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Henry James

Jeanne Delbaere-Garant

II. The Critic

James on Art and the Novel

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  • 1 The Art of the Novel, p. 155.

The only reason for the existence of a novel is that it does attempt to represent life.1

1Even if James had never written a single novel, his critical writings would still have won him an important place in American literature. But we may doubt whether his criticism would have been so interesting had he not been aided in the analysis of his fellow-writers by his own experience as a novelist and whether he would have achieved such perfection in his fiction had he not studied so seriously that of other writers. His personal experience helped him to understand theirs, but at the same time their writings helped him to define his own conception of art and to improve his craft. There was a continual interaction between the critic and the novelist, and the two fields always remained closely related in James’s mind.

2There is ultimately little difference between the good critic and the artist: the former projects himself into another mind, the latter projects himself into life:

  • 2 Selected Literary Criticism, ed. Morris Shapira (London, 1963), p. 136.

It is with the kinds of criticism exactly as it is with the kinds of art—the best kind, the only kind worth speaking of, is the kind that springs from the liveliest experience.2

  • 3 A complete list of James’s critical articles on French writers mentioned in this chapter is given (...)

3James’s views formed themselves little by little as his work developed and as the writers he had read gradually passed into his life and were absorbed into his artistic consciousness like rivers of different sizes enlarging the stream of his creative activity. Among the feeders of his stream the French—because they were most different from himself—occupy the largest place.3

4Before starting on James’s criticism of individual writers—critics, poets, playwrights, and novelists—it might be useful to examine his views on art and the novel as they appear in his general statements in the few papers he wrote on the novel, and in some scattered passages in his prefaces, in which he explains how he has gone to work in his own fiction. This short introduction will make us familiar with James’s critical terms and help us to understand his conception of “life” and “morality,” two key terms in his criticism of the French, which therefore demand our full attention.

  • 4 On 25 April 1884 Walter Besant, a Victorian novelist, had delivered a lecture on the novel at the (...)

5“The Art of Fiction” appeared in 1884; it reveals James’s impatience with the poverty and moral timidity of the contemporary novel and with the degradation of taste in the Anglo-Saxon literary world.4 Unlike Howells in his own country, James rejects the assumption that the novel should teach by presenting lofty views of life, and he refuses the limitations put on art by the requirements of prudery and social conventions. He shows that the novel still largely caters for a public consisting mainly of ladies and young people, that is, according to him, unreflecting and uncritical readers. He exhorts the novelist to take his task more seriously and to consider that any kind of subject is fit to be dealt with.

6In France the English novel was considered as too poor to be critically reckoned with at all. Though James feels hurt by such contempt and resents the carelessness of English writers as a national disgrace he agrees with the French. True, the latter do not always succeed in rendering the finest shades of human character but they have a greater sense of responsibility towards their craft and write with a masculine firmness that constitutes a safeguard for the future. James was convinced that the future of the novel was linked with the future of the society that produced and consumed it. Addicted to reflection and fond of ideas as they were, the French would always go further in their experiments in storytelling and it was urgent for his compatriots to follow in their tracks. James’s objections to the French would come elsewhere in due time: for the moment he finds them better because they go to work with a seriousness, a sense of their responsibility as artists, a love of perfection so far unmatched on the other side of the Channel.

  • 5 Their correspondence was edited by Leon Edel and Gordon M. Ray in Henry James and H.G. Wells. A Re (...)

7When James wrote his essay entitled “The New Novel” (1914) a change had come over the sensibility of the reading public, and naturalism had given the death-blow to the novelists’ former timidity. The “new novelists” had freed themselves from old taboos and took all life as a subject matter. But their outlook was still mostly modelled as a whole by the Victorian conviction that art must edify: they simply could not envisage it as an end in itself. James’s stormy friendship with H.G. Wells, for whom the novel was a help to conduct, finally came to an end because of their different conceptions of art.5 Apart from Conrad, whom James greeted as a promising talent, the writers of the younger generation contented themselves with piling up material, multiplying facts, and giving the reader raw, unselected data.

