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Number 11
January 25, 2007

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Ramaswamy R. Iyer

About the author:
Before he became a civil servant he taught English language and literature at Bombay University. In 1990, on leaving the Government of India after 37 years of service, he became a research professor at The Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, which is concerned with policies in the social science area. He continues there now in an honorary capacity.


This note examines certain criticisms of Henry James (hereafter HJ) which have come to be uncritically accepted by many and which have a degree of influence even on admirers of HJ. I find elements of those criticisms obscurely lurking even in my thinking. This examination is therefore partly an attempt to exorcise the demon.

A widely prevalent view of HJ is that his characters lacked flesh and blood, that they did not inhabit the real world, that apart from verbal sparring nothing really happened in his novels, that he was completely oblivious of social and economic issues, that there was an absence of physicality in HJ's work, that his late style represented a degeneration, and so on. It is not merely the middlebrows and non-intellectuals who hold such views: even intellectuals, literary critics, and many who admire him are affected to some extent by that perception. Leavis's view of the later novels of HJ was coloured by it; Edith Wharton, a friend, admirer and benefactor, asked HJ why he suspended his characters in the void, leading to his bewildered response "my dear, I didn't know I had!" H.G. Wells wrote a parody of HJ. Max Beerbohm's cartoon of HJ is well-known. HJ's own brother William James was perhaps his most "consistent critic, patient misunderstander." And more recently, Naipaul has described HJ as "the world's worst writer."

All this is of course completely wide of the mark: it represents a failure of understanding (Edith Wharton, William James) or sheer perversity (Naipaul) or a kind of blind spot (Leavis in so far as the late novels are concerned) or plain stupidity or crassness (H. G. Wells). Henry James was a very great novelist, among the greatest in the English language. There are indeed a couple of questions that one needs to confront in relation to his work, though they do not call for a substantial qualification of the overall view of his stature expressed above. This article will go into those questions in sections IV and V.


Let us first take note of five aspects or dimensions of his work.

1. As a novelist - like all other novelists - he was the creator of imagined life (people, relationships, situations, developments).

2. He was a self-conscious artist, theorist and technician. He was a careful planner and constructor of his novels and had a deep interest in questions of technique and craft (a narrator; a controlling 'point of view', i.e., seeing everything through the eyes of a certain character; 'dramatic action', i.e., making the novel come close to drama; indirection and obliquity, i.e., what is said in the dialogue being less important than what is left unsaid; and so on).

3. Allied to that preoccupation with technique and craft was an exalted notion of 'the Artist' and of creativity, and mystical evocations of the Muse.

4. At the heart of his work lies an acute, powerful moral vision, a deep insight into equivocation, moral shabbiness, pettiness, meanness, and evil. Conrad's description of James as the "historian of fine consciences," which occurs in an elaborate tribute, may be misread by some to mean that HJ wrote only about sensitive, scrupulous, self-questioning people. That may be true of some of his characters, but he also wrote about mean, devious, unscrupulous, strategy-practising, evil people.)

5. There is of course the famous change of style from the early to the late work. This is often attributed to the fact that all his later work was dictated, but one must go a bit deeper than that.


Let us now return to the criticisms. James was of course very different from Dickens and Tolstoy, but is it true that his characters lacked reality and substance? Think of Isabel and Madame Merle (The Portrait of a Lady), Catherine and her father Dr. Sloper (Washington Square), Lambert Strether in The Ambassadors, Kate Croy (The Wings of the Dove), Charlotte Stant (The Golden Bowl), the telegraphist girl (In the Cage), even the not so central or major characters such as Mr. Wentworth (The Bostonians), Henrietta Stackpole (The Portrait), the journalist George Flack and Francina's father Mr. Dosson (The Reverberator), and so on. Many other names can be mentioned. All these are solid, real, credible individuals - as real as characters in the novels of other great novelists.

Is it true that 'nothing really happens' or that there is a lack of vividness? Think of the central confrontation between Isabel and Madame Merle in The Portrait, and the several confrontations between Isabel and Osmond; or the two contrasting scenes of Graham Fielder's encounters first with Mr. Abel Gaw and then with Mr. Betterman in The Ivory Tower. These seem to me to be among the most dramatic and vivid scenes in English literature. Those are only two examples; many more can be cited. As a matter of fact, James was particularly good at proceeding towards a dramatic climax or denouement. Leaving aside the well-known novels (Chad's volte face in The Ambassadors, for instance, or the denouement in Washington Square), we can see this in "The Author of Beltraffio" (the death of the child) and in the smaller or lesser works such as The Reverberator, In the Cage, "The Altar of the Dead," or "The Bench of Desolation." (I must add that I am very fond of In the Cage, but I have some reservations about the last two.) To add one more example that comes to mind, think of the denouement in The Outcry.

