There is an art to praising without laying it on too thick. To compliment fulsomely risks embarrassing the recipient of your adulation and stirring suspicion of your motives. We all come equipped with malnourished egos, and ill-calibrated compliments simultaneously elate and disappoint: “Finally, someone recognizes my genius,” we think. “Why didn’t he tell me last week?” Has anyone ever received a compliment, sincerely thanked the giver and let it go at that?
Henry James may be the literary world’s foremost giver and receiver of compliments. Even when he dabbles with unctuousness, it sounds gracious and eloquent and must have been delightful to receive. On this date, September 28, in 1884, James writes a letter to Edgar Fawcett (1847-1904), a prolific American novelist and poet forgotten long ago. That year Fawcett published four novels and a volume of poems, Song and Story, which he had sent to James. Earlier in 1884, in Princeton Review, Fawcett published one of the first general essays devoted to James’ body of work, which already included The American, “Daisy Miller,” Washington Square and The Portrait of a Lady. James replies to Fawcett with an indelibly Jamesian aw-shucks:
“You treat me far too well, & your praise is, like all your writing, very rich. I feel, on laying down your article, as if I had swallowed a jug-full of lucent syrup tinct with cinnamon.”
Does that final phrase sound familiar? Tincted means “to colour; to dye; to tinge, tint” (OED), and by now is an obsolete cousin to tincture, which itself is almost obsolete. James is nicely quoting the thirtieth stanza of Keats’ “The Eve of St. Agnes”: “. . . a heap / Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd; / With jellies soother than the creamy curd, / And lucent syrops [sic], tinct with cinnamon.” Chug-a-lugging “a jug-full of lucent syrup tinct with cinnamon” sounds ghastly but I suspect Fawcett got the Keats allusion and appreciated the elaborate thank-you. We know how James feels. In his next sentence he writes:
“But strange to say, the liquid sweetness agrees with me, & I can only thank the friendly dispenser.”