In these essays, James illuminated his own writing process and the ideals he cherished as a novelist: his love of exactitude; his conviction that a story should be coherent in form, as organic as a living creature; his passionate belief that novels, like old- fashioned paintings, should try to represent life. As a critic, however, he tried never to impose his values upon the works of others; and he wrote, with admiration and perception, about talents as dissimilar as Dickens, Trollope, Hawthorne, Howells and Flaubert. He could delight equally, say, in Stevenson's ''Treasure Island,'' with its ''miraculous coincidences and buried doubloons,'' and in the more ''homely and prosaic'' virtues of Goethe's ''Wilhelm Meister.''
James's abundant catholicity of taste reflected not only his deep reservoir of sympathy for others, but also an achieved, philosophical position. He believed that the novel was the ''most magnificent form of art,'' and that its magic derived from its elasticity, its radical freedom from definition. ''The house of fiction,'' he wrote, has ''not one window, but a million,' and ''the only obligation, to which in advance we may hold a novel, without incurring the accusation of being arbitrary, is that it be interesting.''
What James would not tolerate was the vulgar, the egotistical and the bogus; and when he suspected that a writer was not making the most of his gifts, he could be sharply dismissive. Reviewing Walt Whitman's ''Drum Taps,'' he wrote, ''to become adopted as a national poet, it is not enough'' ''to discharge the undigested contents of your blotting-book into the lap of the public.'' He complained that ''Les Fleurs du Mal'' revealed Baudelaire's ''ludicrously puerile view'' of evil - for him, evil ''begins outside and not inside, and consists primarily of a great deal of lurid landscape and unclean furniture.'' And he dismissed Hardy's ''Far From the Madding Crowd'' as a second-rate imitation of George Eliot, a ''decidedly delusive performance.''
For the most part, though, James was less interested in passing judgment on a given text than in using it to shed light on an author's overall achievement. He believed that a novel reflected ''the quality of the mind of the producer,'' and he felt that critics had a responsibility to interpret a writer's inner life and public personality. As a result, his essays are filled with wonderful cameos - character sketches almost as vivid as those found in his novels. Kipling, for instance, emerges as a cheeky youth who ''rushes about making people jump with the deep sounds, the sportive exaggerations of tones that issue from its painted lips,'' and Turgenev, as a ''storyteller who has taken notes'' '' sur le vif .''
The transactions between life and art continually fascinated James, and this biographical impulse led him, in these essays, to reflect upon the husbanding of material and talent and the consequences of environment, social and familial, upon a writer's sensibility. He observed that the enduring relationship of George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) with George Henry Lewes, a married man, resulted in ''a certain effect of sequestration which was not favourable to social freedom, or to freedom of observation,'' and that her work, in turn, suffered from ''the absence of spontaneity, the excess of reflection.'' He wondered whether Balzac and Trollope would have written better novels had they been less prolific, and he noted ''not a little sadness in the thought of Hawthorne's literary gift, light, delicate, exquisite, capricious, never too abundant, being charged with the heavy burden of the maintenance of a family.''
In his book-length essay on Hawthorne, James also spent a lot of time marveling at how devoid this author's life was of ''social accidents'' and ''literary incident.'' He discussed the narrowness of Hawthorne's life, spent nearly entirely in small New England towns; the unsophisticated appeal of his work, and the ways in which his innocent, yet self-conscious, temperament typified the native genius. It is almost as though James - like the hero of ''The Jolly Corner'' - were meditating upon a possible alter-ego, what he might have been had he stayed home and never gone to Europe.
In fact the character of James so permeates these essays that the reader is left with an insistent after- image of both the writer and the man. His presence is there in the magisterial style and the elaborate, supple prose. And it is there, too, in certain recurrent themes - the preoccupation with America and Europe, with women as heroines, and with what James called the ''modern condition.''
Also, we realize, James possessed a point of view, tailor-made for the vocation of literary criticism. The critic's life, he wrote in one essay, ''is heroic, for it is immensely vicarious. He has to understand for others.''
