Sunday, August 25, 2019

'I Try to Spend Only the Interest on My Capital'

The National Review has invited thirty writers to celebrate “What We Love About America,” the cover story in its Sept. 9 issue. Baseball is a popular choice. So is Louis Armstrong. Joseph Epstein extols “Readers Who Have Surprised Me.” The tough part is choosing from such an embarrassment of American riches, our bountiful gifts to ourselves and the world. Here’s a further sample:

John Podhoretz, “Irving Berlin”:
“[Tin Pan Alley] is where this country’s greatest contribution (in my opinion) to world culture originated — the half century of ditties, almost all three to five minutes in length, that constitute what has come to be known as ‘the American Songbook.”

Terry Teachout, “Western Movies”:
“A country without such larger-than-life legends is a land without a soul. It says something sad about America that Hollywood doesn’t make many westerns nowadays. It says something hopeful that so many of us still love the ones we already have.”

Alexandra DeSanctis, “On Visiting Civil War Battlefields”:
“It is grim, perhaps, to tread the steps where both armies marched, to revisit a time when our nation was at war with itself. It is grimmer still to cherish these places where Americans killed one another, to preserve them with care, to mark them with stones and placards and statues for the men we lost. But it is good for us to remember what they did, and why they did it.”

If asked to select what I love about America, I would propose our supreme contribution to world literature, Henry James, an American who became a British citizen in 1915, in solidarity with Britain’s war effort, and died the following year. In 1907, James published The American Scene, an account of his return to the United States in 1904-05 after twenty years of living in Europe. Auden called it “a prose poem of the first order.” As you would expect, James’ report is complicated, not a simple whitewash or screed. In Chap II, “New York Revisited,” James writes of the nation’s relentless reinvention, the disposability of the human landscape:

“Where, in fact, is the point of inserting a mural tablet, at any legible height, in a building certain to be destroyed to make room for a sky-scraper? And from where, on the other hand, in a facade of fifty floors, does one `see’ the pious plate recording the honour attached to one of the apartments look down on a responsive people? We have but to ask the question to recognize our necessary failure to answer it as a supremely characteristic local note--a note in the light of which the great city is projected into its future as, practically, a huge, continuous fifty-floored conspiracy against the very idea of the ancient graces, those that strike us as having flourished just in proportion as the parts of life and the signs of character have not been lumped together, not been indistinguishably sunk in the common fund of mere economic convenience. So interesting, as object-lessons, may the developments of the American gregarious ideal become; so traceable, at every turn, to the restless analyst [that is, James himself] at least, are the heavy footprints, in the finer texture of life, of a great commercial democracy seeking to abound supremely in its own sense and having none to gainsay it.”

James flatters us with his convoluted later style, a style as complex and extravagant as the country he describes. Imagine such a book as written by Hemingway or Raymond Carver. Impossible. Here is Irving Howe in “Henry James and the American Scene” (Decline of the New, 1970):

“For all its baroque complications, it must be taken as a spoken style and, in a special way, a style of oratory. Not the oratory of the public speaker, which is utterly alien to James; but the oratory of a formidable and acknowledged literary man addressing a group of friends in a drawing room, speaking with rounded intricacy so as to give pleasure—for his are the kinds of friends that can take pleasure—in syntax as performance.”

James possesses the true American prodigality. He is industrious. Just as skyscrapers replace nineteenth-century apartment blocks, so James late in life revises his vast body of work for the New York Edition (a misbegotten effort). In a letter to his brother William on Oct. 29, 1888, James, at age forty-five, writes:

“One can read when one is middle-aged or old; but one can mingle in the world with fresh perceptions only when one is young. The great thing is to be saturated with something — that is, in one way or another, with life; and I chose the form of my saturation. Moreover you exaggerate the degree to which my writing takes it out of my mind, for I try to spend only the interest of my capital.”

1 comment:

rgfrim said...

While I, too, worship Henry James, I cannot banish from my mind the depiction of his prose attributed, perhaps apocryphally, to William James, viz. “ An elephant negotiating to pick up a pea.”