Book Review

The Daily Henry James: A Year of Quotes From the Work of the Master

For instance, today’s entry, for February 6, is from James’s novel, Roderick Hudson:

“The whole matter of genius is a mystery. It bloweth where it listeth and we know nothing of its mechanism. If it gets out of order we can’t mend it; if it breaks down altogether we can’t set it going again. We must let it choose its own pace and hold our breath lest it should lose its balance. It’s dealt out in different doses, in big cups and little, and when you have consumed your portion it’s as naif to ask for more as it was for Oliver Twist to ask for more porridge. Lucky for you if you’ve got one of the big cups; we drink them down in the dark, and we can’t tell their size until we tip them up and hear the last gurgle. Those of some men last for life; those of others for a couple of years.”

This passage is one I underlined when I read this fairly amazing book. I have never been a big fan of the work of Henry James, though I have always wanted to be. The short stories I read in college were very good, especially “The Beast in the Jungle,” which I just found out, is a novella. I also enjoyed reading his book on Nathaniel Hawthorne but have never finished one of his novels, although I read the first part of Roderick Hudson and was captivated; why I did not finish it I don’t know except I do that with a lot of books.

My problem with James was the old saying that he chewed more than he bit off. That his stuff is all about tea parties and social nuances, that there was no rough and tumble, no lavatories, in them. No one has to work. I should have realized from that first section of Roderick Hudson, which was about a sculptor, that the above picture of James was wrong because I still remember his description of the sculptor’s workshop in a vague yet somehow strong way and the end of the first part of that novel stunned me. Perhaps I was afraid to read on?

Perhaps I was, for on reading this anthology what first struck me was that the Master, as he is called, is not all about tea parties and lace. D.H. Lawrence or Ernest Hemingway he is not but he is not a fop writing for fops either (though perhaps he was a bit persnickety or highly strung). For instance, the first entry is from James’s essay, “Ivan Turgenieff”:

“His sadness has its element of error, but it has also its larger element of wisdom. Life is, in fact, a battle. On this point optimists and pessimists agree. Evil is insolent and strong; beauty enchanting but rare; goodness very apt to be weak; folly very apt to be defiant; wickedness to carry the day; imbeciles to be in great places, people of sense in small, and mankind generally unhappy. But the world as it stands is no illusion, no phantasm, no evil dream of a night; we wake up to it again forever and ever; we can neither forget it nor deny it nor dispense with it. We can welcome experience as it comes, and give it what it demands, in exchange for something which is idle to pause to call much or little so long as it contributes to swell the volume of consciousness. In this there is mingled pain and delight, but over the mysterious mixture there hovers a visible rule, that bids us learn to will and seek to understand.”

Not what I expected as the first passage in an anthology of Henry James. And how did anyone ever decide to make such a thing in the first place? It seems to me like trying to make an anthology of Proust or Tolstoy: it can be done but why?

The one who did it in this case was a lady named Evelyn Garnaut Smalley, the daughter of an American journalist who was a correspondent in London. Henry James often ate with the Smalley family. James told William Dean Howells that he was “very fond” of her. Her life saddened, for a while, as she grew older and still lived with her parents, then in 1909 she had a nervous breakdown. Part of her healing process was to put together an anthology of James’s works in the format of a daily selection, and James agreed that she could publish it, especially as it had helped her regain her mental health.

Michael Gorra, who wrote a wonderful book (I am told) about the writing of Portrait of a Lady, writes in his introduction to The Daily Henry James, that Smalley led a sort of Jamesian life. When World War I broke out she went to help the troops in France with a YMCA group “to provide small comforts for the troops at the very front of the Allied lines.”

“In July 1918,” Gorra writes, “her ‘hut’ came under heavy bombardment, but she refused an order to evacuate and remained at her post until the end of the war; sources in both French and English describe her as appearing in the smoke of battle with a jug of cocoa for any soldier who needed something warm.”

The French awarded her with both the Legion of Honor and the Croix de Guerre.

Which gets me to wondering about the connection between reading and mental health. C.S. Lewis wrote that to read Spenser “is to grow in mental health.” Whether one agrees with that or not, for Evelyn Garnaut Smalley, to read the works of Henry James was to grow in mental health. I also recall hearing Saul Bellow on the radio delivering a lecture about the role of art and he basically said that art allows us to make sense of the huge amount of chaos engulfing us via media (and this was before the internet!).

And the following, from March 16, The Awkward Age, is another quote that took me by surprise. Rephrased it seems to me to be Hemingway’s message: “My dear thing, it all comes back, as everything always does, simply to personal pluck. It’s only a question, no matter when or where, of having enough.”

To be continued.

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