Monday, July 16, 2012

`The Force and Beauty of Its Process'

On Sept. 2, 1914, one month into the Great War, Henry James writes to his friend Helena De Kay Gilder:

“It leaves one small freedom of mind for general talk, it presses, all the while, with every throb of consciousness; and if during the first days I felt in the air the recall of our Civil War shocks and anxieties, and hurrying and doings, of 1861, etc., the pressure in question has already become a much nearer and bigger thing, and a more formidable and tragic one, than anything we in the North in those years had to face.”
Seventy-one years old and living in England, James volunteered to aid Belgian refugees and gave a group of them a place to stay in Lamb House. Later that month, shortly after the first battle of the Marne, James settled in London. His Notes on Novelists was published Oct. 13, the second day of the first battle of Ypres, and James wrote his agent, James Brand Pinker: "I am unable really to care for anything but what happens to, and above all by, our Armies.” When war was declared in August, James had abruptly stopped dictating The Ivory Tower. He switched to The Middle Years, the third volume of his autobiography, but never finished it. He resumed work on The Sense of the Past  and on Nov. 9 wrote to Edith Wharton, who was in Paris organizing the American Hostels for Refugees, that the age was “too awful a subject. It all makes Walter Scott, him only, readable again."
James told his nephew Harry he was “utterly and passionately enlisted, up to me eyes and over my aged head, in the greatness of our cause.” He increased his war relief efforts, becoming honorary president of the American Volunteer Motor Ambulance Corps, and wrote to Wharton of “the unspeakable adventure of being alive in these days.”  On June 24, 1915, he wrote again to Harry:
“I have spent here [in England] all the best years of my life—they practically have been my life: about a twelvemonth hence I shall have been domiciled uninterruptedly in England for forty years, and there is not the least possibility, at my age, and in my state of health, of my ever returning to the U.S. or taking up any relation with it as a country.”
Ninety-seven years ago today, on July 16, 1915, James applied for British citizenship. Two days earlier, Macmillan had published The Book of France in Aid of the French Parliamentary Committee’s Fund for the Relief of the Invaded Departments, including an essay, “France,” by James, and his translation of “Les Saints de la France” by Maurice Barrès. On July 26, this most American of American writers took the oath of allegiance and became a British citizen. That same day, he learned the Germans had torpedoed another American ship, and he expressed hope the U.S. would soon enter the war on the side of the Allies. The U.S. declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, more than thirteen months after James’ death. On July 10, 1915, as James was preparing to change citizenship, he wrote in a letter to H.G. Wells who had been deriding the American and his art, in public and privately:
“It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance, for our consideration and application of these things, and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.”
[All quotes are taken from Henry James: A Life in Letters, ed. Philip Horne, 1999.]

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