The Master’s Servants: On Henry James

The Master’s Servants: On Henry James

The Master’s Servants: On Henry James

Nothing ages faster than the idea of an “ageless” writer. Consider the posthumous career of Henry James.


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.

* * *

On a humid Monday in late June, when London was nearing the height of its pre-Olympic agitation, I took the Oxford Tube from West London to Oxford High Street to attend a conference titled “A Stray Savage in Oxford—A Henry James Centenary Symposium.” The city was quiet; the students were on holiday (as James noted in an aside on English leisure, they usually are). You could see why Oxford held a special thrill for James; it was one of those “old, old things” among which English novelists had been lucky to grow up, and which Americans had to do without. Later, walking back to where I was staying, I passed the Oxford Playhouse. A production of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, which takes its cue from James’s story of the same name, was scheduled to start the next evening, just minutes after the conference came to an end. It was a coincidence, but in its small way also a testament to the varieties of Jamesian influence.

The next morning, I made my way to St. Anne’s College and lingered on the periphery as the assembled Jamesians, most of them from England and America, drank coffee and traded greetings and gossip. The periphery is the best place to linger when you’re the only person in the room who has never read—and couldn’t put on a good show of having read—The Bostonians. I spotted Philip Horne, the most prominent of English Jamesians, looking optimistic and freshly showered. Christopher Ricks was there, and so was J. Hillis Miller—onetime combatants chatting merrily. (The two had been on different sides of the theory wars in the 1980s.) I felt like the nameless narrator of a James novel I had read, The Sacred Fount, doing his best to work out the dynamic among the people around him. That narrator eventually settles on a “vampire” theory of human relationships, whereby people suck energy and youth from one another. Something close to the opposite principle was at play here. The jollity was catching.

The conference took its title from a passage in James’s English Hours (“When I say Oxford I mean Cambridge, for a stray savage is not the least obliged to know the difference”), and had been organized to commemorate a commemoration—“the remarkable ceremony,” as James put it, in which honorary degrees were given. James was writing in 1879 on the occasion of his friend Turgenev being awarded an honorary degree. He was later awarded one himself, and now, at a time when writers are awarded honorary degrees about as routinely as they are made the subject of academic conferences and centenary celebrations, an academic conference was being held to mark the centenary of an honorary degree.

Oliver Herford, one of the organizers of the Oxford conference, told me that there “probably” should have been a conference in Cambridge in 2009. Why? To celebrate the centenary of a visit that James had paid to some young men at the university. For whatever reason, it didn’t take place, but the fanaticism about James’s life and work is such that the wait is never long. As things turned out, the centenary had been exploited for the benefit of another: the looming centenary of James’s death in 2016. Many of those present were at work on the thirty-volume scholarly edition of James’s fiction, scheduled for publication, by Cambridge University Press, in 2016. The Oxford centenary provided a good opportunity to bring them together.

Centenary opportunism of this kind isn’t new. Hawthorne’s centenary presented, James wrote, “one of the happiest opportunities to see how a Classic comes into being”; and in 1943, the centenary of James’s birth presented an opportunity for a Harvard librarian overseeing the James family archive to persuade a Harvard professor, F.O. Matthiessen, to offer the first course on Henry James.

* * *

Christopher Ricks was eager to emphasize the importance of universities in determining writers’ reputations—sustaining them, and laying them to rest. “It used to be the case that, if you were wondering why x had enjoyed fame or suffered obloquy or neglect, it was because of the Church,” he told me. We were sitting in a tent in St. Anne’s College, at the end of a day that had started with his keynote lecture. The other speakers and delegates were conducting the reverse ritual of their anticipatory morning coffee: the reflective evening drink. Ricks and I were in a corner, talking about what he called the “conditions of patronage.” “Books are in print because of the most important patrons, and the most important patrons for the last fifty years have been the universities,” he said. “James stands in need of being taught. Thomas Pynchon stands in need of being taught. Poor old Arnold Bennett doesn’t stand in need of being taught. It’s not quite a Marxist interpretation, but it certainly says that there are material realities,” by which he meant teaching, research, conferences—the modes of posthumous literary travel. “The endless Russian novels about theodicy, suffering and salvation, with an unpronounceable cast of thousands. Where would they be without the required reading list?” asks Elizabeth Hardwick in Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s Dashiell Hammett spoof, Canon Confidential. “Out of print?” the Sam Spade surrogate replies.