Absence of physicality? Certainly, James did not write about genitalia or sexual intercourse or excretory functions or menstruation or sweating. However, think of What Maisie Knew: sex is a constant presence in that novel. It is also present in The Awkward Age. An even more striking example is the chapter in The Wings of the Dove where after long deferment Kate Croy has visited Merton Densher and gone. James does not specify what happened during the visit, but the vivid description of what that room comes to mean to Merton, how everything in that room stands transformed by the visit, is one of the strongest things in the novel. If that is not 'physicality' what is?

Blind to socio-economic realities? How can one possibly say that unless one forgets or deliberately ignores The Princess Casamassima? Nor was that novel an oddity or an aberration. Social realities are very much there in What Maisie Knew. Class relations are central to In the Cage. The Ivory Tower is about two bequests, and the greed and treachery that property and possessions inspire; in it we see James's profound misgivings about the great American fortunes ("the black and merciless things that are behind the great possessions"; "the hideously rich"; resources "so dishonoured and stained and blackened at their very roots").


I turn now to a couple of questions that trouble me. First, I am a very great admirer of HJ, but at the risk of being considered middlebrow or a philistine, may I venture to say that his interest in the art and craft of the novel is a trifle overdone? I am not saying that his preoccupation with the formal, structural and presentational aspects was unimportant. These are indeed among his strengths, and one can admire the enormous skill with which The Awkward Age or What Maisie Knew is constructed. Structure and form have interested other novelists too (for instance, Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain or Dr. Faustus, Joyce's Ulysses, practically all of Nabokov's novels, and in particular Pale Fire). A proper appreciation of these aspects is essential to an understanding of those novels; so too with James. Nevertheless, it seems to me - and I state this for possible contradiction by the reader - that HJ attached a degree of importance to such questions that the reader may but need not fully share: what he referred to as "the quantity of finish that it stows away" (a remark about The Awkward Age in his Preface to Vol. 9 of the New York Edition, 1908) seems to me less crucial to an understanding of a novel than the author might have thought.

(May I add in parenthesis that while reading James's famous invocation to his Muse -- "causons, causons, mon bon --." (HJ's detached notes to The Ivory Tower, Jan. 4, 1910)--I experience a mild sense of anti-climax when it finally ends with a reference to "a little organic and effective action.")

There are indeed several novels or stories of James in which form, structure and presentation are integral, ineluctable parts, and we cannot understand or properly respond to the novel or story without understanding them. However, it seems to me that this is not true of all his works: surely, taking even the later works, one can respond adequately to The Ambassadors, The Golden Bowl and The Wings of the Dove (i.e., to the characters, situations, conflicts, motivations, dilemmas, nuances, and so on) without excessive interest in form, structure and technique.


The second question that I need to tackle is that relating to HJ's later style. There is indeed a problem here, but it is not a simple case of a good style degenerating into a bad one, nor is it simply a change from a taut and structured written style to a loose, flowing spoken style, the structure of which is unclear but can be brought out by reading aloud. It was a case of the evolution of a special style that best expresses the delicate probings, the nuances and slowly emerging insights, the dim perceptions developing into clear understandings, the tentative verbal formulations and indirections ending in an epiphany. It is difficult to imagine the Jamesian explorations being performed in any but the Jamesian style. While there is indeed a difference between the early style and the late style, there are similarities too: the characteristics of the late style were there in the early work, but became more pronounced and pervasive in the later work. From the beginning James was groping his way towards a style that would correspond to his content, and found it in his later novels.

Not everyone would agree with that statement. Broadly speaking, four criticisms can be - have been - made of the late style:

1. The dialogue is unrealistic; people don't talk like this; all characters speak like Henry James.

2. There is a lot of verbal sparring; the communication between the characters is indirect and oblique; what is not said matters more than what is said.

3. The language is dense and incomprehensible; one has to work hard at the meaning.

4. It is verbose and often highly coloured, even florid.

We cannot dismiss these points out of hand; we must consider them.

