HENRY JAMES has been at pains, lately, to put a stop to a report that he proposes to return to America, yet by descent and at heart he is undoubtedly as loyal an American as his neighbor in England, Bret Harte. Even a cosmopolite may be patriotic.
Mr. James has been called the first American cosmopolitan author. It is an unusually interesting fact that, like Mr. Harte, who also lives in England, James was born in Albany, N. Y., the date of his birth being April 15, 1843. His grandfather, William James, who made a fortune in the Syracuse salt works, had settled in Albany soon after his immigration from Ireland. His millions were divided among eleven children, one of whom was Henry James, Sr., the novelist’s father. This branch of the James family moved to Germany when our author was a boy ; and there he and his brothers and sister were educatedfor some years. It used to be said that, like his distinguished contemporaries, Howells and Aldrich, James never enjoyed the advantages of a college education
but it is a fact, nevertheless, that the James children were thoroughly educated. Henry James, Sr., intellectually, was a remarkable man, and Miss Walsh of New York, whom he married, has been described as ” his complement in the possession of sterling practical qualities and the sustaining commonsense of woman.” Besides, there were the educational advantages of travel which the James children enjoyed. When the Jameses re-turned to this country they settled in Cambridge. It was there that Howells made the acquaintance of the elder James.
We are tempted to quote extensively from Howells’s memories of Henry James, Sr., but we shall confine our quotation to a single paragraph :
” At all times he thought originally in words of delightful originality, which painted a fact with the greatest vividness. Of a person who had a nervous twitching of the face, and who wished to call up a friend to them, he said : ‘ He spasmed to the fellow across the room, and introduced him.’ His written style had traits of the same adventurousness, but it was his speech which was most captivating. As I write of him I see him before me : his white bearded face, with a kindly intensity which at first glance seemed fierce, the mouth humorously shaping the mustache, the eyes vague behind the glasses ; his sensitive hand gripping the stick on which he rested his weight to ease it from the artificial limb he wore.”
Henry James, Jr., is one of five children. Equally as celebrated as Henry, both at home and abroad, is William James, a professor at Harvard. In March, 1865, a month before his twenty-second year, Henry James made his first appearance in literature with a contribution to The Atlantic Monthly, en-titled ” A Story of a Year,” which naturally had to do with the War of the Rebellion. It was The Atlantic which also published his first serial story, ” Poor Richard,” which ran through three numbers. Later followed ” Gabrielle de Bergerac” and Watch and Ward,” each a little more ambitious than its predecessors ; and finally came his first long story, ” Roderick Hudson,” which lasted through twelve numbers of The Atlantic. The stories aroused a great deal of comment, most of which was favorable. This encouraged him to abandon all thought of law, which he had studied at Harvard, and make literature his profession. About the same time he went to England, where he has since spent most of his time.
Like Harte, James has suffered from the charge of expatriation. The very fact that the English reading public, which is a most discerning public, was quick to appreciate the rare quality of James’s style has been sufficient to keep some American critics in bad temper as if the mere matter of residence has any intimate connection with literature ! If James were an utter snob, if he slurred Americans or disclaimed any acquaintance with them, if his cynicism were not well founded, or if his satire were simply burlesque, he might justly be at-tacked; but as, personally, he is gentle and unassuming, as his cynicism is not a mania, and as his satire is more or less truthful, the belligerent critics have been largely wasting their ammunition. Probably no story of his has ever stirred up bitterer talk than ” Daisy Miller,” with its unconventional American heroine ; yet it was only justice, not to mention literary acumen, which prompted so spirited an American as Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, in his ” Short Studies of American Authors,” to say of the author of ” Daisy Miller ” that 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 is a singular commentary on the injustice of the denouncers of ” Daisy Miller” that the young lady of Boston whom gossip made the original of the story was “cut ” by society.
His friends and enemies were still further divided by ” The American” and ” The Portrait of a Lady,” and we suspect that the author was poking a little fun at the hostile camp when he had the American woman journalist in the latter story say, ” I was going to bring in your cousin the alienated American. There is a great demand now for the alienated American, and your cousin is a beautiful specimen. I should have handled him severely.”
Mr. James’s friends say that he went to England, originally, for the benefit of his health. It cannot be gainsaid that he has a temperament which makes itself at home in all lands. He is, indeed, as much a citizen of Paris as of London, and his stories in French have been warmly praised by French critics. But it may be that, after all, he saw the wisdom of writing reminiscently, of writing at a distance from his subjects. Mr. Cable, for example, saw it when he moved North from New Orleans ; and, furthermore, we know that many an author has been condemned unjustly for telling the truth. The great novelist is not the idealist, with his world of prize-baby angels and impossible saints; he is a photographer, and his mind and his hand are a camera that cannot lie. Mr. Warner once said that the object of the novel is to entertain ; Mr. James has said that it is to represent life. James Lane Allen, we remember, joined the two statements thus : ” The object of the novel is to entertain by representing life.”