  • 6 Letter to Hugh Walpole, 19 May 1912, Selected Letters, pp. 201-202.
  • 7 Preface to The Tragic Muse, The Art of the Novel, p. 84.
  • 8 Barbara Hardy, among others, has attempted to correct this view in The Novels of George Eliot (New (...)

8The older he grew the more James insisted on the importance of form as the unifying element, the blood that runs through a work of art and gives it life. “Don’t let anyone persuade you,” he wrote to Hugh Walpole, “that strenuous selection and composition are not the very essence of art, and that Form is [not] substance to that degree that there is absolutely no substance without it. Form alone takes, and holds and preserves, substance—saves it from the welter of helpless verbiage that we swim in as in a sea of tasteless tepid pudding.”6 Such works as War and Peace or George Eliot’s novels struck James as “large, loose, baggy monsters”7 without artistic meaning, a view that was widespread until very recently and for which he was largely responsible.8

9The work of art is a personal impression of life and there is no teaching others how to do it. During the summer of 1889 James had been invited to attend a Summer School at Deerfield, Massachusetts, in order to discuss the art of the novel. He declined the invitation but in his letter (later published in the New York Tribune, 4 August 1889) he sent some advice to the young people at Deerfied:

  • 9 The House of Fiction, p. 46. My italics.

Oh, do something from your point of view; an ounce of example is worth a ton of generalities; do something with the great art and the great form; do something with life. Any point of view is interesting that is a direct impression of life. You each have an impression coloured by your individual conditions; make that into a picture, a picture framed by your own personal wisdom, your glimpse of the American world. The field is vast for freedom, for study, for observation, for satire, for truth.9

  • 10 See The Art of the Novel.

10He warned them against abuse of theory and generalities, and added that he could give them only two words remotely approaching rule or doctrine: “one is life and the other freedom.” Most probably the students of Deerfield did not suspect the weight of thought and reflection that lay beneath this simple advice. Neither do we, actually, before reading the Prefaces and piecing together the master’s lesson from the hints and glimpses scattered here and there in his fiction.10

11The well-known passage from the Preface to The Portrait of a Lady contains in a nutshell the essence of James’s conception of the novel:

  • 11 The Art of the Novel, p. 46.

The house of fiction has… not one window, but a million—a number of possible windows not to be reckoned, rather; every one of which has been pierced, or is still pierceable, in its vast front, by the need of the individual vision and by the pressure of the individual will. These apertures, of dissimilar shape and size, hang so, all together, over the human scene that we might have expected of them a greater sameness of report than we find. They are but windows at the best, mere holes in a dead wall, disconnected, perched aloft; they are not hinged doors opening straight upon life. But they have this mark of their own that at each of them stands a figure with a pair of eyes, or at least with a field-glass, which forms, again and again, for observation, a unique instrument, insuring to the person making use of it an impression distinct from every other. He and his neighbours are watching the same show, but one seeing more where the other sees less, one seeing black where the other sees white, one seeing big where the other sees small, one seeing coarse where the other sees fine. And so on, and so on; there is fortunately no saying on what, for the particular pair of eyes, the window may not open; “fortunately” by reason, precisely, of this incalculability of range. The spreading field, the human scene, is the “choice of subject”; the pierced aperture, either broad or balconied or slit-like and low-browed, is the “literary form”; but they are, singly or together, as nothing without the posted presence of the watcher—without, in other words, the consciousness of the artist. Tell me what the artist is, and I will tell you what he has been conscious.11

  • 12 Preface to The Awkward Age, The Art of the Novel, p. 101.
  • 13 Preface to Lady Barberina, ibid., p. 201.

12The whole field of life is at the artist’s disposal, and he has only to draw from it. But each artist is different from his neighbour and so is the “window” out of which he looks at the human scene. This window is the concrete symbol of the artist’s idiosyncrasy, the particular point of view, the frame pierced by the personal vision, “by the pressure of the individual will.” It is beside the point to quarrel with the artist’s subject because the artist is “terribly at the mercy of his mind,”12 and because “the subject thus pressed upon the artist is the necessity of his case and the fruit of his consciousness.”13 The writer must be free to deal with whatever portion of life he chooses and to express himself in his own terms, since his choice is determined by his particular turn of mind.

