Saturday, June 23, 2018

'But You Do It, That's the Queerness!'

The letters William and Henry James exchanged late in life make for fraternal and writerly drama worthy of Henry’s late fiction. In April 1903, Henry suggests he might make his first visit to America after an absence of twenty years. William tries gently to discourage his brother, fearing he would be shocked by the decline in American manners and speech, but he underestimates Henry’s appetite for new experience. On May 24, Henry replies:

“Simply and supinely to shrink—on mere grounds of general fear and encouraged shockability—has to me all the air of giving up, chucking away without a struggle, the one chance that remains to me in life of anything that can be called a movement: my one little ewe-lamb of possible exotic experience, such experience as may convert itself, through the senses, through observation, imagination and reflection now at their maturity, into vivid and solid material, into a general renovation of one’s too monotonised grab-bag.”

Henry wishes to reclaim his native land, which had become at once familiar and thoroughly alien. There’s something stirring about such enthusiasm and defiance in a sixty-year-old novelist. He spent nearly a year in the U.S., from August 1904 to July 1905, and in 1907 published the fruit of that visit, one of his finest books, The American Scene. In its preface, he distinguishes his effort from mere journalism or op-ed sociology:

“There are features of the human scene, there are properties of the social air, that the newspapers, reports, surveys and blue-books would seem to confess themselves powerless to ‘handle,’ and that yet represented to me a greater array of items, a heavier expression of character, than my own pair of scales would ever weigh, keep them as clear for it as I might.”

The American Scene remains the single best book devoted to one man’s understanding of the nation. Auden called it a “prose poem” and “no more a guidebook than the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ is an ornithological essay.” It is not “travel writing,” a demeaning label.  Was William pleased? On May 4, 1907 he writes to Henry and says the book is “in its peculiar way . . . supremely great,” then adds:

“'You know how opposed your whole ‘third manner’ of execution is to the literary ideals which animate my crude and Orson-like breast, mine being to say a thing in one sentence as straight and explicit as it can be made, and then to drop it forever; yours being to avoid naming it straight, but by dint of breathing and sighing all round and round it to arouse in the reader who may have had a similar perception already (Heaven help him if he hasn’t!) the illusion of a solid object mad (like the ‘ghost’ at the Polytechnic) wholly out of impalpable materials, air, and the prismatic interferences of light, ingeniously focused, by mirrors upon empty space. But you do it, that’s the queerness!”

William adds, even more condescendingly: “In this crowded and hurried reading age, pages that require such close attention remain unread and neglected.”  William is no philistine. His own prose is masterful, but here he sounds like one of our contemporary apologists for illiteracy.

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