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Henry James

Jeanne Delbaere-Garant

II. The Critic


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1James began to review French works in the sixties and he went on writing on French authors till his death; his critical activity spanned thus almost a whole century of literature, from the romanticism of a Victor Hugo to the psychological realism of a Bourget. The young man’s admiration for such minor writers as Feuillet or Schérer can be ascribed to his deeply rooted conviction that art should teach a lesson and enforce a moral. His interest in such secondary figures as Maurice de Guérin and his sister shows that his ideas were not yet very original and that he worked in the shadow of Matthew Arnold, who was the link between Sainte-Beuve, his model, and himself. This link was cut in the seventies but James went on drawing on Sainte-Beuve, as appears from his review of Les Fleurs du Mal. His criticism of the writers he met in Paris in 1875-1876 was more personal. James admired Turgenev from the first but on the whole he objected to the French naturalists’ crude subjects and ignorance of the moral world. His interest in Maupassant was parallel with his interest in the theatre and in the short story. After the turn of the century he devoted himself exclusively to major writers and his long essays on Balzac, Flaubert, and Zola are those of a mature critic with strong personal convictions.

  • 1 James wrote to his brother on 20 February 1884 and to Howells on 21 February of the same year. Let (...)

2James’s dislike of systems, classifications, and scientific method was clearly reflected in his own essays. He ranged himself, like Sainte-Beuve, among the “critics of the smaller kind,” those who started from the work rather than from general laws. He wrote nothing that resembled a “theory of fiction.” What came closest to this were the prefaces to his own works, which always deal with particular cases. James avoided generalizations and even in his few articles on the novel his attitude changed according to the public to which he addressed himself: he proclaimed his admiration for the French realists all the louder as the artistic levity of his readers was greater. The same attitude can be found in his letters: he spoke of the French “ignorance, corruption and complacency” in a letter to his brother, but wrote the next day to W.D. Howells that they did “the only kind of work, to-day, that I respect.”1 Finally, his artistic conviction itself was neither static nor restrictive. His interest and admiration for such writers as Rostand, George Sand, and Loti, who so little conformed to his own aesthetic canons, reveal his catholic taste and broad-mindedness in the presence of talent, facility and poetic instinct.

  • 2 The Real Right Thing. Complete Tales, X, 483.

3James’s reviews of French correspondences, biographies and memoirs often provided him with a pretext for digressing on the question of privacy. He remarked that, as a rule, the French took more pleasure in talking about themselves than did the Anglo-Saxons, that they showed less reserve, less discretion and that they did not hesitate to give a writer’s—or their own—private life away to the public. James himself was careful to preserve his own private life and succeeded in concealing from the public all that was not strictly relevant to his literary life. How large the question loomed in his mind appears from the importance he gave it in his fiction. In The Aspern Papers Miss Tita does “the great thing” by burning the dead poet’s love letters, and the “real right thing” in the tale of the same name is again to let the dead writer alone, as the would-be biographer is made to understand by the ghost barring the way to Ashton Doyle’s study. In The Coxon Fund the narrator burns without opening it the letter in which he might have found the worst about the gifted but immoral writer he admires. “There are natures, there are lives, that shrink,”2 the young man says in The Real Right Thing.

4James was one of these natures. He thought that revelations about the artist’s private life should have nothing to do with honest criticism, and should be left to journalism. Mr. Morrow in The Death of the Lion and Mr. Beston in John Delavoy run important newspapers but have no respect for the personality of artists. They only want to have as many subscribers as possible and they collect anecdotes, gossip, indiscreet pictures of the artist’s domestic habits and personal arrangements in order to please their public. James saw in journalism the new enemy against which the artist would have to defend himself in order to save his personal integrity. When asked to give details about the writer’s private life the young critic and John Delavoy’s sister can only show his work. These characters were James’s mouthpieces. He knew that a writer is his work and that the work alone can reveal his secret. He therefore approached French literature in the same way as he had approached the French scene: here also, he went from art back to life, that is, from the work back to the personal experience that prompted it. Information on the number of George Sand’s lovers, on Flaubert’s epileptic fits or on the ladies to whom Stendhal and Mérimée were devoted does not increase our understanding of their work. The naked facts are uninteresting in themselves unless they throw light on the artist’s mind and reveal the mechanism by which a lived episode becomes a work of art. But for Elle et Lui the love affair between George Sand and Alfred de Musset would have been mere vulgar gossip. Starting from the work James tried to get at the writer’s personal experience, then at the writer’s mind, and from there at the laws of the creative process and even of the human mind at large.

