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Henry James

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Jeanne Delbaere-Garant

II. The Critic

French Critics. Taine, Schérer, Sainte-Beuve, Renan

Texte intégral

1Henry James was twenty-one when he wrote his first critical review, an unsigned paper on Nassau W. Senior’s “Essays on Fiction” for the North American Review of October 1864. From the start he saw in the critic the real helper of the artist, his interpreter, his brother. He gives us his view of the good critic in an article entitled “Criticism”:

  • 1 Selected Literary Criticism, p. 136.

Just in proportion as he is sentient and restless, just in proportion as he reacts and reciprocates and penetrates, is the critic a valuable instrument; for in literature assuredly criticism is the critic, just as art is the artist; it being assuredly the artist who invented art and the critic who invented criticism and not the other way round.
And 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.1

  • 2 In his review of E. Schérer’s Nouvelles études sur la littérature contemporaine, reprinted in Note (...)

2As early as 1865 James had distinguished between “great” and “small” criticism.2 Pure criticism, he said, following E.A. Poe, must be of the small kind. Sainte-Beuve was a “small” critic because he compared a work with itself, with its own concrete standard of truth; Goethe, on the contrary, was a “great” critic, a philosopher who compared a work with an abstract principle of truth. James was a critic of the smaller kind and remained strictly empirical. He hated nothing more than standards imposed from outside: for him a work was good if it answered to the intention of its author. James was not interested in philosophy other than practical. His sole venture in the field of philosophy was his review of T.W. Higginson’s edition of Epictetus. His whole life was focused exclusively on his literary activity. He therefore turned early to France, where criticism was taken more seriously than in America, and he became acquainted with two contrasting temperaments: Taine and Sainte-Beuve. His reaction to them gives us ampler information on his own personality than any of his other writings and is an excellent starting-point for the study of his criticism.

3Taine was not pre-eminently a critic, but alternately a philosopher and a historian. Yet he had a great influence on literature in general and on literary criticism in particular: after him it became important to study the conditions under which a work of art was produced, the time and place in which it appeared, and its relation with the past. Taine’s deterministic views influenced writers such as Zola, who applied his method in fiction. James did not like him any more than he liked Zola. He had always been averse to general views and a priori ideas. He disliked Taine’s systems, partiality, and passion. But if he found his philosophy superficial, he admired his style, particularly the descriptions and images: when judging other writers Taine is better at painting portraits than at apprehending their minds, and when describing Paris he disguises his lack of feeling under a superabundance of images. He is a remarkable observer and it would be difficult to imagine a better travelling companion. Therefore, James seems to say, let us listen to him since he describes so well, let us take him as a guide and draw our own inferences afterwards.

  • 3 Literary Reviews and Essays, p. 46.

4“The affirmative movement of M. Taine’s mind,” James wrote in 1868, “is always a ringing hammer-blow. Every proposition is fastened down with a tenpenny nail. Finally, of course, this is very fatiguing; your head aches with the metallic resonance of the process. It is the climax of dogmatism.”3 What James hated above all was Taine’s positivism: dogmatism, as well as the deterministic interpretation of man, was uncongenial to the Anglo-Saxon and to James in particular. This conception deprives man of any mystery or sanctity. Taine studies him exactly as he would study a plant or a machine. But then, James asks, if the study of the soil and climate or of the components of the machine helps us to understand the plant or the machine, can the same method be successfully applied to the much more complicated human organism?

  • 4 Ibid., p. 49.

The question remains, indeed, with each reader as to whether, as the author claims, the description covers all the facts; as to whether his famous theory of la race, le milieu, le moment is an adequate explanation of the various complications of any human organism—his own (the reader’s) in particular.4

  • 5 Ibid., p. 62.
  • 6 Ibid., p. 66.
  • 7 Ibid., p. 68.

