In 1911, a Boston publisher called Gorham Press brought out a small scarlet-bound book with gilt-edged pages. The title was written in gold lettering on the cover: “The Henry James Year Book.” Inside were quotations from James’s novels, stories, and essays, one for every day of the year, “selected and arranged” by Evelyn Garnaut Smalley. Smalley had arranged for the work’s publication, too: Gorham was a vanity press avant la lettre. She was a family friend of James’s, as well as a devotee of his work. Her father, a prominent American journalist living in London, had introduced the newly expatriated James to English society some four decades earlier, when Smalley was a child.
The “Year Book” was not a commercial success, and though two other presses have reissued the work since–one, in England, in 1912, and another, in Pennsylvania, in 1970–it has largely escaped the notice of even the most enthusiastic James readers and scholars. (It isn’t, for instance, mentioned in Leon Edel’s five-volume biography of James–and neither is Smalley, though her father makes several appearances.) But earlier this year, the centenary of James’s death, the University of Chicago Press brought out a new edition of the “Year Book,” with a foreword from Michael Gorra, a professor of English at Smith College and the author of “Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece.” The work also has a new title: “The Daily Henry James: A Year of Quotes from the Work of the Master.”
A certain reputation precedes Henry James, I think — and it’s not a very good one. Another preconception I had about him was that he was rather passé, in both style and content. He already seemed outdated in his own time (at the turn of the century, who else was writing novels about adultery among the rich and beautiful in such wordy prose?), so how could he possibly be relevant today?
I was wrong, of course. Although James was never read by the masses, he still generates a fair deal of critical attention and admiration.
It is clear that James is not passé, and never was. He is, in fact, perhaps more relevant than ever; but his works lie in a strange place outside of time, and they were written that way. James was and remains a demanding author because he found something intensely true about the complexity of human nature and felt compelled to communicate this truth in the stories that took hold of his imagination. He was a careful writer, true to his art and craft, and a meticulous revisionist. His works are deep, long, airless dives into the complexities and multiplicities of the self. It’s not an easy subject to write about. His stories, lacking in plot, are simple accounts: mere turning points in the lives of characters or revelations of social organizations. Yet in their self-consciousness and ambiguities, and even in the circumlocutions of James’ language — which in truth is closer to the fragmented consciousness of modernism than to Victorian verbosity — they reveal something irresistibly true about life.
Henry James will probably never be passé.
“One other, I think significant, aspect of the translation that the biography illuminates is the intertwining, in Moncrieff’s imagination, between the materials of Proust and the related–slightly different, but related–rhythms of Henry James. James’s direct influence on Proust is debated; certainly James disliked what he read of the French writer. But in Moncrieff’s mind Proust and James always seem to come up together, to get twinned–and not James’s novels so much as his occasional writing and non-fiction. Opening James’s letters, Moncrieff remarks that it is ‘a book that fills the emptiest winter room with the warm breath of intimate communicative people.'”
The first translation I read of Proust’s great novel was that of Scott Moncrieff, corrected by Terrance Kilmartin. After that, I read the book in French several times. When I went back and browsed through the English translation, I saw so many areas where it was simply wrong. However, the translation, as it stood, worked fairly well.
I’ve always felt that best example of Proust’s style in English is that of Henry James’ late novels. As I’ve written about Proust, his style is very close to that of spoken French. Interestingly, James’ late style is also that of spoken language; Henry James took up dictation in 1897, and has major novels – The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl – were written in voice. The style of these three novels is quite similar to that of Proust.
Henry James died 100 years ago today. Arguably the greatest American novelist, and one of the finest writers of his time, James died in England, after having adopted British citizenship. Long an expatriate, James hadn’t returned to his native United States in many years, but in the later years of his life, he returned to his memories, writing a series of autobiographical works, such as A Small Boy and Others, Notes of a Son and Brother, and The Middle Years (unfinished). The Library of America has recently published these essential works in a volume entitled Henry James: Autobiographies. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)
I made a pilgrimage to James’ final residence, Lamb House, in Rye, a couple of years ago. It’s not much of a memorial, even less of a museum, but James’ memory lives on there. Ducked away on a corner of a narrow street, this unassuming house hides an attractive garden, which Henry enjoyed a great deal.
After traveling a great deal – especially during his youth; he was never stable for more than a few years at a time – and living in a succession of major cities, Henry settled in the sleepy town of Rye to live out his final years, and to write his greatest novels.
If you’ve never read Henry James, you should certainly delve into his fiction. There is a great deal of it, and it’s hard to know where to start. This bibliography lists a number of different volumes of his works, and perhaps those new to James should begin with his “tales,” or stories (some short, some novella-length). This inexpensive Library of America paperback (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) or this Penguin Classics collection (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) are both good collections for those new to James’ works.
I’ve long been obsessed by Henry James. I’ve read all of his fiction, and much of his non-fiction as well, in the Library of America editions (Amazon.com, Amazon UK). I’ve read a half-dozen biographies of James, and the James family, and many of books about James’ work.
So Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel interested me right off the bat, even though I waited for the book to come out in paperback. Gorra set out to tell the story of The Portrait of a Lady, one of James’ finest novels, weaving a narrative talking about the novel, about Henry James’ life, especially when writing The Portrait, and about the times in which it was written and set.
The result is fascinating. While Gorra’s critical discussion of the novel would be enough for a book, the way he manages to tell the story of much of Henry James’ life through its relationship with The Portrait of a Lady is impressive. This isn’t a full biography of James; the book opens with some background information about James’ early years, then moves on to show James at work on The Portrait. Throughout, you get a picture of what Henry James was doing in the novel, and how it related to his experiences.
Gorra takes a Sainte-Beuvian approach, and rightly so. Not all of James’ works reflect experiences he had in his life, but many did. For example, Isabel Archer is partly based on Henry’s cousin, Minny Temple, who died aged 24 of consumption, in 1870. Isabel Archer is not diseased, but she does have the Emersonian independence that Temple had.
Gorra bases much of his discussion of James and women on the interesting biography of James, A Private Life of Henry James, by Lyndall Gordon (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), looking at James’ relationship with Temple, but also his later relations with Constance Fenimore Woolson, who James met around the time he was writing The Portrait.
Gorra goes beyond strict biography, giving insight into the way James published his work – with The Portrait of a Lady, and earlier novels, they were published as serials, which impacted the way they were constructed. He also looks closely at James’ later years, when he was revising his favorite works for the New York Edition, and discusses the changes he made to The Portrait, many of which gave much better insight into the characters and their motivations.
Gorra adroitly sums up the message of The Portrait of a Lady:
“She [Isabel Archer] learns that Her own life has been determined by things that happen before she was thought of, a past of which she was ignorant and that she only understands when it’s already too late.”
This book is not a full biography of the fascinating life of Henry James; if you want that, the best bet is still to go back to Leon Edel’s pioneering work (available used in a one-volume reduction of the original five volumes (Amazon.com, Amazon UK). Or check out this fascinating biography of the James family – one of the rare families to have two geniuses as siblings, William and Henry: House of Wits, by Paul Fisher (Amazon.com, Amazon UK).
And go back and read The Portrait of a Lady in the original version (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) or the later version, revised for the New York Edition (Amazon.com, Amazon UK). Or watch the movie with Nicole Kidman, who portrays Isabel Archer quite well (Amazon.com, Amazon UK).
Lamb House, in Rye, where Henry James lived from 1898-1816.