13The intensity of the impression varies according to the sensibility of the artist’s mind or, rather, to the energy displayed by this mind in the act of perception. Significantly, James is not satisfied with his first comparison (“a pair of eyes”) and comes closer to his meaning by adding the idea of a “field-glass.” What he wants to make clear is that the watcher is not merely receiving impressions from outside through his senses, but that he “makes use” of them, as of a field-glass, in an active way. Perception indeed is not just a mechanical and passive registering of impressions but an essentially active process. The more alert the mind the more intense the impression received.

  • 14 Preface to The Ambassadors, ibid., p. 312.

14Life or Nature (the “spreading field”) and the artist’s own necessary form (the “pierced aperture”) are nothing without the consciousness of the watcher. “Art deals with what we see, it must first contribute full-handed that ingredient,” James wrote somewhere else, “it plucks its material, otherwise expressed, in the garden of life… but it has no sooner done this than it has to take account of a process… that of the expression, the literal squeezing out of value.”14 Perception or observation is only a first stage in the creative process. The artist must not content himself with giving us his elements in mere juxtaposition, however clever and judicious his arrangement. He must have them pass through the “simmering cauldron” of his imagination out of which they will emerge as a work of art. James’s debt to Coleridge is obvious in such a passage as this one:

  • 15 Preface to The Lesson of the Master, ibid., p. 230.

We can surely account for nothing in the novelist’s work that hasn’t passed through the crucible of his imagination, hasn’t, in that perpetually simmering cauldron his intellectual pot-au-feu, been reduced to savoury fusion. We here figure the morsel, of course, not as boiled to nothing, but as exposed, in return for the taste it gives out, to a new and richer saturation… Thus it has become a different and, thanks to a rare alchemy, a better thing.15

15The familiar image of the pot-au-feu, borrowed from the domestic world, is here skilfully associated with the “crucible” of the chemist and the “cauldron” of the alchemist as though James himself wanted to show us that images must not be simply juxtaposed but fused into a whole in which their own essential qualities are made to interpenetrate.

  • 16 Henry James and H.G. Wells, p. 267.
  • 17 See pp. 204-209.

16Not before they have passed through the artist’s imagination and undergone there a process that is at the same time familiar, scientific, and magical, will the received impressions from life emerge, cleansed of their impurities, as a new whole. The work of art is not a mere addition of the ingredients that go into its making. Although these retain their identities they have become a new compound and a better reality. It is this “better thing” that interests James. The only “life” that really matters for him is the one that has been reshaped and fused into unity by the creative act of an individual mind for, as he wrote in his last letter to Wells: “It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance… and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.”16 This action of the creative mind organizing the hints and glimpses from the outside world and reshaping them into a new reality is beautifully illustrated in In the Cage.17

17The artist’s final aim is to extract the quintessential value of life. In order to reach it he must neither conform too narrowly to the fixed rules of a particular “school” or to a pre-existing formal pattern (as the French naturalists tended to do) nor let himself be submerged by life (as was often the case with the authors of the “large, loose, baggy monsters” mentioned above). In his theoretical and critical essays James insists now on the freedom, now on the form, depending on the writer he criticizes or the audience to which he addresses himself. But in his fiction and prefaces he always emphasizes the necessity of both the impression of life and the form-giving process, and he repeats that the two cannot be dissociated in a work of art.

18It follows that the relation between the artist and “life” is for James the main issue in the creative process. The artist finds himself confronted with the difficult task of enclosing life within his frame without destroying its movement and fluidity. Again and again the organizing activity of the creative mind is thwarted by the muddling force of life, and the artist must continually resist its pressure. That this was not a mere theoretical statement but a vital issue, deeply rooted in James’s consciousness, is evidenced by such novels as The Ambassadors, in which Strether’s relation to “life” is central, or even in The Sacred Fount, in which James parodies himself in a hero who can as little as himself contemplate any one thing without immediately becoming aware of all its possible implications, possibilities, and relations to everything else. Art cannot do without life, but life is its most dangerous opponent.

