Dec/Jan 2008

The Awkward Age

The first two volumes of Henry James's letters capture the artist as a young man.

Peter Brooks


There is an early letter, from the twenty-four-year-old Henry James in Cambridge to his brother William in Paris, where William has been to the theater to see a play by Alexandre Dumas. Henry wishes he could have been there with him; it turns out he has already read the play "& was keenly sensible both of its merits & defects." Then he interjects: "Wendell Holmes is gone salmon-fishing in Maine. The Spring is well started as to verdure; but the air is cold & the skies gray." This is our early picture of Henry James: musing in Cambridge on European arts and letters while his somewhat self-consciously "manly" contemporaries, including Oliver Wendell Holmes—and later on William as well—pursue their New England outdoor activities. Not that Henry was incapable of long hikes in the Alps or even strenuous bouts of weight lifting—in an attempt to strengthen his injured back—but that the siren song of Europe could not be silenced. How should it be listened to? "It's a complex fate, being an American, " James wrote to Charles Eliot Norton in 1872, "& one of the responsibilities it entails is fighting against a superstitious valuation of Europe."

Most of the letters of the younger James—these two volumes bring him up to 1872, age twenty-nine—are in fact from his European tours, which became longer and more extensive: One sees looming on the horizon the decision in 1875 to try living in Paris, an experiment that lasted only a year but was at once followed by settling in London more or less for the rest of his life. It's of course getting away from home that prompts and permits letter writing. And in the case of James, how richly so. We find in the letters occasional mentions that his parents or older brother have read passages aloud to Cambridge friends and local luminaries (including Ralph Waldo Emerson, who apparently liked some of Henry's European reflections so well he wanted to keep the letter, but wasn't allowed to do so). Henry early on comes to the awareness that a letter is a performance—sometimes public, though in other cases (particularly where the detailed record of his bowels is concerned) with adjurations to privacy. That game of hide-and-seek, too, is very Jamesian. Late in life, he famously made a "gigantic bonfire" of letters sent to him, and wrote to his habitual correspondents with the admonition "burn, burn, burn!" Of course, they mostly didn't.

Henry James, ca. 1863–64.

But the general public has been deprived of James's full epistolary record until now. Henry's heirs—William's wife and son, Harry—authorized a two-volume selection prepared by Henry's disciple Percy Lubbock in 1920, after rejecting the suggestion that the task be assigned to Edith Wharton. (She, according to Mrs. William, was a shockingly immoral woman.) The Lubbock letters were carefully airbrushed, to present the Master in his literary relations and public pronouncements. Especially, his letters to young male friends—Hendrik Andersen, Hugh Walpole, Jocelyn Persse—were truncated or excluded, since their patent homoeroticism made the family uncomfortable. James's biographer Leon Edel then did a four-volume selection, published 1974–84 by Belknap/Harvard University Press—a selection on which scholars have long depended but that is editorially somewhat unhelpful and far less inclusive than one might have been led to believe: It includes only about a tenth of James's 10,423 extant letters. One can't help feeling that if James had been a French novelist—instead of merely resembling one—his correspondence would have long since been published in toto in the serene leather-bound tomes of the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. All the more reason to celebrate the present volumes, handsomely produced and extensively and intelligently annotated, which inaugurate a complete edition in some 140 volumes, and to feel gratitude toward the editors and the University of Nebraska Press.

James's father, Henry Sr., famously wanted his sons to avoid premature specialization, and Henry Jr. was in fact slow, by our lights, to commit himself to his métier. In the years recorded in these volumes, he begins to write short fiction and to publish it in the Atlantic Monthly, the North American Review, and The Galaxy—along with The Nation, his intellectual constellation, in a Boston-to–New York axis where the "intellectuals" (to use an anachronism) all knew one another. Then, in 1871, came the first "novel"—though it is barely thatthe serialized Watch and Ward. Yet the writerly vocation seems clearly stamped on these letters and on the early avoidance of any other profession. Both William and Henry had avoided the Civil War, for which the younger brothers, Wilkie and Robertson, volunteered, as did Wendell Holmes. William, though long fighting ill health and depression, settled down to study biology and then medicine at Harvard, with studies in Germany as well, accompanied the naturalist Louis Agassiz on a trip to Amazonia, and married in 1878. Henry spent one semester at Harvard Law School, then shunned further formal study, despite William's admonitions, preferring to wander in Europe. The letters home, as he explicitly understood, were to serve as raw material for future work.