Ricks is small and cheerful, with a hairstyle clearly modeled on that of Henry James. “His bald head was shiny; his black shoes were shiny; and his lecture was very shiny indeed,” writes the narrator of Julian Barnes’s novel Flaubert’s Parrot. It was intended as a dig (digs are to Barnes’s writing what distinctions are to James’s), but it also serves to hint at Ricks’s appeal. He makes literary criticism fun, his gift for wordplay allowing him to be rigorous and lively at the same time. He is the ideal speaker to kick off an academic conference, even one about a writer, such as Henry James, with whom he is not closely associated. (By my count, he has written one essay on the story “The Next Time” and an introduction to What Maisie Knew.)

In the morning session, Ricks delivered a paper about T.S. Eliot’s attitudes toward James, and then his respondent, the film critic Anthony Lane, delivered a paper on Eliot’s allusions to James. Eliot counted as a topic because he had studied at Oxford. Later sessions, most of them given by full-time Jamesians, covered such acquaintances or influences as Matthew Arnold, Oscar Wilde and Arthur Hugh Clough. There was an afternoon panel about James and the academy, but it didn’t fulfill its brief. J. Hillis Miller talked about J.L. Austin, who never mentions James in his philosophy (but did write about “performative utterances” or “speech acts,” which James portrayed in his fiction). And there were papers on Max Beerbohm, James’s time as a law student at Harvard, and Isaiah Berlin’s reading of James (“I am slowly taking against the great writer”). None of them dealt with what academics had made of James, about the eclipse or the steady stream.

I asked Oliver Herford to fill me in. He said that James’s reputation in England had very little to do with Oxford, which had always been “suspicious of aestheticism and attention to technique,” and everything to do with Cambridge, which showed itself open first to James’s aestheticism—Leonard Woolf recalled that as undergraduates at Trinity College, he and other members of what became the Bloomsbury Group had been “entranced and almost hypnotized” on reading his late novels—and later to his attention to technique.

The development of close reading, or “practical criticism,” from the 1920s on secured the union between James and Cambridge, whereby the university recruited James the only way it knew how: by reading him as a poet and showing, with something akin to empiricism, the subtlety of his language. At the time James’s stock was low, having been downgraded in the years of World War I by H.G. Wells and Rebecca West, both of whom portrayed him as ridiculous. But the emerging school of English at Cambridge found a new way of appreciating him: analytically. Of the reflections on “rhythm” in poetry offered by I.A. Richards (one of the two most influential Cambridge critics) in his 1924 book Principles of Literary Criticism, F.R. Leavis (the other) wrote that “it suggests what would be the critical analysis of a novel.” And when Leavis eventually explored these possibilities in The Great Tradition (1948), he declared that James was a “poet-novelist.”

Herford pointed out that a famous essay by onetime Cambridge student Ian Watt, “The First Paragraph of The Ambassadors: An Explication” (1960), begins with a consideration of the uses of Cambridge-style practical criticism. Watt, for his part, noted that practical criticism is “better suited to verse than to prose,” and then launched into a twenty-four page explication of 256 of James’s words. He wanted to continue the Leavis tradition of approaching James as a poet, but also to mount a defense of James’s late style against Leavis, who celebrated The Bostonians and The Portrait of a Lady but pronounced The Ambassadors a “bad” book. Watt argued, and tried to show, that “all or at least nearly all” of James’s “idiosyncrasies of diction or syntax…are fully justified by the particular emphases they create.” Of the twenty-one-word opening to a seventy-five-word sentence (“The principle I have just mentioned as operating had been, with the most newly disembarked of the two men, wholly instinctive”), Watt argued that the decision to call Lambert Strether “the most newly disembarked of the two men” rather than “him” was “related to the general Jamesian tendency to present characters and actions on a plane of abstract categorisation” (plausible); that James used “most” rather than “more” because the superlative “had the advantage of suggesting the long and fateful tradition of transatlantic disembarcations in general” (spurious); and that the word “instinctive” is intended to be comically at odds with Strether’s obvious self-consciousness (persuasive).

