Henry James, Jr.

From: Short Studies of American Authors (1880)
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson
Published: Lee and Shepard 1880 Boston


WE are growing more cosmopolitan and varied, in these United States of America; and our authors are gaining much, if they are also losing a little, in respect to training. The early career of an American author used to be tolerably fixed and clear, if limited; a college education, a few months in Europe, a few years in some profession, and then an entrance into literature by some side-door. In later times, the printing-office has sometimes been substituted for the college, and has given a new phase of literary character distinct from the other, but not less valuable. Mr. Henry James, Jr., belongs to neither of the classes thus indicated: he may be said to have been trained in literature by literature itself, so early did he begin writing, and so incessantly has he written. We perhaps miss in his works something of the method which the narrower classical nurture was supposed to give; and we find few traces of that contact with the mass of mankind which comes through mere daily duty to the professional man, the business man, the journalist. Mr. James has kept a little too good company: we do not find in his books such refreshing types of hearty and robust manhood as Howells, with all his daintiness, finds it easy to depict in Colonel Ellison and the skipper of the Aroostook. Then Mr. James’s life has been so far transatlantic, that one hardly knows whether he would wish to be accounted an American writer, after all; so that his education, his point of view, his methods, all unite to place him in a class by himself.

  It is pleasant to see a man write, as he has always done, with abundant energy, and seemingly from the mere love of writing. Yet it is impossible to deny that he has suffered from this very profusion. Much of his early work seems a sort of self-training, gained at the expense of his readers; each sheet, each story, has been hurried into print before the ink was dry, in order to test it on the public,—a method singularly removed from the long and lonely maturing of Hawthorne. “L’oisiveté est necessaire aux esprits, aussi bien que le travail.” Even the later books of Mr. James, especially his travels and his essays, show something of this defect. What a quarry of admirable suggestions is, for instance, his essay on Balzac; but how prolix it is, what repetitions, what a want of condensation and method! The same is true, in a degree, of his papers on George Sand and Turgénieff, while other chapters in his “French Poets and Novelists” are scarcely more than sketches: the paper on the Théàtre Français hardly mentions Sarah Bernhardt; and, indeed, that on Turgénieff says nothing of his masterpiece, “Terres Vierges.” Through all these essays he shows delicacy, epigram, quickness of touch, penetration; but he lacks symmetry of structure, and steadiness of hand.

  We can trace in the same book, also, some of the author’s limitations as an imaginative artist, since in criticising others a man shows what is wanting in himself. When he says, for instance, that a monarchical society is “more available for the novelist than any other,” he shows that he does not quite appreciate the strong point of republicanism, in that it develops real individuality in proportion as it diminishes conventional distinction The truth is, that the modern novel has risen with the advance of democratic society, on the ruins of feudalism. Another defect is seen from time to time, when, in criticising some well-known book, he misses its special points of excellence. Take, for instance, his remarks on that masterly and repulsive novel, “Madame Bovary.” To say of the author of that work that his “theory as a novelist, briefly expressed, is to begin at the outside,”1 seems almost whimsically unjust. There is not a character in modem fiction developed more essentially from within than that of this heroine: all her sins and sorrows are virtually predicted in the early chapters; even Mr. James has to admit that it “could not have been otherwise”2 with her, thereby taking back his own general assertion. Then he says “every thing in the book is ugly,”3 whereas one of its salient points is the beauty of the natural descriptions in which its most painful incidents are framed. Finally,—and this is the most puzzling misconception of all,—Mr. James utterly fails to see the bearing of one of the pivotal points of the narrative, an unfortunate surgical operation performed by the heroine’s husband, a country doctor: he calls it an “artistic bravado,” and treats it as a mere episode of doubtful value, whereas it is absolutely essential to the working-out of the plot. The situation is this: Madame Bovary is being crushed to the earth by living in a social vacuum, with a stupid husband whom she despises, and has already deceived. She has just felt a twinge of remorse, after receiving an affectionate letter from her father; when suddenly this commonplace husband is presented to her eyes in a wholly new light,—that of an unappreciated man of genius, who has by a single act won a place among the great surgeons of his time. All that is left undepraved in her nature is touched and roused by this: she will do any thing, hear any thing, for such a husband. The illusion lasts but a few days, and is pitilessly torn away: the husband proves a mere vulgar, ignorant quack, even duller, emptier, more hopeless, than she had dreamed. The reaction takes her instantly downward, and with that impulse she sinks to rise no more. The author himself (Flaubert) takes the pains to warn us distinctly beforehand of the bearing of this incident;4 but his precaution seems needless, the thing explains itself. It is one of the strongest and clearest passages in the whole tragedy, and it seems as if there must be some defect of artistic sensibility in any critic who misses his way here. Or else—which is more probable—it is another instance of that haste in literary workmanship which is one of Mr. James’s besetting sins.

