In his final deliriums, when his fever was high, Henry James had wanted to write, Leon Edel tells us. He kept asking for paper and pencil. When he was given them, his hand would make the movements of writing.
The manual echo of what had consoled and steadied him so much of his life was what he turned to again, in the months and weeks before his death.
Like one of his own characters, Henry James had an American-scale ambition in his youth, though not towards the amassing of fortunes or the building of skyscrapers.
He wrote to his mother, "If I keep along here patiently I rather think I shall become a (sufficiently) great man."
He was devoted enough to the life of the artist and confident enough in his own gifts to describe an older sculptor’s career as "a sort of beautiful sacrifice to a noble mistake."
He intended the nobility and the sacrifice. Not the mistake.
A portrait of the artist at twenty-eight: writing travel articles for The Nation, he claimed of Niagara Falls, "It beats Michelangelo."
"Youth," he wrote in his notebooks later, was the most beautiful word in the language.
Once, at thirty, I bought a dress over the telephone. I’d tracked it down at Neiman Marcus, in Texas, because in a picture, it looked like the dress Isabel Archer wore her first evening in England, as she stepped out onto the Touchetts’ lawn.
When it arrived, the dress proved unbecoming.
This was how I learned Isabel Archer, Albany girl that she was, stood at least five foot seven.
I didn’t always love Henry James.
I only vaguely remember the tenor of my dissatisfaction. I felt, in an oblique way, he would find me--my class, my education, probably my wardrobe--wanting. I felt sure, in a word, that he wouldn’t like me. I enclosed this secret insecurity with a certain "class anger," as we said at that time, in Berkeley. Of course, I’d not yet read "Brooksmith" or "In the Cage" or realized how, late in his life, Henry James worried about money.
"It got me out of Bakersfield," a boy in my freshman Introduction to Poetry Class at Berkeley said, in defense of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
I doubt that any novel or short story written by Henry James ever got any seventeen-year-old out of Bakersfield.
That is simply not what his work does.
In the same way people lead one to other people and the college freshman eventually moves past her dormitory companions to friendships of real urgency and meaning, books lead us to other books, to authors we need more and daily.
I already loved Proust; I’d seriously read my way through the Russians, the Latin Americans; I’d probably read Middlemarch seven times, but I think it was Virginia Woolf who finally led me to Henry James.
There are dalliances and sustenances in literature. In a daily way, I need James. Why do we love him so?
He helps us, the way an affectionate friend could, who also happened to be a born ironist, with his intelligence always available at his fingertips, lightly.
If Proust teaches us to give in to love while we’re young and to save ourselves from dying over it, James gives us interiority, a longer, deeper process, if less tumultuous, less colored; he teaches how to furnish a square solitary room on a high floor and make it not only beautiful but comforting.
For me, Henry James has been a love in middle age, with exactly that temperature and depth.
James wrote of Dickens that life seemed "always to go on in the morning or in the very earliest hours of the afternoon at most" and that "Shelley, let us say . . . is a light, and Swinburne is a sound--Browning alone is a temperature."
Of course, James is famous for decrying Tolstoy’s "large loose baggy monsters."
In Henry James, we dwell in a city apartment, although we might be in the country on a lawn, at dusk, visiting. If we are walking over that lawn it is nonetheless in city clothes, high heels piercing the thin membrane of webbed roots. The light is soft, that slowly graying dusk that takes an hour or more. We may be watching the sky from the back of a cab. But it is never a brazen season. We are never in the tropics, it is never noon. We are always among the thousand grays of home.
Fortunately (given the youthful vigor of his ambition), there was a time Henry James enjoyed success. As luck would have it, this was near the beginning of his career.
At thirty-five, he was and felt famous. "I have got a good deal of fame and hope some day to get a little money," he wrote to a friend.
Daisy Miller became a type, internationally famous herself, for whom dozens of young Americans claimed to be the model.
At this time, Henry James was prolific and impervious to criticism: "Never was a genius--if genius there is--more healthy, objective, and (I honestly believe) less susceptible of superficial irritations and reactionary impulses," he wrote to his parents, when they worried about criticism of one of his stories.