Alice James before her illness.

The long tour in England, France, Switzerland, and Italy that stretched from February 1869 through April 1870 was undertaken ostensibly for reasons of health. As he wrote to his father early in the tour, justifying his expenditures, "I have now an impression amounting almost to a conviction that if I were to travel steadily for a year I would be a good part of a well man." He had notoriously suffered a back injury while helping to fight a fire in 1861, the "obscure hurt" (the adjective still puzzles: obscure to the doctors? to be obscured from others?) that continued to bother him (as back injuries have a way of doing), and added to that a chronic problem of constipation that led him to seek a cure first of all at Dr. Rayner's therapeutic establishment in Malvern, England. That meant some weeks of cold baths, long walks, and mutton chops. But Dr. Rayner's ministrations seem to have had only temporary effects. Although James is impressively active in Switzerland, hiking thirty miles a day over Alpine passes, by the time he reaches Florence his "unhappy bowels" merit letters of anguish to William and his father: "When I reflect upon the utterly insignificant relation of what I get rid of to what I imbibe, I wonder that flesh & blood can stand it." William, sympathetic correspondent and fledgling medical doctor, refers to it as Henry's "moving intestinal drama." Pills prescribed by an Irish doctor in Florence (compounded of aloe and sulfuric acid) bring some relief.

Wolcott Balestier, ca. 1890.

The European tour was supported by a paternal letter of credit, and Henry's reports on his expenditures from it brought allegations of extravagance from his father and especially his mother (she would continue to act as his auditor for some years to come). Money and feces indeed converge—in classic psychoanalytic fashion—in a somewhat pathetic letter James writes his mother from London in February 1870, on his way back to Dr. Rayner's in Malvern after travel on the continent, justifying his expenses, including lodgings at the best hotels because of his need for creature comforts. He promises his improved body and mind will repay her in full. He pleads for permission to return to Venice in the fall: "Oh blissful vision to spend another week at Venice—a well man instead of the poor disease-haunted being that I was last autumn!" He offers to come home on the next steamer if she says so: "This is not bravado but truth. Otherwise name the sum you can allow me & I'll try & get the utmost out of it." To his sister, Alice, he reflects on the terms of their parents' generosity: "I feel at times as if it made life almost too grave a thing to bear, to have it enriched & embroidered by such liberal providential hands."

That is perhaps the true note of the James family: The money is there, but you have to prove you are getting the most from it. The need for productivity applies to tourism as to everything else. Sightseeing is serious business. In James's early novel The American (written 1875–76), Christopher Newman on tour in Europe meets Benjamin Babcock, Unitarian minister from Dorchester, Massachusetts, who is of weak digestion and travels with a large bag of hominy, insisting that the French and Italian hotels where he alights cook it up for him. Babcock finds Newman too relaxed. "Art and Life seem to me intensely serious things," he tells Newman, "and in our travels in Europe we should especially remember the rightful, indeed solemn, message of Art." He feels he needs to retrace his steps over the ground covered along with Newman; they went too fast, "I'm afraid I have made a great many mistakes." In particular, he must return to Milan because he hasn't done justice to the painter Luini. Babcock is often taken to be a send-up of brother William, who was never comfortable in Europe and shared poor Mr. Babcock's self-imposed dietary restrictions. But reading Henry's letters, we realize that there is much in the portrait of Babcock that is self-parody.

"This sort of work is a thousand times more exhausting than Swiss mountains," he tells his mother after a report on the Roman arena and the Tombs of the Scaligers in Verona. "I feel poignantly that I have quite failed of justice to that delightful admirable Florence," he writes to Alice. It's not entirely clear whether it was the visiting of museums and monuments that was never quite up to snuff, or the rendering of his impressions in prose. The two merge, as he sets off to do better by Rome: "I feel it is in my power to 'do' any place, quietly, as thoroughly as it can be done." This Babcockian approach to European culture was surely endemic among the American upper middle class with cultural aspirations. At the same time James is wandering in Europe, editor, cultural commentator, and future Harvard professor Charles Eliot Norton is systematically moving from city to city with his whole family, in order to come to terms with art and culture. His wife, Susan Sedgwick Norton, indeed dies in Dresden, giving birth to their sixth child.