  It may be one result of this extreme rapidity of production, that Mr. James uses certain catch-words so often as to furnish almost a shibboleth for his style; such words, for instance, as “brutal,” “puerile,” “immense.” Another result is seen in his indifference to careful local coloring, especially where the scene is laid in the United States. When he draws Americans in Europe, he is at home; when he brings Europeans across the Atlantic, he never seems quite sure of his ground, except in Newport, which is in some respects the least American spot on this continent. He opens his “Europeans” by exhibiting horse-cars in the streets of Boston nearly ten years before their introduction, and his whole sketch of the Wentworth family gives a sense of vagueness. It is not difficult to catch a few unmistakable points, and portray a respectable elderly gentleman reading “The Daily Advertiser;” but all beyond this is indefinite, and, when otherwise, sometimes gives quite an incorrect impression of the place and period described. The family portrayed has access to “the best society in Boston;” yet the daughter, twenty-three years old, has “never seen an artist,” though the picturesque figure of Allston had but lately disappeared from the streets, at the time mentioned, and Cheney, Staigg, and Eastman Johnson might be seen there any day, with plenty of other artists less known. The household is perfectly amazed and overwhelmed at the sight of two foreigners, although there probably were more cultivated Europeans in Boston thirty years ago than now, having been drawn thither by the personal celebrity or popularity of Agassiz, Ticknor, Longfellow, Sumner, and Dr. Howe. The whole picture—though it is fair to remember that the author calls it a sketch only—seems more like a delineation of American society by Fortunio or Alexandre Dumas fils, than like a portraiture by one to the manor born. The truth is, that Mr. James’s cosmopolitanism is, after all, limited: to be really cosmopolitan, a man must be at home even in his own country.

  There are no short stories in our recent literature, I think, which are so good as Mr. James’s best,—“Madame de Mauves,” for instance, and “The Madonna of the Future.” Even these sometimes lack condensation; but they have a thoroughly original grasp, and fine delineations of character. It is a great step downward from these to the somewhat vulgar horrors contained in “A Romance of Certain Old Clothes.” The author sometimes puts on a cynicism which does not go very deep; and the young lovers of his earlier tales had a disagreeable habit of swearing at young ladies, and ordering them about. Yet he has kept himself very clear from the disagreeable qualities of the French fiction he loves. His books never actually leave a bad taste in one’s mouth, as Charlotte Bronte said of French novels; and, indeed, no one has touched with more delicate precision the vexed question of morality in art. He finely calls the longing after a moral ideal “this southern slope of the mind,”5 and says of the ethical element, “It is in reality simply a part of the richness of inspiration: it has nothing to do with the artistic process, and it has every thing to do with the artistic effect.”6 This is admirable; and it is a vindication of this attribute when we find that Mr. James’s most successful social stories, “An International Episode,” and “Daisy Miller,” have been written with distinct purpose, and convey lessons. He has achieved no greater triumph than when, in this last-named book, he succeeds in holding our sympathy and even affection, after all, for the essential innocence and rectitude of the poor wayward girl whose follies he has so mercilessly portrayed.

  It cannot be said that Mr. James has yet succeeded in producing a satisfactory novel: as a clever woman has said, he should employ some one else to write the last few pages. However strong the characterizations, however skilful the plot, the reader is left discontented. If in this respect he seems behind Howells, it must be remembered that James habitually deals with profounder emotions, and is hence more liable to be overmastered. Longfellow says to himself in his “Hyperion,” “O thou poor authorling! Reach a little deeper into the human heart! Touch those strings, touch those deeper strings more boldly, or the notes shall die away like whispers, and no ear shall hear them save thine own.” It is James rather than Howells who has heeded this counsel. The very disappointment which the world felt at the close of “The American” was in some sense a tribute to its power: the author had called up characters and situations which could not be cramped, at last, within the conventional limits of a stage-ending. As a piece of character-drawing, the final irresolution of the hero was simply perfect: it seemed one of the cases where a romancer conjures up persons who are actually alive, and who insist on working out a destiny of their own, irrespective of his wishes. To be thus conquered by one’s own creation might seem one of those defeats that are greater than victories; yet it is the business of the novelist, after all, to keep his visionary people well in hand, and to contrive that they shall have their own way, and yet not spoil his climax. In life, as in “The American,” the most complicated situations often settle themselves by events unseen, and the most promising tragedies are cheated of their crisis. But it is not enough that literary art should give a true transcript of nature; for the work must also comply with the laws of art, and must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. “Un ouvrage d’art doit être un être, el non une chose arbitraire.”7

1 French Poets and Novelists, p. 256.
2 Ibid., p. 261.
3 Ibid., p. 265.
4 “Elle demeuvait fort embarassée dans sa velliéité de sacrifice, quand l’ apothécaire vint à propos lui founir une occasion.”—MADAME BOVARY, p. 210.
5 French Poets and Novelists, p, 114.
6 Ibid., p. 82.
7 Pensées de J. Joubert, p. 289.

All Sub-Works of Short Studies of American Authors (1880):
PDF Sub-Works open in a new tab. Close the tab when done viewing to return here.