Still, resistance to James’s late style has proven stubborn. Writing in The Atlantic, a publication to which James contributed, on the eve of “the year of Henry James,” Martin Amis despaired of “the arctic labyrinth known as Late James.” During the year itself, the British novelist and critic Adam Mars-Jones, having acknowledged that the long sentence enabled many of James’s effects (“the oracular murmur, the air of paralysed scruple, the flaunted subtlety”), pronounced: “Those long sentences were tracts of prose in which James could play, sing and spout like a frock-coated whale, or else disappear inside a cloud of his own secreted ink like a giant squid of New England gentility. We shall not read their like again, with any luck.”

* * *

When I asked Herford if the poetic dimensions of James’s prose had been the most important factor in his posthumous success, he gave the more measured reply that it is “one of the reasons why he has been found lastingly important by those within a Cambridge-schooled tradition.” Beyond that tradition, things look somewhat different, as I discovered later the same week when I traveled to Piccadilly Circus to attend a second conference, this time a brassy affair that was to last all weekend. It was held, suitably enough, at the London outpost of an American university (the Notre Dame London Centre), a majestic edifice designed by William Wilkins and John Peter Gandy and originally built to house the United University Club, the union being that between Oxford and Cambridge. Around the corner at another of Wilkins’s buildings, the National Gallery, James’s favorite painter, Titian, was having a fuss made of him.

Academics had flown in from Australia, South Africa, Belgium, China and all over America. Included among them were the editors of collections about narrative, power and ethics in Henry James; James’s Europe; James at the movies; James and the supernatural. Also in attendance were the authors of such books as The Phenomenology of Henry James; Henry James and the Culture of Publicity; Henry James and the Second Empire; Reading Henry James in French Cultural Contexts; Henry James and Sexuality; False Positions: The Representational Logics of Henry James’s Fiction. I imagined getting checked at the door and presented with my options: phenomenologists over here, logicians over there, publicists over by the window, supernaturalists at the back of the room. We would soon have run out of corners. But as in Oxford, there didn’t seem to be any civil strife. Academic literary criticism is so harmonious nowadays: during the breaks, the Jamesians would gather in a lunch hall to eat cucumber sandwiches, or drink coffee, and reminisce about previous conferences. Four times a day, the room was a sea of spectacles and name tags.

The conference had been given the title “Placing Henry James.” There was an emphasis on James’s environments—the places he lived, worked and traveled—but also on aspects of the fiction that, according to Ian Watt, are often ignored by the Cambridge-schooled tradition: “the larger meaning, and the literary and historical contexts of that meaning.” Topics were to include “Placing Adolescence in the 1890s, or Acting Your Age in The Awkward Age”; “‘The Want of the Boston Earnestness’: James and the Place of Democratic Liberalism”; and, yes, OK, “James as a Poet.” Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend a great number of the panels; many of the sessions overlapped. To make up for it, I spent the tea breaks grilling Jamesians.

Before things even started, I talked for a few hours with Adrian Poole in the cool hush of the center’s faculty lounge. Poole is about as Cambridge-schooled a figure as can be found—he has spent all but one of the last forty-five years in Trinity College—and a believer in close reading; but he was also careful to remind me that his first book was called Gissing in Context, and he expressed a suspicion of approaches that are too narrowly linguistic. He said that there was a point about twenty years ago when undergraduate work “became quite hard to mark,” recalling in particular an undergraduate thesis by Rachel Weisz (recently starring in The Bourne Legacy) on “late-late James!” that represented “a sort of limit, in the sheer theoreticality of its approach.”