''He deals with life at second-hand as well as at first; that is, he deals with the experience of others, which he resolves into his own.'' The description, of course, applies perfectly not only to the detached, observant heros of James's novels, but to their creator as well.Continue reading the main story
A few weeks ago, I finished reading the Library of America’s six-volume, sixty-eight-hundred-page edition of the novels of Henry James. I’m a sucker for completist projects, but this one came about more or less by accident. It took me a couple of years, and I didn’t undertake it in an especially devoted or systematic way. I had always considered James one of my favorite writers, largely on the basis of a few long novels (“The Portrait of a Lady_,_” “The Ambassadors”) and short stories (“The Aspern Papers,” “The Figure in the Carpet”). But I knew him less well than any other figure in my personal canon. Once you’ve gotten beyond the bright constellation of the major works, it can be hard to know where to go with James’s writing; there’s so much of it, and no one seems to agree on what’s what. James himself tried to address the problem late in life, with the revised “New York Edition” of his writing. But this only complicated matters, because he left out some of his best work, including “Washington Square.”
My solution to the quandary was to start at the beginning. The first volume of the Library of America collection contains two curiosities (“Watch and Ward,” which I’m not sure I’d even heard of before, and “Confidence,” which is enjoyable but slight) and three great novels (“Roderick Hudson_,” “The American,_” and “The Europeans”). These books might surprise some readers who know James only by reputation, or from working to untangle the baroque sentences of one of his late masterpieces in a college English course. They are recognizably nineteenth-century comedies of manners, written in a relatively straightforward style. There is plenty of plot—if anything, they tend toward the melodramatic—along with a good deal of humor. But they do share one characteristic with the mature classics: the obvious care with which they were constructed. Notwithstanding James’s reputation for overworking his material—“he chewed more than he bit off,” goes the famous complaint—you never have the feeling that he is wasting the reader’s time. Every sentence has a purpose, every scene a place in the whole. To put it in Jamesian terms, there is always a governing intelligence at work behind the page. I missed this intelligence when I read novels by other writers, which so often gave me the enervating sense that things were happening for no reason except that it had occurred to the author to make them happen. So I kept returning to James. By the time I’d finished the first volume, I’d bought the second, and I had a pretty good idea that I’d be reading them all.
When I mentioned this plan to friends, their responses fell roughly into two camps. “How impressive,” some said. “Better you than me,” others said. They seemed to take for granted that such a project was an exercise in self-discipline or self-improvement, not something that one did just for fun. But that was exactly why I was doing it. Occasionally, reading James stopped being fun and, when it did, I stopped reading him, sometimes for months at a time. Eventually, I came back, because so few other writers offer the particular pleasures that James does. It’s true that some of the later books are imposing—nineteenth-century realist comedies have given way to twentieth-century modernist monuments. But, precisely because I’d been reading my way through this evolution, I was prepared for the change. I had come to know intimately James’s way of looking at the world, and how it had pushed him toward implication and indirection, so I was in a better position to appreciate (and enjoy) the result.
Of course, the friends who suggested that reading James was an act of self-discipline were just making polite conversation. But I’ve been thinking about those remarks recently, because there has been so much talk of late about what and why we read. The summer began with the usual “beach read” lists, along with the customary beach-read backlash. Then, in June, as the movie adaptation of “The Fault in Our Stars” put John Green’s young-adult novel back at the top of best-seller lists, the critic Ruth Graham wrote, for Slate, that adults should “feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children.” This was obviously meant as a provocation, and it was taken as one. But the nature of the rebuttals differed in telling ways. Some, like Laura Miller, of Salon, defended “The Fault in Our Stars” in particular, suggesting that Graham was misreading a relatively sophisticated book because of its genre label. Others admitted to disliking Green’s novel but insisted that the larger Y.A. category contains plenty of books with all the complexity of grown-up literary fiction. The prevailing response, however, seemed to be less about the books in question than about the principle that people ought to read whatever they feel like reading without being subjected to “book-shaming.”
Just as this discussion was dying down, it reignited in different form, by way of an essay in Vanity Fair about the critical reaction to Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning best-seller, “The Goldfinch.” Many readers and critics loved the book. Others, including The New Yorker_’_s James Wood, hated it. (I did too: my longest stretch of reading James in the past two years came directly after the punishing experience of “The Goldfinch.”) Vanity Fair presented this lack of critical consensus as a full-blown culture war, “in which the naysayers believe that nothing less is at stake than the future of reading itself.” And the terms of this war wound up being very similar to the ones laid out by Graham not long before. The problem with “The Goldfinch,” its detractors said, was that it was essentially a Y.A. novel. Vanity Fair quoted Wood as saying that “the rapture with which this novel has been received is further proof of the infantilization of our literary culture: a world in which adults go around reading Harry Potter.”