5In 1872 James reviewed Taine’s Notes sur l’Angleterre for the Nation and H. Van Laun’s translation of Histoire de la littérature anglaise for the Atlantic Monthly. Here again he shows that descriptive and not philosophical writing was Taine’s strong point. His opinions on English literature lack “that indefinable quality of spiritual initiation which is the tardy consummate fruit of a wasteful, purposeless, passionate sympathy.”5 Although James does not want to discuss, nor even to question, the validity of Taine’s opinions he shows that the French critic often misses the point and that his conviction that everything can be accounted for is particularly childish. By applying the method of the exact sciences to psychological research, to authors, books, works of art and society, Taine can only remain on the surface of things. Moreover, in his “inordinate haste to conclude” and in order to reach his aim Taine must often force his expression: this produces beautiful effects of style but it is “fatal to truth in so far as truth resides in fine shades and degrees.”6 There are no shades in Taine’s mind, and there are none in his style either: it has vigour and amplitude and therefore loses little in translation because it is the kind of language which English is peculiarly qualified to render. Once, in his Notes on Paris, Taine tried to be light and graceful, but the effect was like “hearing a man with a deep bass voice trying to sing an air written for a thin tenor.”7

6In a letter to the Tribune in 1876 James once more repeats that the literary quality of Taine’s genius seems to be his more valuable side, but he refuses to take his philosophical ideas seriously.

  • 8 E. Zola, Le roman expérimental (Paris, 1880), p. 221.

7The deterministic view of man that was to be the motto of the naturalists does not convince James, especially when applied in such a systematic way. Zola liked Taine better than Sainte-Beuve because Taine was more scientific and “réduisit en lois la méthode que Sainte-Beuve employait un peu en virtuose.”8 James, on the contrary, praises the virtuose:

  • 9 Literary Reviews and Essays, pp. 63-64.

Now Sainte-Beuve is, to our sense, the better apostle of the two. In purpose the least doctrinal of critics, it was by his very horror of dogmas, moulds, and formulas, that he so effectively contributed to the science of literary interpretation. The truly devout patience with which he kept his final conclusion in abeyance until after an exhaustive survey of the facts, after perpetual returns and ever-deferred farewells to them, is his living testimony to the importance of the facts. Just as he could never reconcile himself to saying his last word on book or author, so he never pretended to have devised a method which should be a key to truth. The truth for M. Taine lies stored up, as one may say, in great lumps and blocks, to be released and detached by a few lively hammer-blows; while for Sainte-Beuve it was a diffused and imponderable essence, as vague as the carbon in the air which nourishes vegetation, and, like it, to be disengaged by patient chemistry. His only method was fairly to dissolve his attention in the sea of circumstance surrounding the object of his study, and we cannot but think his frank provisional empiricism more truly scientific than M. Taine’s premature philosophy.9

8Each novelist’s choice and preference express their several temperaments: on the one hand, the love of laws, of formulas, the need to squeeze everything into a system; on the other, the absence of conclusion, the sense of relativity, the “patient chemistry.”

  • 10 Letters, II, 253.
  • 11 French Poets and Novelists, p. 103.

9James judged Taine from an essentially aesthetic point of view. In this he differed from the French, for whom Taine’s importance was primarily philosophical. As an Anglo-Saxon James considered that his systematic, dogmatic spirit was an obstacle to a true understanding of art; at the same time it also gave him extraordinary force and vigour: “He lacks saturation, lacks waste of acquaintance,” James wrote to Hugh Walpole (who had just read Taine’s English Literature) on 14 August 1912, “but sees with a magnificent objectivity, reacts with an energy to match, expresses with a splendid amplitude, and has just the critical value, I think, of being so off, so far (gives such an intellectual reach) and judging and feeling in so different an air.”10 In spite of its moral and philosophical shortcomings, James considered Taine’s work as an important contribution to literature and history. It belonged, together with Balzac’s Comédie Humaine and Comte’s Cours de philosophie positive, to those great enterprises which are “equally characteristic of the French passion for completeness, for symmetry, for making a system as neat as an epigram—of its intolerance of the indefinite, the unformulated.”11

  • 12 Notes of a Son and Brother, p. 321.
  • 13 Literary Reviews and Essays, p. 85.
  • 14 Notes and Reviews, pp. 105-106.