As a critic whose historical interests could not always be comfortably accommodated by his Cambridge instincts, Poole worries that much English writing on James is in danger of seeming, at least to an American, “small-scale and rather literary,” and exhibited something close to envy for the freedom and ambition of recent American writing on James. He singled out Kendall Johnson’s Henry James and the Visual (2007), which situates James’s visual language in debates about American identity, as “a book that an Englishman would be very unlikely to write.” Still, being small-scale and literary is also a privilege, and Poole acknowledged that “it would be much more difficult in America to preserve a mobile and purposively indeterminate position over James, as I and others have been able to do.” Poole was implying that, despite the skepticism of some critics concerning James’s achievements as a writer, James had thrived in England on the basis of claims by other critics for his achievements as a writer. But things could never be so simple in the land he left.

* * *

A recent book by Michael Anesko, one of the speakers at the London conference and an associate professor at Penn State, provides an account of some of the “extraliterary factors and phenomena” that have determined responses to James’s work in America. Monopolizing the Master is an indignant, fast-paced, highly informative study, mainly concerned with the alliance of James’s nephew Harry and his biographer Leon Edel, but picks up the story of James’s posthumous fortunes while he’s still alive. In 1907, James himself made an attempt to cement his posthumous reputation, presiding over the production of the fourteen-volume New York Edition of his novels and tales, for which he edited his canon (no Washington Square, no Sacred Fount), revised what remained, and wrote a series of prefaces to describe the process of composition and, more broadly, to establish a guide to reading Henry James. Scribner published the edition at great expense, offering James as “the first of American novelists,” and hoping that it would put James in the company of other writers, such as Kipling and Dickens, who had been honored by complete editions. Teddy Roosevelt’s America wasn’t buying it.

In the years immediately after James’s death in 1916, the case for the defense was hardly negligible. In 1918, T.S. Eliot wrote that James’s “flavour” was “given its chance, not worked off, by transplantation.” But as Anesko points out, Eliot and another American poet and expatriate, Ezra Pound, who commissioned Eliot’s essay, “felt a defensive need to emphasize the Master’s essential Americanness,” and for Americans of an earlier, less Europhilic generation, the very fact of James’s expatriation remained too emotive a subject. The national question had, Anesko writes, “a profound and lingering influence.” Even James’s friend William Dean Howells, intending to write a commemorative essay on “The American Henry James,” found that his loyalty to the Republic ran deeper than loyalty to his friend, and the essay was never written.

The greatest blow to James’s American reputation came in 1925, when Van Wyck Brooks, the closest figure that America then had to an official literary historian, published The Pilgrimage of Henry James, a whole book devoted to arguing that James had lost his way when he left America. (As it happens, that same year Eliot and Pound, who had absorbed James’s sense of the past and championed his fiction in little magazines, published works that have proven far more decisive than anything Brooks ever wrote: Eliot, with The Hollow Men, and Pound, with A Draft of XVI Cantos.) At every turn, American history conspired against James, with the stock market crash and the Great Depression, for instance, providing an opportunity for him to be dismissed, in Anesko’s words, as “a prisoner of the leisure class he was claimed to champion.”

Anesko knows more than anyone about James’s posthumous struggles, and his book’s early chapters are exemplary in their clarity and rigor. But when he turns to the James revival of the 1940s, he hardly delves any deeper than did David Lodge. There’s chronology aplenty in Anesko’s narrative, but not much causality: the recapitulation of James in modernist terms (as an artist), in terms of the Cambridge-influenced New Criticism (as a poet-novelist), and in terms of the New York critics (as a new, cosmopolitan kind of American) just sort of happened. Anesko jumps from R.P. Blackmur’s edition of James’s prefaces, published in 1934, to F.O. Matthiessen in 1943 with only one sentence—“Slowly, but inexorably, a shift in critical opinion had begun”—to fill the gap.

