Friday, March 9, 2012

ink – ink – ink pots, yes, yes, yes - Henry James is everywhere.

If I have felt little urgency to read James, I blame his continual presence in my reading.  He rivals anyone but  Samuel Johnson as a subject of anecdotes, quips, and opinions.  He supplies examples of whatever literary subject is at hand somewhere in his fiction or criticism.  Henry James is everywhere.

No, but I do feel that I know a lot about him, given how little of him I have read.  I know about the first time he met Virginia Woolf:

Henry James fixed me with his staring blank eye – it is like a childs marble – and said “My dear Virginia, they tell me – they tell me – they tell me – that you – as indeed being your fathers daughter nay your grandfathers grandchild – the descendant I may say of a century – of a century – of quill pens and ink – ink – ink pots, yes, yes, yes, they tell me – ahm m m – that you, that you, that you write in short.”  This went on in the public street, while we all waited, as farmers wait for the hen to lay an egg – do they? – nervous, polite, and now on this foot now on that.*

I will credit Woolf with some poetic license here, but not much.  “In short” is a bit too much like a punchline.

Levi Stahl describes, in a guest-star packed post (Wharton, Spender, Sei Shonagon), a 1948 book of nothing but James anecdotes.  “I – I have trifled with the exordia.”  It is worth knowing the context of that real-life Jamesian sentence, as good as it is by itself.**

When did I read about Henry James and his odd entanglement with Constance Fenimore Woolson?  I have no idea, but I was prepared when, while reading X. J. Kennedy’s The Lords of Misrule: Poems, 1992-2001, I came across “The Ballad of Fenimore Woolson and Henry James.”***  Fenimore may have fallen in love with James:

Now a diffident hat-tilt from Henry
Might fend off her loneliness,
But Henry was wedded already, it seemed,
To his ethical consciousness.

Poor Fenimore perishes by her own hand, but the story has a happy ending:

Henry went back to his writing desk,
Spread paper like an open chart
And he drew dear Fenimore into his arms
And transformed her to a work of art
Sill living,
Transformed her to a work of art.

In a note Kennedy admits that “a subtle history has been crudely simplified,” which is likely also a fine description of my own pieced together scraps of second- and third-hand knowledge of Henry James.

*  The Letters of Virginia Woolf: Volume 1, 1888-1912, August 25, 1907.  The misuse of apostrophes is Woolf’s.  Other errors quite likely mine.

**  In the comments of Stahl’s post, I am accused of contributing to the decline of civilization, a rare pleasure.

***  The ballad is also included in In a Prominent Bar in Secaucus: New and Selected Poems, 1955-2007.


  1. I wonder if James had been modelling his speech patterns on those of Micawber:

    'Under the impression,' said Mr. Micawber, 'that your peregrinations in this metropolis have not as yet been extensive, and that you might have some difficulty in penetrating the arcana of the Modern Babylon in the direction of the City Road, - in short,' said Mr. Micawber, in another burst of confidence, 'that you might lose yourself - I shall be happy to call this evening, and install you in the knowledge of the nearest way.'

  2. It is possible that Woolf exaggerated the Micawber-like qualities of James's speech. Not by much, though, I'll bet.

    Thanks for the "in short" passage. It is uncanny.

  3. Really nice Woolf note. I like the "grandfathers grandchild" part, along with descendant of a century... the whole thing is pretty great.

    I'm not sure that I've ever thought of HJ as so omnipresent, or dominant in the way that Johnson is. Have to think about that, I suppose.

  4. My "James is everywhere" sense may be 90% caused by my longtime reading of Joseph Epstein. I readily admit that.

    I knew you would enjoy James's sense of Woolf's (at this point still, of course, Stephen's) lineage.

  5. I'll share another James anecdote as a way of saying thanks for joining in one post three of my favorite humble happinesses: New Jersey, Henry James and X J Kennedy (whose Messages thematic anthology of poetry introduced me to 20th. Century English language verse).

    I got it from Somerset Maugham's Tellers of Tales, a definitive anthology of the short story.
    'Greatness is a quality which is too loosely ascribed to writers, and it is well to be cautious in one's use of the word, but I think no one will quarrel with me when I say that Henry James is the most distinguished writer America has produced… It is impossible for anyone who knew Henry James in the flesh to read his stories dispassionately. He got the sound of his voice into every line he wrote. '

    [While discussing a badly acted Russian play,] the climax came when they began to consider the actress who was playing the leading part. Henry James wanted to know to what class she belonged, and both Mrs Clifford and I knew exactly what in plain terms he wished to say. But that, he thought would be tasteless, and so, he wrapped up his meaning in an increasingly embarrassed flow of circumlocution until at last Mrs Clifford could bear it no longer and blurted out: 'Do you mean, is she a lady?'. A look of real suffering crossed his face. Put so, the question had a vulgarity that outraged him. He pretended not to hear. He made a little gesture of desperation and said: 'is she, enfin, what you'd call, if you were asked point blank, if you were put with your back to the wall, is she, and I ask with the greatest hesitation, a femme du monde?'

  6. Thanks, that is another good one. So many James anecdotes are good ones.

    X. J. Kennedy is a treasure.

  7. Hey, no problem.

    The link between James and Micawber is very interesting. One more quote from Maugham reveals some anachronistic oedipal hanky panky between Dickens and James:

    From the beginning of literature authors have had originals for their creations. Scholars, I believe, give a name to the rich glutton who served as a model to Petronius for his Trimalchio and Shakespeare students find an original for Mr Justice Shallow. The very virtuous and upright Scott drew a bitter portrait of his father in one book and a pleasanter one, when the passage of years had softened his asperity, in another. Stendhal, in one of his manuscripts, has written the names of the persons who had suggested his characters; Dickens, as we all know, portrayed his father in Mr Micawber and Leigh Hunt in Harold Skimpole.