Unrealistic dialogue: Jane Austen and Dickens created conversations that could have taken place in real life. The dialogues in James's novels are not of that kind. However, that can be said of other writers as well. Think of George Eliot or Conrad or even Lawrence: are their dialogues wholly 'realistic'? Except in a few cases, dialogues in novels are not exactly like conversations in real life: they are stylized, with varying degrees of similarity to what one actually hears in the world. James's dialogues are more stylized than most other novelists'. That by itself is not a fault.

(In painting, leaving aside abstract or non-representational painting, consider Canaletto, El Greco, Rembrandt, Goya, Velasquez, Vermeer, Turner, Reynolds, Whistler, Sargent, the Impressionists, Amrita Sher-Gil, Nandalal Bose, Jamini Roy, and so on: you have a range from photographic realism to a high degree of stylization; and even the most 'realistic' works are stylized in some degree.)

The more important point is: how characteristic is the utterance? In Shakespeare's Macbeth, Lady Macbeth's dialogue is not 'realistic', but everything she says is completely true to her character: she could not have spoken in any other way and no other character could have said the things that she said. The same holds true of Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra. The dialogue creates a real human being. Similarly, in Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, the dialogue is not realistic but true to character, and creates credible personalities. Judged by this criterion, the dialogues in James are true to character at every step: they create real human beings. Their speech is theirs.

Indirection / Obliquity: This is not a defect but a necessary means used by James for his probing and exploring. There is no need to discuss this further.

Density, Difficulty: Yes, the reader has to work at the late style. Joyce was difficult too; so was Eliot's The Waste Land when it first appeared. Once again, this is exploratory, experimental writing. This is quite clear in the case of Joyce and Eliot, but not so obvious in the case of James. He fashioned a special language for himself, but superficially it looks like conventional, even old-fashioned English. We can parse the words and analyse the sentences: they work, grammatically and syntactically (most of the time). So we are misled into thinking that this is conventional English made needlessly convoluted and obscure - in other words, bad English (as Naipaul thought it was). That is a serious error. The later novels are written in a new language developed by James using English, to express his explorations and discriminations with precision. As I said earlier, it is difficult to imagine the Jamesian explorations in any but the Jamesian style.

Verbose, Florid? That brings me to the last point. What we have here is not verbosity but deliberate excess - a wheeling and circling towards the meaning; HJ goes round and round and then lands on the exact spot. Again, what we have in the late style is not 'highly coloured' or 'florid' (the analogy of a magician pulling out an endless stream of multi-coloured ribbons out of his mouth has been suggested by someone), but the poetic use of language. Just as Shakespeare wrote poetic drama, James evolved from the straight prose of the early works towards a poetic novel. (Let me make it clear that I do not mean 'prose poetry' of the Tagore translation kind.) A combination of surface density, relative obscurity, use of image, symbol and simile, and (occasional) striking and colorful turns of phrase, gives us a prose that from time to time comes close to poetry.

A special characteristic of the late Jamesian style is that he deliberately chooses what one might call 'soft-focus' writing (it may seem fuzziness to some) which creates a dim surface through which the meaning gleams and glimmers (as he himself might have said), and then suddenly sharpens the focus and heightens the mellow light into bright luminosity. The effect is very powerful.

This is not special pleading or an apologia for the much-criticised late style. Many people - intelligent ones - find the style off-putting. That was clearly not James's intention. Joyce for instance deliberately made it necessary for his readers to work hard at his writing. That cannot be said of James. He followed his Muse and wrote in a manner that would best express what he wanted to say, but he did not set out to be difficult and obscure. He wanted a large readership and was disappointed when that did not happen. Unwittingly he erected a barrier between the readers and his writing. From the low sales of his books, and from the criticisms that he heard (not least from his brother William), he must have known the effect that his later style had on readers. However, he probably did not quite realize what an effort he was demanding of his readers. Granting the need for indirectness, obliquity, circlings and wheelings, the alternation of soft and sharp focus, perhaps he could still have cut the prolixities and reduced the obscurities to some extent; but he did the opposite when revising his works for the New York edition. The result is that many intelligent and sensitive people who might have found the later works enormously interesting are turned away by the formidable barrier of language. This is indeed a problem that cannot be glossed over.


That is not the note on which to end. We must return to his greatness. Graham Greene puts him in the company of Shakespeare. Even if that seems an over-statement, it is clear enough that James is a towering figure as a novelist. To conclude on a personal note, I started reading Henry James when I was a student at Elphinstone College, Bombay, in the 1940s, have been reading and re-reading him ever since, and continue to do so in 2007.