19The only solution for the artist is to keep a sufficient distance between life and himself and to take only so much from it as serves his purpose. He is neither a biographer nor a historian. Unlike the former, who is tied to facts, and the latter, who needs more documents than he can ever use, the novelist is free to invent, and the more he does so the nearer he comes to the truth. He must be content with a minimum suggestion and once the “germ” has been dropped into his consciousness he must let it have its own organic growth. In his Notebooks James tells us that an anecdote related to him by a neighbour at dinner often gave him the hint for a story. Once he had his suggestion, however, he hastened to close his ears to the rest of the story lest clumsy Life should take his seminal idea away. When the artist is too close to the reality he wants to describe, his imagination is no longer stimulated and therefore ceases to work.

  • 18 The Real Thing, Complete Tales, VIII, 244.
  • 19 Loc. cit.

20James’s French contemporaries were too keen on reproducing an existing reality, and their form—which sometimes was simply synonymous with style—was life-denying. It is more or less for the same reason that the painter-narrator of The Real Thing fails to convey an impression of life in his drawings. He has been asked to illustrate the first book of a series in which the characters belong to the upper class. The Monarchs, who are short of money, want to sit for him, convinced that they are the “real thing.” Although he has his own professional models the artist takes pity on the pair and yields to their request. He soon realizes, however, that he cannot do anything with them: “do what I would with it, my drawing looked like a photograph or a copy of a photograph.”18 He makes the lady sit in different positions but she obliterates the differences. “She was always a lady certainly and into the bargain she was always the same lady. She was the real thing but always the same thing.”19 He cannot help contrasting her with Miss Churm, his cockney model, who can represent anybody from a queen to a shepherdess. So can the shabby Italian model who finally sits for the gentleman instead of Mr. Monarch. Because of their distance from the reality they have to convey and because of the creative effort required to do so these two lower-class characters represent the upper class better than the Monarchs with all their style. They are good actors while the others are only good subjects for photographs, they are the “make-believe” opposed to the “real thing.” Besides, their plasticity and shifting variety are those of life itself and they stimulate the artist’s imagination where the static perfection of the Monarchs only paralyzes it. By illustrating the Monarchs’ failure with life and the painter’s failure with the Monarchs the tale amply demonstrates that perception is nothing without imagination. The “real thing” is in the artist’s mind, not out of it, and his mind must be sufficiently stimulated from outside. A novel is not different from a painting. There are different ways for a work of fiction to be interesting, as various as the temperaments of men; but there is only one way for it to be good, and this is by conveying the artist’s original and unique vision of life. Its aesthetic value depends on the quality of the mind that produces it for no great work can ever proceed from a superficial mind or from a limited consciousness.

21Since the inner structure and organization of a work of art is the concrete projection of the artist’s mind it follows that when a work has aesthetic significance it also has moral significance and can reveal some of the most important truths about human character. The young James still believed that there were moral and immoral subjects, a view he rejected by the time he wrote the Prefaces. Art must not enforce a moral any more than it must submit to a pre-established formal pattern. A morality and a form imposed from outside can even be fatal to the work of art; this is a “living organism” originating in the artist’s mind, and it tells us something about its author:

  • 20 French Poets and Novelists, p. 309.

The great question as to a poet or a novelist is, How does he feel about life? What, in the last analysis, is his philosophy? When vigorous writers have reached maturity we are at liberty to look in their works for some expression of a total view of the world they have been so actively observing. This is the most interesting thing their works offer us.20

  • 21 The Story of a Masterpiece, Complete Tales, I, 285.

22In the same way Art in general teaches us something about Life and helps us to understand it. It illuminates the human scene, gives it a meaning and enables us to see it better than through our senses, which are apt to mislead us. Giotto teaches the hero of Travelling Companions to be “real,” to distinguish between genuine and factitious sentiments. In The Story of a Masterpiece Baxter’s portrait of Miriam Everett, painted with “something more than knowledge—with imagination, with feeling,”21 opens John Lennox’s eyes to the levity and heartlessness of his betrothed. In The Liar the artist’s curiosity and interest in his model enable him to strip Colonel Capadose of his mask and to show him in his true light. The truth of these portraits so much imposes itself on the spectators that they can hardly tolerate it: John Lennox commits a symbolical murder by stabbing the portrait of his betrothed, and Colonel Capadose a symbolical suicide by stabbing his own.