10At the time when James began to feel the call to art and literature the Causeries du Lundi were already on his table, and the old man who wrote the Notes of a Son and Brother explains how natural it was that this first acquaintance should have counted so much for him, that it was bound to “form a really sacred date in the development of any historic or esthetic consciousness worth mentioning.”12 Sainte-Beuve, whom he was later to call “the intellectual companion, the ever present suggestive, inspiring friend of those who love letters,”13 was from far back the young man’s companion. But if the mature writer did not hesitate to call Sainte-Beuve the first among contemporary critics the young James had not approved of him without reservations. At the beginning of his literary career James showed the same prevailing moral concern when he studied the works of living critics as when he studied those of novelists. He found in Edmond Schérer, whose Nouvelles études sur la littérature contemporaine he reviewed in 1865, a greater moral sense, a solidity and consistency which seemed to him necessary for men continually dealing with the ideas of others and therefore always depending on the opinion of the authors they studied. He preferred him because the moral distinction between good and evil is always clear in his pages, “because, in short, we salute in this fact that wisdom which, after having made the journey round the whole sphere of knowledge, returns at last with a melancholy joy to morality.”14 At that time James was still an American at heart and he was convinced that truth included not only the highest artistry but also the highest morality. He had not yet come to see that genius is its own justification. Schérer, however, did not long remain his favourite. In 1876 James recognized that in spite of his moral concern Schérer was not a wide-ranging mind, and he regretted that he had confined himself to short journalistic articles. Reading Schérer’s comments on the Germans and their literature James wished that Sainte-Beuve could have survived the war and spoken on the same subject:

  • 15 Literary Reviews and Essays, p. 122.

The situation would have been a most interesting test of that subtilized and almost etherealized faculty of impartiality which had developed in him in his later years. It would have given play to all his finesse—to that strange mixture of fatal compliments and flattering blame.15

  • 16 Ibid., p. 78.

11In 1868 James reviewed Sainte-Beuve’s Portraits of Celebrated Women for the Nation and praised the French critic’s devotion, his humility, and his yielding to the charm of feminine grace and talent. He called the volume a contribution to pure literature and its author “a writer and a psychologist—an empiric, if you will, in each case, but a most successful one.”16 The subject, it is true, must have appealed to James, who was always tender towards women, especially towards the great French ladies who ran the salons and influenced the literature and politics of the eighteenth century. James’s interest in Sainte-Beuve increased every year. In 1875 he reviewed his Premiers Lundis, in which he already detected the promise of their author’s future. He emphasized the sagacity and shrewdness of so young a critic and confessed that his curiosity touching him was infinite:

  • 17 “Sainte-Beuve’s First Articles,” op. cit., p. 83.
    Ibid., p. 83.

We feel as if we could never learn enough about him. His intellectual fecundity was so unbounded that one imagines that the history of his individual opinions would throw a preternaturally brilliant light upon the laws of the human mind at large.17

12The “laws of the human mind at large” are, indeed, what James always tries to find out. Starting from the particular individual case—and never from a general idea—he tries to understand the poetic process, the way in which an experience undergoes transformation in the mind of the artist, the psychology of Art. His own stories and novels about art clearly show that particulars about his painters or writers are never regarded as an end in themselves but as a means to discover the laws of artistic creation and to define the temperament of the artist. James’s criticism, like Sainte-Beuve’s, is never narrowly biographical. The only thing that matters about an artist is the story of his mind, of his moral, intellectual, and emotional development, and the critic must endeavour to come as near as possible to understanding the quality of this mind.

13In the English Portraits, James says, Sainte-Beuve was not always at his best because, in spite of his partially English ancestry, he was a Frenchman to his finger-tips. There is a vein of old French conservatism in his taste:

  • 18 Ibid., p. 87.

Sainte-Beuve, as a whole, is the least of a Philistine conceivable; but to the end of his life, in spite of passing fancies and sudden enthusiasms, in spite of his immense and constant intellectual hospitality and flexibility, what he most relished was temperance, perfect taste, measure. This fact of necessity makes him a partial and inadequate witness to English literature.18

14Besides his patience, his exactitude, his memory, and his fancy, Sainte-Beuve had defects and limitations, but to James they were even more interesting than his qualities, because they were limitations of temper, of morality, and of generosity. Now and then James also noticed limitations of taste but these were generally faults of omission: what Sainte-Beuve admired was always admirable but there were other admirable things to which he was unable to do justice, admirable writers like Balzac whom he detested and whose colossal proportions he never seemed to suspect.

15“Sainte-Beuve’s letters,” James wrote in his review of 1880, “do nothing but complete a picture which was already a very vivid one.” And the reader, seeing the portrait gradually come to light, cannot help being struck by its extraordinary resemblance to James himself:

  • 19 American Literary Criticism, ed. W.M. Payne (London, 1904), p. 300.