He was settled in England and retained some of the luxurious idolatry of his family one can have from an ocean away.
Of his mother, he wrote: "She was our life, she was the house."
She was the house. A novel in itself.
Even after meeting Turgenev, his revered mentor, in Paris, the Europeanized writer, at thirty-one, wrote his mother (she was the house) asking her to lay in "tomatoes, ice-cream, corn, melons, cranberries and other indigenous victuals" for his return home.
He asked his brother William to bring abroad some of his books, some American toothpaste and candy.
Though Henry James lived in Europe almost all of his working years, he retained dabs and cravings for Americanness.
"I wish I could tell you how characteristic everything strikes me as being," he wrote, returning, "everything from the vast white sky--to the stiff sparse individual blades of grass."
The plot of his younger brother’s life is a story that might have appealed to Mark Twain. After fighting in the Civil War, Wilky James tried to run a plantation in Florida with paid black labor, failed, went west, lived a shiftless life as a railroad clerk and died at forty.
I would love to read what Henry James would do with such material. "The stiff sparse individual blades of grass" taunts us--he could sketch this landscape with the back of his hand.
But his eyes were turned the other direction, east. Back, he might have said.
So other voices, other heirs are left to write about Wilky’s generation in the western expansion. Some of Alice Munro’s recent stories have treated North American characters of James’s (and Twain’s) time, with a Jamesian sense of psychological precision and aesthetic intricacy.
An artist from Kentucky, a friend of Henry James, learned his craft by decorating altars in Catholic churches all the way to Canada, before going to Europe to study.
Some eight hundred ladies came to hear Henry James lecture (on "The Lesson of Balzac") in Los Angeles.
But these were simply not stories that attracted him.
"What does Oxford want of men from Nebraska and Canada?" he asked, incredulous, when told about the idea of the Rhodes scholarship.
I’d like to read what Alice Munro would do with that mythical altar-artist and those eight hundred ladies. Henry James’s heroes were George Eliot, Turgenev and Flaubert, all idols of his youth.
He had brilliant contemporaries too, Twain and Conrad, Kipling, Stevenson. In each case, he acknowledged their talent while not quite accepting that talent’s completion.
Why is it almost impossible to accept the mastery of our contemporaries?
Probably because, as Henry James did, we meet them in person.
He befriended Turgenev in his youth, taking great pride in a dinner he gave in his honor on the occasion of the Russian’s visit to London, and throughout his years in London, he was friends with the parents of Virginia Woolf, once staying for a fortnight at the scene of To the Lighthouse.
I have hours of unspeakable reaction against my smallness of production; my wretched habits of work--or my unwork; my levity, my vagueness of mind, my perpetual failure to focus my attention, to absorb myself, to look things in the face, to invent, to produce, in a word. I shall be forty years old in April next: it’s a horrible fact.
Henry James wrote this the year he published Daisy Miller, so we can assume his moods about his work were not entirely guided by external circumstances.
At forty, he wrote
I believe however that I have learned how to work and that it is in moments of forced idleness, almost alone, that these melancholy reflections seize me. When I am really at work, I’m happy, I feel strong, I see many opportunities ahead. It is the only thing that makes life endurable. I must make some great efforts during the next few years, however, if I wish not to have been on the whole a great failure. I shall have been a failure unless I do something great!
This theme of greatness persisted for Henry James and perhaps the plot of his career was more fortunate for us than for him, because it forced him to question the nature and source of this aspired-to "greatness."
Of course, it’s difficult to separate Henry James’s feelings of insecurity from his older brother William, to whom he was close all his life and who was capable of great cruelty.
William harshly criticized Henry’s work, often reading it with a crude and conventional ear. When William was elected to the Academy of Arts and Letters, he refused the honor in a letter with the addendum, "I am the more encouraged to this course by the fact that my younger and shallower and vainer brother is already in the Academy. . . ."