5The problem of privacy and the different way in which it was treated in France appealed to James because of his constant preoccupation with the relation between art and experience. Very early he had been conscious of the antinomy:

  • 3 Notes of a Son and Brother, pp. 25-26.

I was under the impression… that life and knowledge were simply mutual opposites, one inconsistent with the other; though hovered about, together, at the same time, by the anomaly that when knowledge impinged upon life, pushed against her, as it were, and drove her to the wall, it was all right, and such was knowledge’s way and title; whereas when life played the like tricks with knowledge nothing but shame for the ruder, even if lighter, party could accrue. There was to come to me of course in time the due perception that neither was of the least use—use to myself—without the other; but meanwhile, and even for much after, the extreme embarrassment continued: to whichever of the opposites one gave one’s self it was with a sense of all but basely sacrificing the other. However, the conflict and the drama involved in the question at large was doubtless what was to make consciousness—under whichever of the two names one preferred to entertain it—supremely intense and interesting.3

  • 4 The Author of “Beltraffio,” Complete Tales, V, 333.

6The artist must manage to reconcile the conflicting claims of art and experience, of life and knowledge. He cannot always solve the problem as easily as Clare Vawdrey does in The Private Life by going out in society while his other half sits in the dark and writes. Too often, indeed, the one is sacrificed to the other. Experience hinders and retards the artist’s production. Poor Dencombe in The Middle Years is bitterly aware of it when he sits on his bench at Bournemouth and feels that he will not recover his health and have a second chance. There is no second chance. What the artist produces, whatever his amount of experience, is only the feasible, what he really can, what he really is. “Life is really too short for art,”4 the author of “Beltraffio” complains. And Neil Paraday, whose obscurity had so far protected him, falls a prey to the ruthless lion-hunters who drag him from his seclusion and kill him. The only solution for the artist is to maintain the balance between the two and to see that the one does not prevail over the other. In the tale that bears his name Benvolio is divided between Scolastica (Knowledge) and the Duchess (Life), but both are equally necessary to feed his mind. When he misses the one he ceases to be interested in the other, and his work runs dry.

7Unlike Benvolio, the French naturalists repudiated the Duchess and believed that they could live with Scolastica alone. They silenced the one half of themselves that was not literary and became Benedictine monks in the service of art. Apart from some exceptions like Loti and George Sand, they had no public life to speak of. Besides, by deciding from the start that a clear line should be drawn between morality and art and that “the former had no more to do with the latter than it has with astronomy or embryology,” they subjected their work to a self-mutilation of the same kind as that to which they had subjected their lives. If James had once reproached the French with treating immoral subjects, he quickly freed himself from this conventional conception of morality. The moral absolutism of such writers as Augier, Dumas, or Feuillet was still more distasteful to him than Flaubert’s strict adherence to the doctrine of art for art’s sake. The “moral sensibility” for which, as a mature critic, he looks in vain in French works is something else: it is the sensitivity to the psychological complexity of man in his totality, both as a moral and as a physical being. It is the whole man, the total sensibility, that intuits the world, and a work produced by a mutilated personality must necessarily bear the mark of the mutilation.

8By refusing to waste time and to lose a single grain of observation the adept of naturalism became a mere machine in the service of art:

  • 5 Introduction to Loti’s Impressions, p. 7.

His soul, his life and its pulsations, are mere wheels and springs in the machinery of expression, and the man, as a man, can treat himself to no distinctive experience, reserve no garden-plot for wasteful human use. There are precious kinds of silence that he ceases to be able to afford, luxuries of simple choice, happy failures of logic for ever banished from his budget.5

9The garden-plot, the wasteful personal experience is significantly opposed to the efficiency of the machine. The machine-made work is sure to be more “perfect
han the hand-made. But what does perfection mean in a work of art if man, the sole object of its existence, disappears in the process? The only value—aesthetic as well as moral—of a novel lies in its being a personal impression of life and thereby revealing significant truths about human character.