No writer was ever more personal, more certain, in the long run, to infuse into his judgements of people and things those elements out of which an image of himself might be constructed. He was literary in every pulsation of his being, and he expressed himself totally in his literary life. No character and no career were ever more homogeneous. He had no disturbing, perverting tastes; he suffered no retarding, embarrassing accidents. He lost no time, and he never wasted any. He was not even married; his literary consciousness was never complicated with the sense of an unliterary condition. His mind was never diverted or distracted from its natural exercise—that of looking in literature for illustrations of life, and of looking in life for aids to literature. Therefore it is, as I say, that his work offers a singularly complete image of his character, his tastes, his temper, his idiosyncrasies. It was from himself always that he spoke—from his own personal and intimate point of view.19

  • 20 Ibid., pp. 306-307.

16Could one find better words to describe James? Almost the whole could be quoted, almost every touch of the picture could be applied to the American novelist: the feminine element, the subtlety, the art of insinuation, the discretion, the taste, the refusal to get enrolled in a literary group or camp, the very conception of the critic. Like Sainte-Beuve James refused to consider the critic as a rigid censor or lawgiver and saw in him the active interpreter and commentator “whose constant aim was to arrive at justness of characterization.” Sainte-Beuve, like James’s fictitious critic George Corvick, who tried to discover the figure in the carpet, endeavoured “to’ hit it ’… to express it, to put his finger on the point; his philosophy was to accept and make the best of truths so discriminated.”20 His mind was extremely rich and flexible, and the interest of the letters resides in their providing abundant information on the man as well as on the writer. James liked to observe the working of such a mind and—for once—found the personal details the most interesting parts of those volumes. What particularly struck him was to find in Sainte-Beuve two passions which are commonly assumed to exclude each other: the passion for scholarship and the passion for life:

  • 21 Ibid., p. 301.

No scholar was ever so much of an observer, of a moralist, a psychologist; and no such regular and beguiled abonné to the general spectacle was ever so much of a scholar.21

17The limited amount of experience of most French writers was always to puzzle James beyond measure. Though a Frenchman himself, Sainte-Beuve did not resemble his compatriots and in his work tried to distribute science and experience in equal proportions. Unlike them also, he always set the highest value on individual freedom and refused to belong to literary groups, which drew upon him the hatred of many of his fellow-countrymen. But Sainte-Beuve was more than feminine: he was “feline” and if he had feline agility he also had the feline claw. He was sometimes particularly corrosive but nobody could have made him change his mind once he had passed judgment. He wanted above all to remain a free observer:

  • 22 22 Ibid., p. 305.

In a society that swarmed with camps and coteries, with partisans and advocates, he was more than any one else the independent individual, pinning his faith to no emblazoned standard and selling his vote to no exclusive group. The literary atmosphere in France has always been full of watchwords and catchwords, the emblems and tokens of irreconcilable factions and of what may be called vested literary interests. His instinct, from the beginning of his career, was to mistrust any way of looking at things which should connect the observer with a party pledged to take the point of view most likely to minister to its prosperity.22

18At the age of twenty-four James wrote to T.S. Perry:

  • 23 Letter to T.S. Perry, 20 September 1867, Selected Letters, p. 51.

Our vast literature and literary history is to most of us an unexplored field—especially when we compare it to what the French is to the French. Deep in the timorous recesses of my being is a vague desire to do for our dear old English letters and writers something of what Ste. Beuve and the best French critics have done for theirs… When I say that I should like to do as Ste. Beuve has done, I don’t mean that I should like to imitate him, or reproduce him in English: but only that I should like to acquire something of his intelligence and his patience and vigour. One feels—I feel at least, that he is a man of the past, of a dead generation; and that we young Americans are (without cant) men of the future. I feel that my own chance for success as a critic is to let all the breezes of the west blow through me at their will. We are Americans born—il faut en prendre son parti. I look upon it as a great blessing; and I think that to be an American is an excellent preparation for culture.23

19The young American felt that an immense task was awaiting him, and as far back as 1867 he wanted to emulate Sainte-Beuve. He studied the works of other French critics like Taine and Schérer but he soon turned his back on them to return to the model of his youth. Sainte-Beuve was the only critic of his time who could effect the fusion of science and experience. Science was at his service, but he was not—like Taine among the critics and Zola among the novelists—at the service of science. He had not the usual defects of the French: he was not dogmatic, he valued life as much as science, and he refused to get enrolled in literary schools. James had once wanted to “acquire something of his intelligence and his patience and vigour.” He had wanted to resemble him and he succeeded so well that in the 1880 portrait it is difficult to distinguish the model from the painter.

