The Chronicle Review

The Afterlife of Henry James

The Granger Collection

Henry James left behind thousands of letters and voluminous journals, irresistible source material for novelists writing in a biographical vein.
March 06, 2011

The Library of America recently brought out the sixth and final volume in its series of Henry James reprints. The latest gathers the final novels: The Ambassadors (1903), The Golden Bowl (1904), and The Outcry (1911). This publishing project spans some 30 years, offering all 20 novels published in James's lifetime. The publisher has also given us a five-volume set of his stories that amounts to 4,700 densely printed pages. For those who still don't have quite enough of James, there is also a fat volume of his essays on the art of fiction.

James was obsessively a writer, rarely hesitant to put into prose the slightest notion. He left behind more than 10,000 letters and voluminous journals. We know more about the inner life of Henry James than we do those of most writers, and this source material has been irresistible to novelists writing in a biographical vein, recently including Carol de Chellis Hill, Kathryn Kramer, Michiel Heyns, Emma Tennant, Alan Hollinghurst, and Cynthia Ozick. In 2004 alone, David Lodge and Colm Tóibín—two writers of the first rank—wrote novels about James, both of them focusing on the novelist's unhappy attempt to become a playwright in 1895.

Guy Domville left its author in a state of despair. The legend of his anxiously stepping onto stage to take a bow on opening night is painful to think about: James was thoroughly flustered by the strange combination of cheers (from friends in the front rows) and general boos. Soon after, he gave up playwriting for good, returning with some relief to the quiet of his study and his primary art, fiction. "I take up my old, old pen again," he wrote in his journal, "the pen of all my old unforgettable efforts and sacred struggles."

I suspect that James would have been puzzled by his afterlife as a writer. One irony is that his work has been much adapted for the stage and screen, often badly. The sheer number of attempts is staggering. According to J. Sarah Koch's essay "A Henry James Filmography," there have been no fewer than 125 movie and television adaptations of James's novels or stories. She counts 16 versions of The Turn of the Screw alone, with 13 versions of Washington Square. Even The Wings of the Dove, one of those late and languorous novels dictated to a secretary (after writing by hand became too painful), has undergone adaptations.

The obvious questions loom: Why does James attract this attention? And will he enjoy the lasting mystique of someone like Jane Austen?

A writer such as James has especial appeal to biographical novelists, who are fascinated by the structures of thought, if not the actual cadences, of complicated human beings. And James was, of course, complex: an expatriate, a closeted homosexual, and part of a luminous family that included his brother, William, the philosopher, and his invalid sister Alice, who had a powerful intellect and was hardly afraid to exercise it in this family circle. Tóibín succeeded in appropriating James's inner life, while Lodge didn't quite. Tóibín's The Master enters the unconscious mind of James with a fluent ease, drawing on his prose rhythms, with all their fussiness and fits and starts. It's a gripping work of art, and few biographical novels exceed its accomplishment.

By contrast, Lodge's Author, Author (the title alone is awkward) has nothing of the wit and narrative verve one associates with his other fiction. But Lodge just wouldn't drop the subject. He went on to produce a hand-wringing memoir about writing the book and his difficulties with Tóibín's success, in The Year of James: The Story of a Novel (2006). He should have quietly moved on, much as James moved on after his disastrous night on the stage.

Anyone interested in Tóibín's process of transforming the life of James into a novel of immense subtlety should look carefully at a recent volume of essays, All a Novelist Needs: Colm Tóibín on Henry James (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010, edited by Susan M. Griffin). Tóibín explores various angles. He looks, for example, at published selections of James's letters over many decades, going back to Percy Lubbock's selection of 1920, which excluded letters that revealed the author's homoerotic strain. Yet it was obvious to close readers that the letters were a primary text of great value. James's nephew Harry, son of William James, wrote to his sister that the collection would "become, in the history of English literature, not only one of the half dozen greatest epistolary classics, but a sort of milestone."

Books generate books, and Tóibín also notes the usefulness of various critics on James, including Sheldon M. Novick, who followed his biography of the young author (Henry James: The Young Master, 1996) with the excellent Henry James: The Mature Master (2007); and Lyndall Gordon, who in 1999 produced A Private Life of Henry James: Two Women and His Art, which Tóibín calls "the best single book that has been written about James." He puts its examination of James's relationship with Minny Temple and Constance Fenimore Woolson, two pivotal figures who seem (oddly) to have been more intimate with him than any of his male friends were, to good use in his own novel—much in the way James himself drew on the work of other writers, like George Eliot, whose voice ghosted his own.

But that goes only so far in explaining James's appeal to contemporary readers and film aficionados. Certainly he is subtle and refined in ways that reach out to those who crave refinement in a world that is decidedly crude and explicit. It's hard to imagine a cultural universe in which Dumb and Dumber and The Turn of the Screw coexist. James speaks with a quiet voice in a very loud time. His whole mode of being—focused on human relationships and their intricacies of thought and feeling, riveted by the foolish or wise choices we make in dealing with family and friends—also presents a kind of challenge. In an age of Facebook, James forces us to think about our own choices, to ask ourselves how we really want to live our lives.