Yet Henry remained his "incoherent, admiring, affectionate brother" (this after an insulting letter about his work). At the time of Henry’s death, he imagined William (who had predeceased him) to be in the house, though in another room.
Henry wrote to William, "I am always sorry when I hear of your reading anything of mine, and always hope you won’t--you seem to me so constitutionally unable to enjoy it."’
Twice, Henry James experienced great setbacks and both times after enormous efforts, direct bids, as it were, for money in the first case when he tried to become a playwright, and belated recognition, even posterity, in a final attempt, when he edited his New York Edition.
After his painful and public failure in the theater, he rebounded. "I take up my own old pen again--the pen of all my old unforgettable efforts and sacred struggles. To myself--today--I need say no more. Large and full and high the future still opens. It is now indeed that I may do the work of my life. And I will."
His renewed will resulted in a period of time when he was writing a story a week, while also sketching out The Ambassadors.
Still, Henry James never had the hit he so wanted.
After visiting his friend George du Maurier, whose Trilby was breaking records as a best-seller, he wrote, "I came back feeling an even worse failure than usual."
In London once, when John Singer Sargent took him to see Edwin Austin Abbey working on one of his large Shakespearean paintings, he "came away biting my thumb, of course, and with my ears burning with the sense of how it’s not the age of my dim trade."
Henry James spent four years, from age sixty-three to age sixty-seven, preparing and editing his New York Edition, the collective edition of his novels and tales. He revised critical scenes in some of the novels, especially The Portrait of a Lady and The American, and worked closely with Alvin Langdon Coburn (a pioneer in photography), whom he’d selected to make the frontispieces.
It’s hard not to be moved by the energy and devotion of James writing his prefaces, "fingering" and revising his stories and novels, squeezing things out to fit in the twenty-three volumes he’d decided on. He was preparing his work to pass on.
At the end, he would describe the Edition as "really a monument (like Ozymandias) which has never had the least intelligent critical justice done to it--or any sort of critical attention at all paid to it."
When the first royalty statement for his "monument" arrived, he was crushed. It was "a greater disappointment than I had been prepared for . . . a great, I confess, and bitter, grief."
"Is there anything for me at all?" he asks, sounding the eternal question of the artist at the end of his life, who has made his own deadlines, his own standards, perhaps his own beautiful sacrifice to a noble mistake.
This time, Henry James truly had a breakdown and was unable to write. He needed doctors and rest. He was in his mid-sixties. He spoke of his "black depression."
This time he could not work.
For someone who wrote beautifully, powerfully, finally about the danger of the missed life, the "beautiful sacrifice to a noble mistake" (for what else is "The Beast in the Jungle"), in his personal world, his other "real" life, Henry James seems to have lived. This is a great deal to say about someone who may have died a virgin.
Though he was decidedly heavy from middle age on, he’d always enjoyed the physical world--from his Roman horseback rides in thecampagna, amidst imperial ruins, to his daily cycling around Rye.
And through the lace and web of his elaborate social universe, which seemed to swing from the magnificent to the annoying, he maintained exceedingly close relationships with friends and family.
At dinner parties, in Edith Wharton’s Lenox house, when the guests were gone, James would draw his chair to the fire and say, "Now let us say what we really think."
His long friendship with her allowed him to forgive her for the mortifying discovery that she had fund-raised for his benefit in America.
The most significant tribute his work received was on the occasion of his seventieth birthday, when three hundred of his British friends collaborated in presenting him with a formal portrait by John Singer Sargent and a golden bowl.
At the beginning of his lifetime, as at the end, his greatest readers were his friends.
"We who knew him well know how great he would have been if he had never written a line," Edith Wharton wrote.
As he was dying, the person he seemed to favor was his young butler. His name was Burgess and he called him Burgess James.
His advice to his nieces and nephews was "Be kind, be kind, be kind."
Perhaps the books most written for friends are the ones that end up being read by strangers.
What James said of London could be said of his stories. They always end by "giving one absolutely everything one asks."
NOTE: All facts, such as they are, come directly from Leon Edel’s five-volume biography of Henry James.