* * *

Anesko describes the five James books that Matthiessen produced between 1944 and 1947 (editions of letters, stories and novels, plus a monograph titled Henry James: The Major Phase) as “an outpouring of Niagaran proportions,” and credits them with “not merely launching but confirming and accelerating the wholesale revival of interest in James and his work.” But the year before Matthiessen’s first James production, the literary journalist (and Nation contributor) William Troy acknowledged that “to the present generation,” James “means something more than to the generation of Van Wyck Brooks…what he means is something different.” He credited recent historical developments for making possible changes in literary taste. James embodied an optimistic humanism that was newly valuable at a time “when loss of continuity is our gravest threat.” Anesko mentions World War II only in passing, as something that slowed down people’s careers; but it had all kinds of effects that aided the James revival of the mid-1940s and its consolidation over the following decades.

For one, it played a role in softening the Anglophobia of which James had been a collateral victim, and altered the social makeup of American academia. In Oxford, J. Hillis Miller told me that the GI Bill brought “a new kind of student to American universities”—not only older, but with hard-bitten and eye-opening experiences of the world overseas—and that the bill’s impact dovetailed with other developments. Miller took his first job at Johns Hopkins in 1952. “There had always been a prejudice against nineteenth-century literature,” he said. “When I was hired, I was the first person in the department who was a regular, full-time tenure-track member in the Victorian era. Until I came, everything stopped in 1830.”

At the same time, a new generation of critics were capturing American literature for themselves. To Troy, James was not an American or an Englishman but a humanist. To critics such as Lionel Trilling and Philip Rahv, James was an American, but in the way that they were—an outsider, a cosmopolitan (despite his anti-Semitism), maybe an underdog. Rahv wrote that James was “an American writer who experienced his nationality and the social class to which he belonged at once as an ordeal and as an inspiration,” which wasn’t what William Dean Howells or Van Wyck Brooks had meant by an American writer; where Brooks charged James with a “deranged sense of values, of a mind working in a void,” Rahv saw him as alert to “contradictions” and “contraries.”

Rahv not only attributed the “depreciation of James” to “the leading assumptions of our culture” (in Vernon Parrington’s case, “the Populist spirit of the West and its open-air poetics”; in Brooks’s, “the moralism of New England”), but also argued that the traditional, undemotic writers he called “palefaces”—of which James was the prime example—developed a talent for refinement to compensate for “backward cultural conditions,” in much the same way that the Jew developed a talent for cleverness to compensate for “adverse social conditions.” Anesko writes that the James revival “assuredly must be recognized as one of the great watersheds in the history of modern taste.” But he does a perfunctory job of explaining it.

Monopolizing the Master has a predecessor of sorts, Maxwell Geismar’s baffled, angry book Henry James and the Jacobites (1963). Though Geismar lacked Anesko’s empiricist conscience, he was altogether more adventurous in his speculations, refusing to view the James revival as a triumph for justice and reason. He argued that the revivalists were seeing things that weren’t there, and were no less driven by ideological allegiances in their higher estimation of James’s work than Brooks had been. He wrote that American critics had gravitated toward James as a refuge from cold war realities.

Anesko’s book has the subtitle “The Politics of Modern Literary Scholarship,” but he writes about personal politics—manipulation, seduction, subterfuge—and not the political dimensions of James criticism. Nor does he historicize James’s reputation as anything more than a series of book titles and archive deposits. He never hints that the story of modern James scholarship, as well as being the story of control (Harry James and Edel) and freedom (after Edel), is also the story of a writer whose reputation could be attacked as a kind of right-wing conspiracy by Geismar in the 1960s and then completely controlled by the left fifty years later.

Geismar’s negative, left-wing vision of the James revival told the same story as Hilton Kramer’s positive and conservative vision of it, set down thirty years later. As Geismar saw it, James’s work was attractive to the New Critics and the New York Intellectuals because it was “ageless,” “timeless” and “placeless.” Kramer, the late co-founder of The New Criterion, argued that James had found a readership again as the result of an increasing openness, after the days of Trotskyism and the Popular Front, to literature as “an art capable of transcending the two-dimensional issues of the day in order to encompass the permanent lineaments of our fate.” Geismar, looking on with disapproval, was making an implicit argument for naturalist fiction, as Vernon Parrington had done, by pitting James against Theodore Dreiser; Kramer, looking back with astonished gratitude, loved James’s freedom from naturalist impulses. As for James studies in the modern era, it has orbited around a single idea: James was more of a naturalist than any of his detractors, on the left or right, ever conceived.