James’s reach is transatlantic. Americans and Britons alike share prominence in his works. Then, too, of late, his characters have grown more and more ethereal and ghostly ; they have such faint connection with the world of chalk-cliffs and prairies that the question of their citizen-ship is insignificant. Physically they appear to us only in episodes; intellectually they are universal types. But, really, the last word on Henry James’s art was said long ago by The Spectator :
Mr. Henry James is certainly a very remarkable illustration of the tendency of our age to subdivide, in the finest way, the already rather extreme division of labor, till a very high perfection is attained in producing articles of the most curiously specialized kind, though apparently without the power of producing anything outside that kind. For a long time we have had novelists who are wonderfully skillful in a particular form of novels, but who seem unable to master more than one form for themselves. But Mr. Henry James, though he has attained a very great perfection in his own line, seems not to aim at anything quite so considerable as a story of human life of any sort. He eschews a story.
What he loves is an episode, i. e., something which by the nature of the case is rather a fragment cut out of life, and not a fair or average specimen of it, nor even such a part of it as would give you the best essence of the whole, but rather an eddy in it, which takes you for an interval out of its main current, and only ends as you get back into the main current again, or at least at the point at which you might get back into the main current again, if some event (accidental, in relation to the art of the story) did not occur to cut off abruptly the thread of the narrative. One might perhaps say that Mr. Henry James has discerned in relation to literature what has long been known in relation to art that with artists of any genius, ‘ sketches ‘ are apt to be more satisfying than finished pictures. But then the sketches we like so much in artists’ studios are, though unfinished pictures, still pictures of what the painter has been most struck with, pictures in which he has given all that struck him most, and left only what did not strike him to be filled in by the fancy of the public. Now, Mr. Henry James does not give us sketches of the most striking features in what he sees of human life and passion, so much as finished pictures of the little nooks and bays into which human caprice occasionally drifts, when the main current of life’s deeper interests has left us for a moment on one side, and rushed past us.. . Mr. Henry James is not so much a novelist as an episodist, if such a term be allowable. But he is a wonderful episodist.”
All in all, that is the keenest and fairest criticism of James’s works ever written. It should be taken with every one of his stories, just as soda is taken with brandy.
Such a criticism is not fugacious ; it is complementary.
It brings to mind the amusing criticism of ” The Sacred Fount,” notably Carolyn Wells’s ” Verbarium Tremens,” published in The Critic, with its bright termination
The mad gush of ” The Sacred Fount ” is ringing in my ear,
Its dictional excitements are obsessing me, I fear.
For its subtle fascination makes me read it, then, alack,
I find I have the James-james, a very bad attack !
James is an exceedingly neat man, and this side of him at once strikes every visitor to his home. The only known exception to this characteristic neatness is his handwriting, which is said to be as vexatious as Horace Greeley’s was. I have a letter from him before me now, “says one of his correspondents. ” The signature I know to be ,Henry James.’ You might take it for Henryk Sienkiewicz.”
The same correspondent relates a story which throws a new light on his personality :
” You will be astonished, possibly, to know that his income from his writing is a scant three hundred pounds a year, though in spite of this there has never come a man in need to Henry James to whom he has not offered a part of what he calls his own.
” Not so long ago a novelist in England died. He left two little children, absolutely alone in the world. One of that man’s friends put by a little sum for them, and, out of the kindness of his heart, wrote to other literary men soliciting their help. He sought a maker of books who lives in a castle, whom he knew to have an income of over twenty thousand pounds from his literary work.
“‘ Won’t you aid these little folk?’ he asked. Not a cent was forthcoming.
” Henry James was written in the matter. By return mail came a check for fifty pounds, one-tenth of his whole year’s income.”
We have been informed that this estimate of Mr. James’s income is rather small ; but, even if his income be as large as that of the “maker of books who lives in a castle,” the fact remains that Mr. James proved his generosity handsomely.
James has acquired his extraordinarily brilliant style at the expense of incessant and determined effort. The dazzling spontaneities are really the product of toilsome hours. He works mostly in the morning, writing slowly, and his stories are written again and again before they go off to his publisher’s. With him writing is a profession, a task ; he is not the child of moods. Occasionally he visits friends old friends, like Marion Crawford but the greater part of the year he spends quietly and almost reclusely in England.