  • 24 In February of the same year appeared “Daniel Deronda: A Conversation.” Although other writers hav (...)
  • 25 Parisian Sketches, p. 157.
  • 26 Ibid., p. 159.
  • 27 Loc. cit.
  • 28 Ibid., p. 162.

20A new volume by Renan, James writes in his 1876 review of Dialogues et Fragments Philosophiques,24 is an intellectual feast and is immediately read by all lovers of good writing. “If he is not the first of French writers,” he goes on, “I don’t know who may claim the title.”25 Though Renan is not a literary critic, James is greatly interested in what he writes because of the extraordinary fertility of his intellect and his great contribution to human wisdom. His “intellectual foppishness, “his” love of paradox and of distinction for distinction’s sake”26 often irritate the American writer, who attributes this to a lack of immediate contact with life, “general life as distinguished from the horizon of pure learning which surrounds the cabinet de travail of a Parisian scholar.”27 Through a more direct contact with life, it seems to James, Renan’s doubts and perplexities would have found a natural solution. Quoting large extracts from the work under review James says that the charm of Renan’s style is hard to define. It is “above all things urbane, and with its exquisite form, is suggestive of moral graces, amenity, delicacy, generosity.”28

21James can only compare Renan with Sainte-Beuve and Matthew Arnold, two writers he also greatly admires. In an article on Matthew Arnold dating from 1884 he alludes to Renan as the great representative in France of the union between the religious sentiment and the human mind at large. But he cannot help suspecting the Frenchman of a certain dandyism in his interpretation of the conscience of man. Matthew Arnold has been charged with the same fault but James considers that, being an Englishman, he does not deserve it so much:

  • 29 Literary Reviews and Essays, p. 346.

Ernest Renan… has treated religion as he might have treated one of the fine arts. Of him it may even be said, that though he has never spoken of it but as the sovereign thing in life, yet there is in him, as an interpreter of the conscience of man, a certain dandyism, a slight fatuity, of worldly culture, of which Mr. Arnold too has been accused, but from which (with the smaller assurance of an Englishman in such matters) he is much more exempt.29

  • 30 Selected Literary Criticism, p. 84.
  • 31 Literary Reviews and Essays, pp. 32-33.
  • 32 Souvenirs d’enfance et de jeunesse (Paris, s.d.), p. 347.

22James again refers to Renan in his essay on Emerson (1887) because, like Emerson, Renan—whom James calls a “distinguished moralist”30—hardly ever read a novel and was originally a dissident priest. His education in Catholic seminaries largely accounts for his extraordinarily subtle view of things, which strikes James as a real work of art. How could such an urbane and delicate mind afford to be “vulgar” and to speak of himself is a question that James felt at a loss to answer. This accounts for the interest he took in Renan’s Souvenirs d’enfance et de jeunesse, which he reviewed in 1883; here the writer has “alighted from his gilded coach… he has come down into the streets and walked about with the multitude. He has, in a word, waived the question of privacy.”31 In this book the reader will discover qualities that are seldom found together. Renan’s task was particularly difficult: he proposed to talk about himself and yet to remain a model of delicacy. For James the two things are incompatible because an aristocratic mind is usually not prone to take other minds into its confidence. Renan is prone to make confidence and James thinks that it can be explained by the fact that he writes “in a language which makes everything definite, including confessions and other forms of self-reference” and that as he is a good talker his genius for talk often carries him too far. Moreover, Renan’s revelations about himself are of a particular kind: he tells the history of his mind and only reports small domestic facts when it is absolutely necessary and even then treats them “tout à fait en raccourci.”32 What he wants to convey through his Souvenirs is, as he writes in the preface, his philosophy of life:

  • 33 Ibid., Préface, p. III.