* * *

During one of the breaks at the London conference, I talked to Jonathan Freedman, a professor at the University of Michigan, who expressed approval of most efforts to co-opt James for a position he didn’t explicitly hold or endorse in his fiction. But what of the conservatives? “I think they misread James,” he said, referring to such critics and essayists as Kramer, Roger Kimball (“the only graduate student I ever knew who had his own wine cellar”) and Joseph Epstein (“a totally marginal figure.”) “Misread” is not a word Freefman otherwise used. Susan Griffin, a professor at the University of Louisville and the editor of The Henry James Review, was similarly dismissive of Kimball and company, but on different grounds. “They want high art,” she said. “Their James is not queer, and he’s not a feminist. He’s an artist—he’s above all those things.”

Griffin and Freedman are among the Jamesians who have devoted much of the last twenty years to showing that James wasn’t above things. Griffin’s first book, The Historical Eye: The Texture of the Visual in Late James (1991), sought to show that James’s emphasis on the “physical eye”—so long a part of the effort to show him, both approvingly and disparagingly, as detached or unworldly (Ford Madox Ford intended praise when he called James “an observer, passionless and pitiless”)—was proof of the opposite. James’s observers, she wrote, were “firmly located in a temporal, spatial environment. And what the Jamesian perceiver sees is not only historically constituted, it is itself historical.” Unable to alter the fact that James was seen as, in Joseph Conrad’s phrase, a “historian of fine consciences,” they have sought to make him an acceptable modern figure by emphasizing the “historian” element.

Freedman’s first book, Professions of Taste: Henry James, British Aestheticism, and Commodity Culture (1990), also sought to portray in different terms an aspect of James—his aestheticism—that had been used against him and could be again. Geismar considered James an aesthete, and someone passively in favor of commodity culture. Freedman pulled a by now classic left-historicist-revisionist-Jamesian move, arguing that aestheticism was more nuanced than commonly thought (is anything less nuanced than commonly thought?), and that one of the nuances was its conscious “opposition to the market economy.”

It wasn’t a case of defending James against his detractors—there weren’t many—but against his champions, who, by praising James in particular terms, had put an expiration date on his eminence. Over sandwiches in London, Michael Wood, an English-born Princeton professor, told me that when it comes to survival, the “nature of a writer’s reputation” is all-important. “If a writer has a reputation for a certain thing, and then we stop liking that thing, they start to go. If a writer has a reputation as the most civilized author ever, or the most arcane, and we don’t like the civilized or the arcane, we turn to someone else.” The effort has amounted to helping James survive by changing the nature of his reputation—to ensure that we keep turning to him, as we keep turning to Shakespeare, whatever we currently like or dislike.

But the attempts to demystify James were just co-optations of a different kind; they amounted to yet another revised version offering itself as the Authorized Version. Revealing the unconscious allegiances of the modernists’ attraction to James (James as artist) and the New Critics’ attraction to him (James as “pure”), they showed a kind of presentist bias—the latest discovery as an improvement on, or reproach to, everything that went before. Just as those earlier critics underplayed James’s worldliness—to the extent that they knew about it—so Freedman, Griffin and others, in making their self-consciously corrective gestures, turned James’s most ahistorical tendencies into his most historical ones, only conceding that James was any kind of aesthete after giving aestheticism a comprehensive overhaul. The early history of James’s reputation more or less ensured that he could only ever be celebrated in extreme backlash terms. (Geismar was right to see the James revival as overcompensatory by nature.) A great deal of energy has been expended to prove that he was absolutely engaged—much more engaged, in fact, than writers who had never suffered the indignity of being accused of disengagement.