Moreover, while James may strike some as nonpolitical (and therefore safe), sexual politics occupies the center of his work, from The Portrait of a Lady through Daisy Miller to The Wings of the Dove. A great question that James asks repeatedly is: What does it mean to be a woman in a world where men control everything? He identifies with those women, being himself a gay man—a kind of outsider, someone who could never occupy the center stage himself as a "manly" man.

A fair number of us feel like outsiders now. The world of excessive wealth and power clamors, and it alienates us. James understood wealth and power, as he moved in grand circles. He attended countless dinner parties at country houses or in fabulously appointed London homes. But he was a perpetual outsider, a foreigner. His access to such elite circles was by dint of his manners, his intellect, and his uncanny ability to fit in. But he was not an aristo­crat, nor did he have great wealth (despite his refined Boston family and his Harvard degree). It was his sophistication itself that granted him access to the ruling class, though he understood perfectly well that few members of British high society cared deeply about his intellectual pedigree. He was a hanger-on, a "walker" at dinner parties, useful for filling out the table and providing a bit of color.

James was acutely conscious of class and money, and he wrote about those things with a fierce eye for detail and a mordant wit. He was wildly materialistic, in that he looked closely at the physical contents of a room, the fine paintings on the walls, the quality of the linen tablecloths and the silverware and crystal. He was interested in protocol, with who got to sit where, next to whom. He understood the material origins of power: A reader is never allowed to forget that his wealthy heroines and rich young men, who cascade from one European capital to another, have somebody back home—usually a father—who makes widgets.

One feels the wealth of his characters, in their clothing and means of transport, in their expensive hotel rooms and villas. More important, one begins to understand that capitalism supports a small number of people grandly. And that they will do anything to stay on top. Their desperation is apparent, as in The Wings of the Dove, when the main couple, Kate Croy and Merton Densher, do whatever it takes to get their hands on poor Milly Theale's money. (I recommend the 1997 film of this novel, directed by Iain Softley. It's on a par with the 1961 version of The Turn of the Screw, which was called The Innocents and starred Deborah Kerr as the neurotic governess. It captures the elusive, haunting quality of that novella movingly—quite a feat of adaptation.)

James's understanding of the material world and its connection to power makes him extraordinarily relevant in an era when vast killings are made on Wall Street and on the Internet, turning our times into a kind of new Gilded Age. James would have had much to say about the shenanigans of investment bankers and real-estate moguls. He would have fashioned mythic tales of greed and social climbing, putting a finger on the moral bankruptcy everywhere in evidence. That's what he was good at.

Part of the attraction of James also lies in his famous "international" theme: the story of a confrontation between Old World and New World values. An early novel, The American (1877), established the paradigm for this kind of fiction, which often involves a rich young American going to Europe and facing its refine­ments and harsh realities.

In James's time, only wealthy Americans could travel to European capitals and visit the monuments of high culture. Now it's quite ordinary for middle-class travelers—many of them college students on their Wanderjahr—to visit London, Florence, and Paris. The corridors of the National Gallery, the Uffizi, and the Louvre teem with innocents abroad, guidebooks in hand. The novels and stories of Henry James come alive every day in these palaces of high culture. Is it any wonder they remain popular?

Of course, their popularity is relative. I doubt that readers en masse will ever flock to the The Golden Bowl, or even to The Portrait of a Lady or Daisy Miller, the most accessible James novels. His works remain highly challenging, with their endless loops of consciousness reflected in interwoven syntactical layers, in dazzling but complex formulations. But the taste of some readers for such fiction will not go away. There is something disheartening about the tele­graphic prose of many best-selling writers—James Patterson comes to mind, with his inch-long sentences and thumbnail paragraphs, his sheer disdain for complication of any kind. That is the common style of our time, often reflected in popular films and television shows.

James offers a challenge to that trend, and it's one that enough of us find comforting, even salutary, to keep his mystique alive (if not at the level of Patterson). The fact that so many current novelists and filmmakers understand the attraction is more than interesting: It's bracing, and a hopeful sign for culture. Good fiction, in books or on the screen, is nourishing, and the thin gruel of popular culture doesn't in the end offer satisfaction. It leaves audiences empty.

I'm waiting for some creative filmmaker to have a go at What Maisie Knew, one of the Master's most absorbing creations. Young Maisie is the child of divorced parents who treat her as a legal possession—hardly a human being with real needs. The courts decree that she must shuttle between the frivolous Beale and Ida. I suspect that Maisie's wildly dysfunctional family might actually work on the screen, although in the wrong hands it could be crassly done. Nobody who loves James would want to see it come out as a movie called The Little Focker.

Jay Parini is a novelist, poet, and professor of English at Middlebury College. His most recent novel is The Passages of H.M.: A Novel of Herman Melville (Doubleday, 2010).