Version classiqueVersion mobile

Henry James

Jeanne Delbaere-Garant


Texte intégral

1At the time when French schoolboys of his age were taught the same things at the same hour all over their country Henry James was dragged from one country to another, from one institution to the next, and no sooner had he become acquainted with his governess than another succeeded her. Detached from dogmatic religion, from codified morality, from nationalistic prejudices, from any set of fixed opinions on any subject, he gradually developed a personal, relativistic and empirical view of life. He firmly believed in the sacredness of the individual and was hospitable to any opinion different from his own. The most characteristic feature of his mind was its entire disponibility.

2The young James was soon to grow dissatisfied with such a background. The “non-conducting atmosphere” of his country and the vagueness of his inarticulate philosophy made him yearn for a stronger tradition. Much as he admired Hawthorne, he deeply resented the absence of the off-hand element in this writer’s manner and he understood that, in spite of their moral richness, his own characters were hanging in the void and floating, unanchored like himself, in a vague and abstract world. He felt a strong need to define both himself and his craft, and he became a passionate pilgrim turning to Europe in search of identity.

3Very early, however, James had sensed the advantages of being an American. He was twenty-four when he wrote to his friend Thomas Sergent Perry:

  • 1 Selected Letters, pp. 51-52.

I think that to be an American is an excellent preparation for culture. We have exquisite qualities as a race, and it seems to me that we are ahead of the European races in the fact that more than either of them we can deal freely with forms of civilization not our own, can pick and choose and assimilate and in short (aesthetically etc.) claim our property wherever we find it.... We must of course have something of our own—something distinctive and homogeneous—and I take it that we shall find it in our moral consciousness, our unprecedented spiritual lightness and vigour.1

4Starting from this wide basis James began his journey, determined to pick and choose as much as he could on his way. The first stage of his exploration took him to England. This older, better organized society, which had given such solidity to the novels of Jane Austen and George Eliot, already obliged him to readjust and focus his views. Not until he had crossed the Channel, however, did he find the real “difference.” His mind left the wide sea of freedom far behind and actually contracted into the channel of a more strictly hierarchized and disciplined society.

5Wherever he turned James was struck by the people’s submission to standards in every field of life: the Catholics gathered round the Pope, the citizens round the chef d’Etat, the members of the family round the chef de famille and the whole country round Paris, where an Academy sanctioned the best writers and a jury the best painters; in every circumstance the Frenchman knew how to behave, how to think, how to speak: everything had been foreseen. The same situation existed in the literary world, where “schools” determined the standards to which a writer was to conform: Malherbe had once fixed the rules for poetry, Racine for tragedy, Flaubert now decided what the realistic novel should be, and Zola defined the “roman expérimental.” James’s acquaintance with Flaubert and his cénacle further enhanced his impression of contraction and constituted the ultimate stage of his exploration.

6James’s personal experience is reflected in the extremely illuminating pattern that recurs in most of his stories and novels set wholly or partly in France. Longmore, Hyacinth, Maisie and Strether all follow the same long and roundabout way in their spiral-like and contracting approach to France, that is, to experience. When they reach the furthest stage of their exploration James compresses his meaning into a symbol that gives concretion to the complicated process through which they are passing. The hedonistic pair, the vanished guillotine, the gold Madonna, the vessel of Notre-Dame are all palpable symbols that help the reader to understand the experience of the hero on contact with the “otherness” of the foreign country. After this they all go back to the world from which they came, but the self to which they revert is no longer the same as before the intervening experience of France.

7Like his heroes, and more particularly like Strether, whose progress is strikingly similar to his creator’s, James crossed the water again to the “other side” after having had his share of experience. In France he had felt life burst out under the smiling surface with an intensity proportional to the force that attempted to subdue it. He had noticed that the revolutions there were bloodier than in less disciplined states, and that the adulterous relationships were more numerous than in non-catholic communities. His actual immersion in a country where life claimed its rights louder than elsewhere had made him acutely aware of the tension between the expanding individual life and the contracting standards of society, between the powerful flow of life and the fixity of artistic forms, between the dynamism of his emotional needs and a static discipline imposed from outside.

8This awareness constituted his experience, his “germ.” All he wanted to do was to develop this intuition into something valuable and permanent. He could only do so by leaving the full light of experience and retiring into the quiet immunity of his creative imagination. Opening again in an upward spiral movement, James then detached himself from the constraining fixity of French society and from the narrow bonds of French realism. The movement was one of expansion back to the wide basis from which he had started, back to the freedom in which alone he could express himself. James’s mature works, though they conform to a strict personal discipline, follow the same movement and are usually open to various interpretations. They do not pretend to give us any final solution to the questions they raise. Neither does James’s literary career as a whole: The Ivory Tower remained unfinished, and we do not know whether Graham Fielder’s aesthetic sensibility will ever be united to Rosanna Gaw’s moral massiveness.

9Both James’s life and his literary career might be figured as a double spiral rooted at the one end in the American soil and in romanticism, contracting in its middle on contact with France and French naturalism and expanding again into the Anglo-Saxon world and into the twentieth century. The spiral—which also suggests the artist’s indirect approach to reality—strikes me as an adequate symbol for Henry James. From Bramante’s ramp in the Vatican to F.L. Wright’s in the Guggenheim Museum it has always been the favourite shape of all those who claimed greater freedom for the artist, rejected the fixity of academic rules and were convinced that art, like the spirit of man, is capable of endless progress.


1 Selected Letters, pp. 51-52.

© Presses universitaires de Liège, 1970

Conditions d’utilisation :

Cette publication numérique est issue d’un traitement automatique par reconnaissance optique de caractères.
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search