In 1904, declining an invitation to attend the Hawthorne centennial in Salem, Massachusetts, Henry James paused to consider the question of why certain writers last. “It is the addition of all the limitations and depressions and difficulties of genius that makes always—with the factor of Time thrown in—the sum total of posthumous glory,” he told the centennial’s organizer, Robert Rantoul. But the “factor of Time”—though thrown in between parentheses—was not to be undervalued. Such “things” as The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables and The Blithedale Romance acquire their “final value,” James insisted, through the work of “later developments”; the years had made an “eloquent plea” on Hawthorne’s behalf.
At the time, James’s own prospects for posthumous glory, in Massachusetts or anyplace else, looked dim. Few in America cared for his novels. He had been a whipping boy of the incumbent president, Theodore Roosevelt, going back twenty years. In his essay “True Americanism,” which James had read, Roosevelt wrote of “the undersized man of letters, who flees his country because he, with his delicate, effeminate sensitiveness, finds the conditions of life on this side of the water crude and raw”—and this was becoming the dominant view on James. (Roosevelt’s claim that this figure “will never do work to compare with that of his brother” could be seen as a playful allusion to William James, who had taught Roosevelt at Harvard.) And James wasn’t faring much better in his adopted home. In 1901 he complained to the young English critic Desmond MacCarthy, with only a little exaggeration, that his books “make no more sound or ripple now than if I dropped them one after the other into the mud.”
A century later, he was making waves—far larger ones than his once-favored predecessors and contemporaries. In the year of Hawthorne’s bicentennial, the South African novelist Michiel Heyns received a rejection letter from an English publisher explaining that “there has been a spate of fiction based on the life of Henry James published here.” David Lodge, whose Author, Author was part of the spate, declared 2004 “the year of Henry James.” Reflecting on James’s eminence, Lodge wrote that he had “always been a writer’s writer,” “a biographer’s writer” and “a critic’s writer,” giving a reason in each case (“because of his technical skill and dedication to his art,” “because of the intriguing enigmas of his character and personal relationships,” “because of the challenge his work presents to interpretation”). Lodge also attempted to explain what he called “the convergence of novelistic attention,” pointing to the emergence, in the 1990s, of scholarly work about James’s homosexuality and relationships with women, as well as to “the new status and prominence” of biographical fiction about writers—itself described as a “symptom of a declining faith or loss of confidence in the power of purely fictional narrative” and “a sign of decadence and exhaustion in contemporary writing.”
Lodge’s essay didn’t lack for ideas when accounting for the year in which James shone brightest, but when it touches upon the “decades” when James’s reputation suffered “a certain eclipse”—before he became “the subject of a steady stream of scholarly books and articles”—Lodge abandons the language of signs and symptoms, omitting to describe, or even hint at, the plea that later developments made on James’s behalf. It’s as if by invoking images of the natural world, he is excused from offering a human or historical explanation. You would be forgiven for thinking that on a certain morning in 1943 or thereabouts, the whole literate world woke up ruing its previous resistance to Henry James, at which point a long-winded socialite mutated into the Master: keen-eyed surveyor of the International Scene; first of the depth psychologists; high priest of the scenic method and point of view, of pearl diving and wing brushing; champion of the inner life. E.M. Forster once wrote that “the king died and the queen died” is a story, while “the king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot—and Lodge is far from alone in presenting James’s afterlife in terms of chronology rather than causality.