S’imaginer que les menus détails de sa propre vie valent la peine d’être fixés, c’est donner la preuve d’une bien mesquine vanité. On écrit de telles choses pour transmettre aux autres la théorie de l’univers qu’on porte en soi.33

  • 34 Literary Reviews and Essays, p. 40.
  • 35 Ibid., p. 34.
  • 36 Ibid., p. 43.

23James admires Renan’s moral richness and his spiritual aspirations but he deplores his lack of concreteness. His portraits are often too white, too general, because their author, “wonderfully at home in the abstract, has rather neglected the concrete.”34 James sees this as a French characteristic. But though he generally prefers the concrete particular to loose and abstract generalities, he shows that it is hardly a fault in this case since Renan narrates his own spiritual history and moves in “a region of abstractions where the most tangible thing was the palpitating conscience.”35 The experience has been refined, the dross has been eliminated, and reality has become disinfected in the process: Renan’s views were “nothing if not exquisite, views sifted and filtered through an infinite intellectual experience.”36

  • 37 Souvenirs d’enfance et de jeunesse, p. 367.

24The gentleman from New England who so often expressed his resentment at the lack of reserve of the French was sure to welcome this “exquisite” writer in whom intelligence so harmoniously blended with moral qualities. Here was a Frenchman possessed with all the qualities of his race (clarity, subtlety, urbanity, style) but who disapproved of extremes in any single direction and rejected the one-sided, mechanical approach to life. Here was a man who could afford to write about himself without being vulgar, and who ended his Souvenirs by apologizing for the “faute insupportable qu’un tel genre fait commettre à chaque ligne.”37 Here was a writer who shrank from the full light of reality and only felt at ease at a sufficient remove from it. Clearly, Renan belonged to the same spiritual family as James himself. They had not only the same delicate sensibility but also shared a common faith in man’s free will and perfectibility.

Notes

1 Selected Literary Criticism, p. 136.

2 In his review of E. Schérer’s Nouvelles études sur la littérature contemporaine, reprinted in Notes and Reviews, ed. Pierre de Chaignon La Rose (Cambridge, Mass., 1921).

3 Literary Reviews and Essays, p. 46.

4 Ibid., p. 49.

5 Ibid., p. 62.

6 Ibid., p. 66.

7 Ibid., p. 68.

8 E. Zola, Le roman expérimental (Paris, 1880), p. 221.

9 Literary Reviews and Essays, pp. 63-64.

10 Letters, II, 253.

11 French Poets and Novelists, p. 103.

12 Notes of a Son and Brother, p. 321.

13 Literary Reviews and Essays, p. 85.

14 Notes and Reviews, pp. 105-106.

15 Literary Reviews and Essays, p. 122.

16 Ibid., p. 78.

17 “Sainte-Beuve’s First Articles,” op. cit., p. 83.
Ibid., p. 83.

18 Ibid., p. 87.

19 American Literary Criticism, ed. W.M. Payne (London, 1904), p. 300.

20 Ibid., pp. 306-307.

21 Ibid., p. 301.

22 22 Ibid., p. 305.

23 Letter to T.S. Perry, 20 September 1867, Selected Letters, p. 51.

24 In February of the same year appeared “Daniel Deronda: A Conversation.” Although other writers have imagined a group of friends exchanging reflexions on the same subject James may have thought of Renan when casting his essay in the form of a dialogue. Indeed he remarks in his review that “it is probable that if his convictions and feelings are not identical with those of either of his interlocutors, they have a great deal in common with the whole mass of the discussion, and that Philatethes, Theophrastus and Theoctistes are but names for certain moods of M. Renan’s mind.” (Parisian Sketches, p. 158) Similarly Theodora, Constantius and Pulcheria are but names for certain moods of James’s.

25 Parisian Sketches, p. 157.

26 Ibid., p. 159.

27 Loc. cit.

28 Ibid., p. 162.

29 Literary Reviews and Essays, p. 346.

30 Selected Literary Criticism, p. 84.

31 Literary Reviews and Essays, pp. 32-33.

32 Souvenirs d’enfance et de jeunesse (Paris, s.d.), p. 347.

33 Ibid., Préface, p. III.

34 Literary Reviews and Essays, p. 40.

35 Ibid., p. 34.

36 Ibid., p. 43.

37 Souvenirs d’enfance et de jeunesse, p. 367.

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