You might ask: Why did these scholars care? Surely there were writers who would have made historicism easier? One possible reason is that they came of age at a time when James’s reputation was unquestioned, his cultural capital sky-high, and then sought to defend him during a less accommodating or hospitable age, constructing a self-reflexive James for a time in which a reflective James would have been unpalatable. A dead, white, quasi-European male was able to survive the culture wars by becoming wised up, worldly, homosexual, feminist—Henry James, our contemporary. That the effort succeeded amounted to a hopeful sign for James’s longevity. Much as Don Quixote became a textbook of radical individualism in the years after the French Revolution, or Shakespeare became suddenly more English during the same period (only to become a “symbolist poet,” in Cleanth Brooks’s view, at the end of World War II), so James was able to change with the times. Multivalency is a kind of rust-proof armor.

But James’s multivalency is of a particular kind: he’s a shape-shifting monolith, apparently capable of assuming only one pose at a time. Anesko acknowledges that James was monopolized in various ways down through the years, but he sees monopoly in terms of academic freedom, not ideological domination, and the villain of his book, the arch-monopolist, isn’t a critic who dictated the response to James, but a biographer who seduced the James estate: Leon Edel. Anesko quotes a letter that Edel wrote to the English publisher Rupert Hart-Davis shortly after allowing F.W. Dupee to publish an edition of James’s autobiographies: “In future I will not abdicate as readily, but will take all HJ as my province and tell all comers that I am doing Everything!” Such a sentence would not have surprised James, the author of The Aspern Papers and other tales of crazed and desperate would-be biographers.

In the long run, Edel managed to do Everything, more or less: a five-volume biography, a four-volume letters, a twelve-volume stories. But he was a sloppy scholar, and when Edel’s monopoly was broken in the 1970s, a new generation of more material-minded scholars emerged to prove it. The purpose of Anesko’s first book, “Friction With the Market”: Henry James and the Profession of Authorship (1986), was to delineate just one area of omission by showing that James was not above negotiating with publishers. At the beginning of the first volume of his biography, Edel wrote that he would question the idea that James “was a man who practiced letters from necessities other than those of earning a living”; but he was never able to make the case, at least not with much conviction. He read James’s half of his correspondence with his publishers, but couldn’t be bothered to read the publisher’s half. “He either did not have the time or the patience,” Anesko told me during a faculty-room grilling.

Anesko’s demolition job of Edel is empirically strong, but his extrapolations are odd. A historian by training, he appears to believe that critics would turn to formalism only out of desperation. (“In a way,” he told me, speaking of the formalist criticism of James’s work, “they were condemned to do what they did.”) But the historical turn in James studies, though it made use of the newly available archives, was part of a wider historicist movement in literary studies. The years of Edel’s monopoly were years in which linguistic approaches prevailed. The 1950s were the decade of the New Criticism, the 1960s of structuralism, the 1970s of deconstruction, more than they were decades of Leon Edel’s stranglehold over the riches in the Houghton Library.

Anesko shows that the desire of James and his family to fix his reputation set a pattern that had significant repercussions in Jamesian commentary, and argues that the pattern was broken when Alexander James rescinded the restrictions on archive material. He sees the post-Edel period as a pluralist playground and refuses to confront the extent to which the old monopoly gave rise to a new orthodoxy, of which he is a part. He doesn’t accept that a backlash can have as much power as its catalyst, and that because investments in James and what he represents run so thick, the monopolizing tendencies run deeper than the availability of materials. Anybody can go hunting in the James archives and do whatever they please with their findings, but in the current climate, nobody would go there with a view to showing that, say, James loved the comfort and seclusion of his ivory tower, or thought women are happiest when in the kitchen.