23Such works are good—aesthetically and morally—because they constitute for those who see them an “enlargement of experience”:

  • 22 Partial Portraits (London, 1888), p. 227.

The success of a work of art, to my mind, may be measured by the degree to which it produces a certain illusion; that illusion makes it appear to us for the time that we have lived another life—that we have had a miraculous enlargement of experience.22

  • 23 Essays of George Eliot, ed. Thomas Pinney (London, 1963), pp. 270-271.

24This was also, more or less, what George Eliot had in mind when she stated, in “The Natural History of German Life,” that “the greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies. Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellowmen beyond the bounds of our personal lot.”23 But for her the purpose of art was to enlarge man’s heart by extending his sympathies “beyond the bounds of [his] personal lot”; for him, it was to enlarge man’s mind by stretching his consciousness to its utmost limit.

25Whether or not his characters become better after finding out significant truths about their fellow-beings, James does not care to tell us. Neither does he assume that Art improves man’s heart. Be as conscious as you can, he simply says. And since this is the highest good conceivable, the rest will inevitably follow.


1 The Art of the Novel, p. 155.

2 Selected Literary Criticism, ed. Morris Shapira (London, 1963), p. 136.

3 A complete list of James’s critical articles on French writers mentioned in this chapter is given after the bibliography. For the compilation of this list—which includes eighty-one articles, essays and reviews—I am much indebted to A Bibliography of Henry James, by Leon Edel and Dan H. Laurence, whose last but one section consists of James’s year-to-year contributions to periodicals. Except for the review of Anatole France’s L’Orme du Mail and that of Gautier’s Tableaux de Siege, two unsigned reviews of George Sand and an unsigned note on Renan, all these articles have been reprinted, either by James himself (in French Poets and Novelists, Notes on Novelists, Partial Portraits and Notes in London and Elsewhere) or by different editors. In his list of James’s contributions to periodicals and magazines Leon Edel mentions the books in which the original essays have been reprinted. To these must be added Morris Shapira’s Selected Literary Criticism (London, 1963), which appeared after Edel’s bibliography, and contains many of the articles on French writers already reprinted in The House of Fiction.

4 On 25 April 1884 Walter Besant, a Victorian novelist, had delivered a lecture on the novel at the Royal Institution. James was glad to hear him claim for the novel the same honour as for the fine arts and he expressed his own ideas on the subject in “The Art of Fiction.”

5 Their correspondence was edited by Leon Edel and Gordon M. Ray in Henry James and H.G. Wells. A Record of their Friendship, their Debate on the Art of Fiction, and their Quarrel (London, 1958).

6 Letter to Hugh Walpole, 19 May 1912, Selected Letters, pp. 201-202.

7 Preface to The Tragic Muse, The Art of the Novel, p. 84.

8 Barbara Hardy, among others, has attempted to correct this view in The Novels of George Eliot (New York, 1959).

9 The House of Fiction, p. 46. My italics.

10 See The Art of the Novel.

11 The Art of the Novel, p. 46.

12 Preface to The Awkward Age, The Art of the Novel, p. 101.

13 Preface to Lady Barberina, ibid., p. 201.

14 Preface to The Ambassadors, ibid., p. 312.

15 Preface to The Lesson of the Master, ibid., p. 230.

16 Henry James and H.G. Wells, p. 267.

17 See pp. 204-209.

18 The Real Thing, Complete Tales, VIII, 244.

19 Loc. cit.

20 French Poets and Novelists, p. 309.

21 The Story of a Masterpiece, Complete Tales, I, 285.

22 Partial Portraits (London, 1888), p. 227.

23 Essays of George Eliot, ed. Thomas Pinney (London, 1963), pp. 270-271.

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