Interestingly, very few of the book’s defenders seemed to disagree with this contention. That is to say, nobody, to my knowledge, has made a case for why “The Goldfinch” is in fact a work of adult art, rather than a novel aimed at teen-agers. In a remark typical of the book’s advocates, the novelist and Time book critic Lev Grossman—a vocal champion of a world in which adults go around reading “Harry Potter”—said, “Her language is careless in places, and there’s a fairy-tale quality to the book. There’s very little context in the book—it’s happening in some slightly simplified world.” Grossman suggested that how well a novel is written doesn’t matter much anymore, and that a critic like Wood, preoccupied as he is with “literary analysis,” lacks “the critical language you need to praise a book like The Goldfinch.”
Lingering in such conversations is the assumption—shared on all sides—that the novel began its life as a popular, even naïve, form of entertainment, before being transformed by modernism into an impressive but somewhat uninviting high art. Grossman has called elsewhere for an end to the “hundred-year carbonite nap” into which Modernism lulled the form. And one way of understanding this is as a call for a return to the novel as it existed before James came along.
James himself was familiar with the argument that good novels were, for the most part, simple, accessible works that could be spoiled by too much “literary analysis.” In his 1884 essay “The Art of Fiction,” one of the first and probably still the best assertion of the novel’s status as high art, James noted that “literature should be either instructive or amusing, and there is in many minds an impression that … artistic preoccupations, the search for form, contribute to neither end, interfere indeed with both.” He adds that many readers who would otherwise disagree about what exactly makes a novel good would “all agree that the ‘artistic’ idea would spoil some of their fun.” But James would have none of this. Behind every great novel, he insisted, there exists some theory of the novel, however unspoken. “The successful application of any art is a delightful spectacle, but the theory, too, is interesting,” he wrote. “And though there is a great deal of the latter without the former, I suspect there has never been a genuine success that has not had a latent core of conviction.” It was also in this essay that James expressed what is still the best response to ninety-nine per cent of all conversations about literary genre: “There are bad novels and good novels, as there are bad pictures and good pictures; but that is the only distinction in which I see any meaning.” He was responding to a complaint that was made even about his early work—that there was too much character and not enough incident, and that this made it inferior to the work of Dickens or Trollope, who wrote the kind of inviting, event-packed novels whose return Grossman celebrates.
So there’s nothing really new about these debates, and most of those who participate in them know that. But neither can we quite resist the temptation to draw larger conclusions about our cultural moment. This tendency came to a kind of head last weekend, when A. O. Scott published an essay in the Times Magazine that upped the stakes of the Y.A. debate considerably, broadening its scope to suggest that we are actually witnessing the end of adulthood—or, at least, the end of the “white American male.” Scott had been one of the few prominent critics who defended Graham’s initial essay; he wrote on Twitter that “the problem is really the cultural devaluation of maturity.” His follow-up essay begins with a reference to Graham’s complaint, which he links to a larger trend:
In my main line of work as a film critic, I have watched over the past 15 years as the studios committed their vast financial and imaginative resources to the cultivation of franchises (some of them based on those same Y.A. novels) that advance an essentially juvenile vision of the world. Comic-book movies, family-friendly animated adventures, tales of adolescent heroism and comedies of arrested development do not only make up the commercial center of 21st-century Hollywood. They are its artistic heart.
Given this opening, I expected the rest of the piece to lament what we’ve lost by giving up on the pleasures of challenging, adult-centered culture. Instead, Scott’s essay is an expression of great ambivalence. He isn’t happy about this trend in movies, but he also isn’t sure how justified his unhappiness is. He admits to “feeling a twinge of disapproval when I see one of my peers clutching a volume of ‘Harry Potter’ or ‘The Hunger Games,’ ” but he quickly adds that he’s “not necessarily proud of this reaction.” He is scrupulously mindful of what it means for a self-described “middle-aged white man” to pine for an earlier era of cultural authority. Indeed, the real subject of Scott’s essay turns out to be not the infantilization of culture but the decline of cultural—if not political or economic or social—patriarchy, and the ways in which this decline is reflected in the culture itself. He takes this change to be the underlying subject of several of the past decade’s prestige TV dramas—particularly “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men,” and “Breaking Bad.” In Scott’s view, Tony Soprano, Don Draper, and Walter White are “the last of the patriarchs.”