Anesko’s closing lecture on the final evening of the London conference, which drew on his research into Edel and Harry James, prompted a long discussion. Eric Savoy, a professor at the University of Montreal, said that those who work on “queer James” aren’t interested in James’s own sexuality but in the desires expressed in the text. It was indicative of the extent to which a certain kind of revisionist Jamesian recoils from associating James with the Cambridge close reading and New Criticism that got him into trouble in the first place. But Savoy and Anesko would nevertheless agree on a number of central matters—James’s sexuality, for instance, and his politics too. Whatever the local disputes about methodology or approach, there seems to be a calm consensus that while the modernists or the New Critics or the New York Intellectuals might have thought James was one of them, he was actually one of “us.”

* * *

A few days after the London conference, I went to visit Philip Horne in his office at University College London, whose English faculty is housed in a converted mattress warehouse in Bloomsbury, described by James in a letter of 1869 as “an antiquated, ex-fashionable area” and the setting, thirty-five years later, of the central incident in The Golden Bowl. Horne arrived at Cambridge in the mid-1970s having not studied any Henry James, but in his first term he shared a kitchen with a fellow undergraduate who had studied The Golden Bowl for the Oxford Scholarship term. “He thought that the novel contained all the answers to life and that anyone who hadn’t read it couldn’t understand literature. It was pretty intolerable.” The unread masterpiece became a specter at breakfast, lunch, dinner. Over the Christmas vacation, Horne read the novel. “It took three weeks. Seven pages an hour, or five pages an hour. I had never read so slowly.”

What makes Horne the most peaceable and admirable of modern Jamesians is that he doesn’t make James march behind a banner. Horne is a sane and steady voice in James studies, attacking misapprehensions about James at the root of scholarship rather than at the branch of criticism; he has proceeded without an agenda, besides a desire for accuracy. This is partly what Horne’s PhD supervisor, Adrian Poole, meant when he said that English critics have been more “indeterminate” than Americans. Having not started out with a vexed relationship to James’s legacy, they haven’t been stuck with one. But while Horne agrees that James wasn’t the unworldly aesthete and naïf once thought, he doesn’t always agree with the more extreme positions staked to this premise.

In 1986, the year of Anesko’s first book, Horne wrote a long essay on Edel’s edition of James’s letters in which he complained that (to quote his paraphrase) “the transcriptions were crap, the annotations were crap.” The primary ambition of the post-Edel movement was to devise a complete scholarly edition of the letters (10,000 in all), and Horne was one of a number of people who used the James sesquicentennial, in 1993, to present a paper calling for a complete edition. The project eventually got going at Creighton University in Nebraska, under the editorship of Greg Zacharias and Pierre Walker. The edition has so far produced six volumes, of a rumored 140. “I’m very happy for them to be doing it,” Horne said cheerily.

These days, the rumblings of the James industry are louder than those of the Hawthorne industry, the Hemingway industry and even—mirabile dictu!—the Faulkner industry. But only the bulk of the industry’s output, if not its spirit or letter, is registered on ground level. V.S. Naipaul, for example, has remained deaf to the claims of the post-revival Jamesians, dismissing James on the ground that he “never went out in the world…ever risked anything…ever exposed himself to anything…ever thought he should mingle with the crowd.” But to the figure usually identified as “that mythical creature, ‘the Common Reader,’” James has become a solidly major figure, one of a handful of Big Names, as Michael Gorra’s thorough, level-headed new book, Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece, suggests. A scholarly (or fanatical) love letter, it reads like a biography of Portrait of a Lady—its gestation, development, reception—or perhaps a well-researched novel about Henry James that favors the early period, where Lodge and others favored the late.

Gorra’s book is a work of popular literary history published by Liveright, an imprint of the trade publisher W.W. Norton, but James’s future prominence will be decided in university classrooms by professors like Gorra (who teaches at Smith College) and by university presses. Over the next decade, along with all the usual commentary, the publishing arm of the only patron the writer has left will be putting out thirty volumes of James’s fiction, and more than 130 of his letters: not dogmatic productions, but nevertheless the result of the insistence on James as historically situated and historically aware. Henry James owes a debt of gratitude to his early detractors for this late flowering of scholarly effort. After all the revivals and revisions and rear-guard actions, his reputation is as high now as it has ever been—higher, perhaps, though no less rigid.

Ad Policy