Monday, November 11, 2019

'All the While Moving to This Grand Niagara'

On Aug. 2, 1914, Germany occupied Luxembourg and the next day declared war on France. Britain declared war on Germany on Aug. 4. Six days later, as patriotic fervor swelled in England, Henry James, 71, wrote in a letter to his friend Rhoda Broughton:

“Black and hideous to me is the tragedy that gathers, and I’m sick beyond cure to have lived on to see it. You and I, the ornaments of our generation, should have been spared this wreck of our belief that through the long years we had seen civilization grow and the worst become impossible. The tide that bore us along was then all the while moving to this grand Niagara— yet what a blessing we didn’t know it. It seems to me to undo everything, everything that was ours, in the most horrible retroactive way.”

Philip Horne in Henry James: A Life in Letters (1999) supplies a useful account of James’ reactions to the Great War over the subsequent eighteen months. At stake for James was civilization itself. In another letter of Aug. 4, to Edward Emerson, James says he dwells “under the blackness of the most appallingly huge & sudden state of general war. It has all come as by the leap of some awful monster out of his lair – he is upon us, he is upon all of us here, before we have had time to turn round.” James was unable to continue dictation of the novel he had underway, The Ivory Tower, which remained incomplete and was published posthumously. In a Sept 2 letter to Helena De Kay Gilder, James relates the Great War to the war that raged in his youth:

“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 doing, 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 of the North in those years had to face.”

On Oct. 6, James received six copies of Notes on Novelists from his agent and replied: “I am unable really to care for anything but what happens to, and above all, our Armies.” Edith Wharton was in Paris, organizing the American Hostels for Refugees. On Nov. 9 he wrote to her: “It’s impossible to ‘locate anything in our time.’ Our time has been this time for the last 50 years, & if it was ignorantly & fatuously so the only light in which to show it is now the light of that tragic delusion. And that’s too awful a subject. It all makes Walter Scott, him only, readable again.” Beginning Nov. 20, James paid regular visits to wounded soldiers – first Belgian, later British – in St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. Early in 1915, James became honorary president of the American Volunteer Motor Ambulance Corps. On July 26 of that year, James became a British citizen. To Edmond Gosse he wrote: Civis Britannicus sum!
James died on Feb. 28, 1916. A year after the start of the war he had written to Wharton of the “unspeakable adventure of being alive in these days.” His native land wouldn’t enter the war until April 6, 1917. One tries to imagine James as a war novelist.

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