  • 6 In his remarkable essay on Jules Renard, M. Jean-Paul Sartre has shown how this writer, coming at (...)

10The lack of life and of moral awareness in French works prevented James from adhering to their authors’ aesthetic and philosophical views. There were more things in life, he thought, than had ever been dreamed of in naturalism. In their effort to get at reality through the sole medium of the senses the French had killed it, and life had become momified in the process. There was no going further after Zola. Those who came after him bumped against a dead wall and were obliged to explore other fields, the language itself having been exhausted.6 For some time James believed that Bourget could achieve the fusion of the moral and the sensory but he was soon obliged to recognize that this writer was as thoroughly French as the others, and spoiled the richness of life under the heavy weight of his theories. Turgenev, a foreigner like himself, was the only one in whom he found moral awareness, “luxuries of simple choice,” and “happy failures of logic.” He was the real bridge between himself and the French, an intermediary strikingly similar to those of his fiction.

  • 7 The Beldonald Holbein, Complete Tales, XI, 295-296.

11Having studied closely the French and Anglo-Saxon literatures James was faced with the difficult problem of reconciling the “form” of the French novel with the “life” of the English. A fervent admirer of George Eliot in England and of Hawthorne in America he had been obliged to recognize that even the greatest writers of his literary world possessed little sense of form and economy. He had then turned to the French because they knew how to deal properly with the concrete. But he soon noticed that their form developed in inverse proportion to life. The more he saw their “intellectual daylight,” the more he cultivated ambiguity; the more they theorized, the more he kept himself disponible; the more he became acquainted with their unsympathetic irony, the more he accentuated his good-natured humour. In this way he put a distance between himself and reality, which enabled him to convey an impression of density and to create three-dimensional characters. The chiaroscuro in which most of his mature work is bathed helped to increase the impression of complexity and to suggest life at its fullest. Like the narrator of The Beldonald Holbein, he found “more life in situations obscure and subject to interpretation than in the gross rattle of the foreground.”7

12James’s realism was quite different from that of his French confrères. The truth he wanted to convey was above all psychological and could be reached all the better as the quantity of invention and interpretation required was greater. It could only be found in the artist’s mind, not in an observable objective reality. James was convinced that the novelist must not be too definite about his meaning if he wished to give the illusion of life. His later works keep the reader’s interest awake by leaving much room for his own interpretation and thus requiring his active collaboration. For James the French naturalists were models of what should be avoided rather than of what should be imitated. He admired their artistic conviction more than their art and learned more from their failures than from their successes. From the start he had felt both admiration and pity. The pity ultimately prevailed, but James could not help feeling uneasy about a cleverness so extraordinary that it turned into stone whatever it touched. James returned to the Anglo-Saxon tradition, but if he chose again to leave some aspects of reality in “the frigid vague,” it was no longer out of ignorance. The French had left their stamp on his art and he was never again to free himself from the torment of form. In his late manner, nothing is left to chance; even his blanks are constructions and his evasions are deliberate. Like Leonardo da Vinci, whom he admired so much, James covered his mathematical constructions with the most elaborate intertwining of leaves; like him he sought shelter in a still deeper penumbra and left us with a secret to find out and a smile to decipher.


1 James wrote to his brother on 20 February 1884 and to Howells on 21 February of the same year. Letters, I, 103, 105.

2 The Real Right Thing. Complete Tales, X, 483.

3 Notes of a Son and Brother, pp. 25-26.

4 The Author of “Beltraffio,” Complete Tales, V, 333.

5 Introduction to Loti’s Impressions, p. 7.

6 In his remarkable essay on Jules Renard, M. Jean-Paul Sartre has shown how this writer, coming at the tail of the movement, found nothing left at his disposal (Situations [Paris, 1947], I, 294-313).

7 The Beldonald Holbein, Complete Tales, XI, 295-296.

© Presses universitaires de Liège, 1970

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