Why is Henry James the subject of two recent novels?
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Two meteor movies is one thing. But two novels in the space of six months featuring middle-period Henry James? In June, the Irish novelist Colm Tóibín published, to warm reviews, The Master, a sensitively drawn portrait of James recovering from his humiliating failure as a playwright. Now comes Author, Author, by the English novelist David Lodge, about James' humiliating failure as a playwright, and his subsequent recovery. (These in turn arrive on the heels of Emma Tenant's Felony, a novel about James' near-romance with Constance Fenimore Woolson, and Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty, a Booker-nominated British novel in which James plays an important off-the-stage role.) Lodge apparently felt he had to account for the coincidence of his book with Tóibín's. He tells us in his afterword that he first had the idea for Author, Author in 1995, and only discovered that Tóibín had written The Master after he had delivered his own manuscript to the publisher. But Lodge hardly needs an alibi: We're not dealing with theft here, but (pardon the crummy word) zeitgeist. The question then is: Why James, and why now?
Of course, James has long loomed large in the imagination of 20th-century writers. When Pound first heard James had died, he scribbled the lines, "Not again, those old men with beautiful manners." Auden in his poem "At the Grave of Henry James" writes, "O poet of the difficult, dear addicted artist,/ Assent to my soil and flower." Ponderous, sacral, repelled by a culture devoted to noise and publicity, James has served in some sense as a model for every self-consciously literary writer since. For the unserious writer, of course, James has been a godsend. Max Beerbohm lampooned him in "The Mote in the Middle Distance," and James Thurber took a turn with "The Beast in the Dingle." But the cruelest appraisal still belongs to H.G. Wells, who early in his writing life had been an acolyte to the older James. A novel by James, Wells wrote, is
like a church lit but without a congregation to distract you, with every light and line focused on the high altar. And on the altar, very reverentially placed, intensely there, is a dead kitten, an egg-shell, a bit of string. … It is leviathan retrieving pebbles. It is a magnificent but painful hippopotamus resolved at any cost, even at the cost of its dignity, upon picking up a pea, which has got to the corner of its den.
Perhaps here I should pause and reassure my fellow Jamesians. At the altar of the Master—or "cher maitre," as James, in later years, preferred to be addressed—I find the deep, beautiful equivocations of modern consciousness, along with the occasional bits of string and eggshell. James was good at what most geniuses, from Wordsworth to Bob Dylan, have been good at: being distinctively, royally, ridiculously himself. But his scope was often narrow, he was prone to recycled plots and silly dialogue and pompous circumlocution, and he loved nothing more than to conjure around the art of fiction a pseudo-religious fog. "We work in the dark," says Dencombe, a dying character in The Middle Years, "we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art."
And so it is not such a surprise that both Lodge and Tóibín zeroed in on the several years James devoted to conquering the London stage. You can no more write a novel about the totemic Master, as James has come down to us, than you can about a hippo. But during this disastrous interlude, which culminated in James being jeered off the stage, he was genuinely unsure which he would end up being. He was deep into middle age, and though he had earned some modest popularity, particularly with his early novella Daisy Miller, he had failed to sustain it. (I hadn't realized until reading Lodge's book that The Portrait of a Lady, by some lights James' masterpiece, had sold only a few thousand copies.) James also needed money—as he put it, in a glorious Jamesian pleonasm, "simplifying and chastening necessity has laid its brutal hand on me." His entire existence was a flight from vulgarity, but regarding the theater, and the prospect of a glamorous success, he sounded a note of innocence and yearning that is positively American. "I have written a big (and awfully good) four act play, by which I hope to make my fortune," he wrote to a friend in 1890.
By 1895, that optimism had been blotted out. That year James writes to William Dean Howells, "I have fallen upon evil days—every sign or symbol of one's being in the least wanted, anywhere or by anyone, having so utterly failed." To the story of James' miserable failure as a playwright, which he retells with dogged if not unappealing competence, Lodge adds his friendship with George Du Maurier. Du Maurier was a Punch illustrator with whom James had struck up a relationship of fraternal condescension. At some point in the 1880s, Du Maurier gave James an idea for a story, which James toyed with, but then batted aside. Years later, Du Maurier wrote up the story as a novel, Trilby. Published in 1894, Trilby went on to be The Da Vinci Code of its day: a middlebrow blockbuster of unprecedented success.
James, now despairing of any comparable breakthrough, obtained a 21-year lease on Lamb House, the Georgian manor he lived in for the remainder of his life; finished the "little book" he had been working on for Colliers, called "The Turn of the Screw"; and composed his three late masterpieces, The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl. In short, this despairing man, shorn of commercial ambition, took the Victorian novel, added to it psychological depth and an attention to language formerly reserved for poetry, and handed it to the 20th century. We're accustomed to seeing this as unalloyed heroism, and it is Lodge's achievement to remind us that this transition was, for James, brutal, and that he knew the old possibility, of popular and aesthetic triumph on the model of Thackeray, Eliot, and Dickens, was being relinquished, maybe for good.
It is here we can begin to see why this confounded, all-too-human Henry James is now having his vogue. James, in his person and his work, helped create the modern attitude of high-toned disdain for commerce from which literature derives much of its power in a mass culture. (This disdain he turned on himself, when he denigrated "The Turn of the Screw," his most popular story, as a piece of hack work.) What James' highly self-conscious career has come to represent is the fate of literature itself, which is thought to be, in a world of jazz and nickelodeons, uniquely endangered. To men such as Wells, Beerbohm, and Thurber—men not particularly threatened by the thrust of modern life—James' sense of his own pre-eminence seemed ridiculous and was taken almost as an affront. Starting in the '40s, though, his reputation began to consolidate, and the great age of James parody came to an end. This coincides with literary criticism's virtually wholesale move into the academy and the demotion of men such as Wells, Beerbohm, and Thurber as literary authorities, in favor of the professional, and increasingly credentialed, literary critic.
For that critic, James' most basic assumption—that life is in essence consciousness and interpretation, and not action and the fight for commercial advantage—is quite flattering. And for each successive generation of academic literary critics, each of James' odd proclivities has proven enormously useful. His unreligious religiosity met the need for a secular scripture to place at the center of a liberal education; his layers of ambiguity were perfect for the New Critics, for whom irony and paradox were premium virtues; his attention to a pampered milieu, and his inattention to nearly everyone else, makes him ripe pickings for Marxists; and the Byzantine repression of his libido has offered him up to Queer Theory and Gender Studies.
But the fleeting mini-epoch of academic literary criticism has now drawn to a close, to be replaced by—what? Semi-amateurs? Semi-professionals? No wonder an English professor (Lodge, who has written several highly regarded academic satires) and a literary novelist (Tóibín) have converged on the James who doubted his own greatness and thought he might want to sell out. Unlike the lampooners, the venerators, or the arch theory debunkers, a new generation of devoted readers does not yet know yet how to carry James forward. And so we have this indefinite James: incomplete, vulnerable, and only midway to posterity. Haunted, equivocal, we readers have found our way into his allegory. How utterly Jamesian.
Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.
Photographs of: Henry James courtesy Bettmann/Corbis; David Lodge by Sophie Bassouls/Sygma, Corbis; Colm Tóibínby Colin McPherson/Corbis.