This is where the essay becomes a little confused, in my opinion. If we really are living through the decline of the cultural authority of the straight white male, that seems like a rich and appropriate subject for a sophisticated work of narrative art. The fact that we find this decline represented on television seems in this sense a sign of cultural maturity, one that cuts against the idea that our culture reflects an “essentially juvenile vision of the world.” Many shows now grapple more honestly with the world as it actually exists than did the sitcoms that I grew up watching, in which mom and dad had all the answers and were waiting in the wings to save us from our mistakes.
The strong ambivalence running throughout Scott’s piece emerges from the fact that he sees an intimate, even necessary connection between the decline of the straight white male’s stranglehold on the culture as a whole (which he views as all to the good) and the rise to dominance of a juvenile strain within popular culture in particular (which he likes a lot less). But even assuming that both of these things are going on, it’s not at all clear how much they have to do with one another. There is a difference between art that merely enacts a culture’s refusal to grow up—say, a Y.A. fantasy turned summer blockbuster marketed at adults—and art that engages thoughtfully with that refusal.
In fairness to Scott, he acknowledges this by devoting a good part of the essay to a discussion of how much American art over the years has taken as its subject the unwillingness to grow up. To this end, Scott quotes the mid-century literary critic Leslie Fiedler, whose classic book “Love and Death in the American Novel” is essentially a long engagement with the fundamental childishness of American fiction. Fiedler saw Twain’s Huck Finn, Melville’s Ishmael, and countless other canonical American literary characters as boys who refused to be civilized, who preferred a perpetual, homosocial boyhood to the responsibilities of adulthood—in particular the responsibilities of mature heterosexual relationships. The fact that American novelists can’t get over this particular theme, Fiedler argues, betrays their own refusal to grow up. One way of putting this is that Judd Apatow did not invent the bromance. Or, as Scott concludes, “All American fiction is young-adult fiction.”
This happens to be another conversation in which Henry James has a key part to play. Scott suggests that James, along with Edith Wharton, is something of an outlier in this story, because he wrote European-style novels of marriage. But this isn’t quite true. In fact, James is every bit as concerned with innocence recoiling at adulthood, as Fiedler notes at some length in “Love and Death.” The difference is that James writes about women, instead of wild boys. The archetypal Jamesian character is a young American woman—Daisy Miller, Isabel Archer, Milly Theale, Maggie Verver—whose innocence is manipulated and ultimately destroyed by the forces (usually British or European) of experience. It is often suggested that James, perhaps because of his own homosexuality, was incapable of writing about heterosexual sex. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Sometimes it seems like heterosexual sex is the only thing he’s writing about. There is a reticence surrounding the topic, but this seems very much related to the horror of sexual maturity felt by so many of his characters, a horror not much different from the sort that Fiedler sees in Huck Finn.
Why is it, then, that we rightly recognize in James a maturity absent from so much of American culture not just today but a hundred years ago? It is, I think, in part because he treats the passage into adulthood as not just painful or costly but also as necessary, and he looks that necessity straight in the face. What’s more, he treats his reader as a fellow adult aware of this necessity. (In his magnificent story “The Author of Beltraffio,” the narrator asks the famous author whether young people should be allowed to read novels. “Good ones—certainly not!” he answers. Not that good novels are bad for young readers, he adds, “But very bad, I am afraid, for the novel.”)
What is being lost here is a distinction that James himself insisted upon, between the artist’s subject matter and his treatment of that matter. In “The Art of Fiction,” he noted, “Of course it is of execution that we are talking, that being the only point of a novel that is open to contention”:
This is perhaps too often lost sight of, only to produce interminable confusions and cross-purposes. We must grant the artist his subject, his idea, what the French call his donnée; our criticism is applied only to what he makes of it. Naturally I do not mean that we are bound to like it or find it interesting: in case we do not our course is perfectly simple—to let it alone. We may believe that of a certain idea even the most sincere novelist can make nothing at all, and the event may perfectly justify our belief; but the failure will have been a failure to execute, and it is in the execution that the fatal weakness is recorded.