There is, then, something a bit dutiful in James's reports back to his handlers in Cambridge. But the travelogue is often of superb quality, and his first book, Transatlantic Sketches, published by James R. Osgood in 1875, sold out its first edition of one thousand copies almost immediately. For an age in which the verbal description of places and art works still mattered, James was a masterful talent from early on. And through his somewhat fussy though often extravagantly funny persona, one senses the joy of travel at its best. Nowhere is this more evident than in his account of his descent from the Swiss Alps through the Simplon Pass into Italy, "the sense of going down into Italy—the delight of seeing the north slowly melt into the south—of seeing Italy gradually crop up in bits & vaguely latently betray itself—until finally, at the little frontier Village of Isella where I spent the night, it lay before me warm & living & palpable. . . . Down, down—on, on into Italy we went—a rapturous progress thro' a wild luxuriance of corn & vines & olives & figs & mulberries & chestnuts & frescoed villages & clamorous beggars & all the good old Italianisms of tradition. At Baveno is a vast, cool, dim delicious hotel, with a great orange-haunted terrace on the lake." The tone almost evokes the famous opening of The Charterhouse of Parma, the joyous descent of Napoleon's army from the Alps into Lombardy in 1796. We're not surprised to learn a dozen letters later that he's been reading Stendhal's novel.

His discovery of Tintoretto in Venice, of Michelangelo's Medici Tombs in Florence and of his Moses in Rome, all give paragraphs and pages of brilliant appreciation. The conscientiousness with which James goes about the task of coming to terms with the great art of the past smacks of the need to justify his expenses to his family and to himself, but it also lays the foundation for a true aesthetic self-education, one that will continue to inform his future work as a writer. Back in Cambridge in 1871, he writes to Norton, who has been waxing melancholy on the decline of Venice, that it does seem that "what civilization had grasped with one hand she had let drop with the other. But oh, for some such high view of facts as would suggest that tho' eclipsed this sense, this need, were not lost; that they are masquerading awhile in strange garments, but that some day we shall see them stand forth with unforgotten faces." James would never entirely lose faith with a certain romance of the past and with a deep belief that he must strive toward the aesthetic education of mankind, to use Schiller's phrase. Beauty is work—but that's what makes her a real though occult force in the world.

James was back in the baths at Malvern in March 1870, when he received news of the death, from tuberculosis, of his beloved twenty-four-year-old cousin Minny Temple. In letters to his mother and to William, he searches for words answerable to this event, which later, in his autobiography, he will choose to see as the end of his youth. Some of it cloys: "There is absolute balm in the thought of poor Minny & rest—rest & immortal absence!" Yet he cuts through his own evasions: "Twenty years hence what a pure eloquent vision she will be.—But I revert in spite of myself to the hard truth that she is dead—silent—absent forever—she the very heroine of our common scene." The letter will be refashioned more than thirty years later in The Wings of the Dove, when Milly Theale, "heiress of all the ages," discovers her imminent mortality mirrored in a portrait of a lady by Bronzino, viewed in a grand English country house: "The lady in question, at all events, with her slightly Michael-angelesque squareness, her eyes of other days, her full lips, her long neck, her recorded jewels, her brocaded and wasted reds, was a very great personage—only unaccompanied by a joy. And she was dead, dead, dead."

The Henry James of these letters is a lonely figure, traveling unaccompanied, often without anyone to speak with for days on end. Letters sent and received matter to him. And the self-communion of writing as well. Later in life, we find him capable of getting on with the task wherever he is, living in hotels, visiting in villas and country houses, as well as at home in London and Rye. Like the Balzac he admired so much, James was prolific and professional, determined to pay off that overspent paternal letter of credit through his writing. The rest, as one of his fictional novelist figures would put it, was the madness of art.

Peter Brooks is the author of Henry James Goes to Paris (Princeton University Press, 2007).

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