at that time.

Mrs. Wharton's earliest fiction I never found

____________________
*
"Justice to Edith Wharton" first appeared in The New Republic, 29 June 1938, and was later included in The Wound and the Bow: Seven Studies in Literature ( 1941). It is reprinted here by permission of Mr. Wilson.
*
The reader may be interested in James's own statement of the inception of "The Turn of the Screw." It is reprinted here by permission of the publishers from The Notebooks of Henry James, edited by F. O. Matthiessen and Kenneth B. Murdock. Copyright 1947 by Oxford University Press.

Saturday, January 12th, 1895. Note here the ghoststory told me at Addington (evening of Thursday 10th), by the Archbishop of Canterbury; the mere vague, undetailed faint sketch of it--being all he had been told (very badly and imperfectly), by a lady who had no art of relation, and no clearness: the story of the young children (indefinite number and age) left to the care of servants in an old country-house, through the death, presumably, of parents. The servants, wicked and depraved, corrupt and deprave the children; the children are bad, full of evil, to a sinister degree. The servants die (the story vague about the way of it) and their apparitions, figures, return to haunt the house and children, to whom they seem to beckon, whom they invite and solicit, from across dangerous places, the deep ditch of a sunk fence, etc.--so that the children may destroy themselves, lose themselves, by responding, by getting into their power. So long as the children are kept from them, they are not lost; but they try and try and try, these evil presences, to get hold of them. It is a question of the children 'coming over to where they are.' It is all obscure and imperfect, the picture, the story, but there is a suggestion of strangely gruesome effect in it. The story to be told--tolerably obviously-- by an outside spectator, observer.

Lamb House, August 9th, 1900. . . . The ideal [of The Sense of the Past] is something as simple as "The Turn of the Screw," only different and less grossly and merely apparitional."

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