James’s distinction is one worth keeping in mind. If we assume that subject matter is what defines a book as “young adult,” it doesn’t make much sense to discourage adults from reading a book with that label. It is as much as saying that certain types of human experience are beneath serious adult attention, which I don’t think is true. And it does seem that many books have the Y.A. label slapped on them purely because of their subject matter. (After all, there is little cost to a publisher for labelling something Y.A. if the label doesn’t put off adult readers.) But, in these cases, the label is simply a marketing tool, which isn’t something that a critic ought to be paying attention to.
On the other hand, the label is sometimes wielded to make a real literary distinction. It is obviously possible to give a subject a treatment that is more appropriate for a young audience. For the most part, this involves simplifying things—first the diction and syntax, but finally the whole picture of life. There is nothing dishonorable about this simplification—it is a way to make material accessible to children. Nor does it strike me as shameful for adults to spend a lot of time reading these simplified treatments. But it does strike me as strange. If someone told you that he was an American-history buff and that his favorite work of American history was “Johnny Tremain,” you might not think this a cause for embarrassment but you would probably suspect that he didn’t know as much about history as he thought he did, and you would wonder why his interest in the subject had not led him to adult treatments of it. In some sense, you might even think he was missing out, that the simplified treatments of history that we give to children are not just less true but less interesting because of their lack of complexity.
To be interesting—James called this the one obligation that every novel has. And this gets to the heart of my quarrel with how this whole argument has been conducted, and why it put me in mind of those exchanges that I’d had with friends about reading James. When the champion of adult culture is portrayed, even by himself, as an old curmudgeon yelling at the kids to get off his lawn, it suggests that this adult culture is one of the unfortunate but necessary costs of coming into adulthood. We give up the pleasures of entertainment for the seriousness of art. I just don’t think that this is true. In his preface to the New York edition of “The Golden Bowl,” James discusses the impulse to tinker that inevitably arises when an author revisits work in a later edition. After considering various ways in which an author might attempt to improve a work, he concludes,
The ideally handsome way is for him to multiply in any given connexion all the possible sources of entertainment—or, more grossly expressing it again, to intensify his whole chance of pleasure. (It all comes back to that, to my and your “fun”—if we but allow the term its full extension; to the production of which no humblest question involved, even to that of the shade of a cadence or the position of a comma, is not richly pertinent.)
No one—not Proust or Flaubert, not Joyce or Woolf—did more than James to refine the popular form of the novel into a work of high art, and “The Golden Bowl” represents the height of that refinement. To some—not just now but in his own time—it represents the point at which that refinement veers into sterility. But, even when discussing his last great book, James insisted that it all comes back to fun. Of course, there is a bottomless ambiguity in that very Jamesian caveat—“if we but allow the term its full extension”—but that itself is part of the fun.
Many defenders of “The Goldfinch” seemed to divide its readers into those who allowed themselves to appreciate the book’s obvious pleasures and those who were too snobbish or circumspect to do so. Hence Grossman’s remarks about Wood lacking the “language” to praise the book, as though the praiseworthiness of the book was ultimately a given. But I disliked “The Goldfinch” precisely because I found it so boring. It was boring not because it was insufficiently “literary” but because it was overly “literary.” Not a single character or moment in the book felt lived in any meaningful way. The picture of life that it gave was so obviously false that it seemed designed to appeal to someone who hadn’t lived very much of it, and thus couldn’t tell the difference.
Much is taken from us as we pass out of childhood, but other human beings who have suffered these losses have created great works of art, works that can only be truly appreciated by those who have suffered the same losses in turn. These works are among the great recompenses that experience offers us. Putting down “Harry Potter” for Henry James is not one of adulthood’s obligations, like flossing and mortgage payments; it’s one of its rewards, like autonomy and sex. It seems to me not embarrassing or shameful but just self-defeating and a little sad to forego such pleasures in favor of reading a book that might just as easily be enjoyed by a child.