Up@dawn 2.0

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Discussion Questions July 10

The holiday's got us, or me, a bit off-schedule. Post your first Henry James essays anytime before July 15.

English Hours thru Wells & Salisbury.
  • The experience of reading Henry James is very different from that of reading his brother or J.S. Mill. Henry did not call himself a philosopher, but he did famously challenge his peers to "be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!" And, he said: "Live all you can; it's a mistake not to. It doesn't so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you have your life. If you haven't had that what have you had?" Do you detect in those statements any affinity for philosophy, and for empiricist philosophy in particular?
  • William complained in a letter to Henry of his brother's "late" style of fiction-writing, "the method of narration by interminable elaboration of suggestive reference (I don't know what to call it, but you know what I mean) goes agin the grain of all my own impulses in writing; and yet in spite of it all, there is a brilliancy and cleanness of effect, and in this book especially a high toned social atmosphere that are unique and extraordinary." Does any of that criticism apply to the non-fiction we're reading in English Hours? Is William's complaint fair, in light of the fact that both Jameses are associated with discovering/creating the "stream of consciousness" mode of discourse? Is his complaint consistent with his own defense of pluralism and the idea, colloquially put, that "it takes all kinds"?
  • Our course is about Anglo-American minds, not in a narrow intellectualist sense but in a way inclusive of heart, feeling, and sensibility. Would you say the mind of Henry James was more about that, than about any particular ideas? In general, are Anglo-American minds more about that than about ideas?
  • Henry said "Summer afternoon—summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language." In Tennessee summer, for me, it's summer morning... but I agree with the spirit of Henry's statement. Do you?
  • "We work in the dark — we do what we can — we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art." What did Henry mean?
  • In his foreword to the Tauris edition Colm Toibin says Henry was not necessarily denigrating America as subject-matter for literature when he compiled a list of all the things it lacks ("no sovereign, no court, no aristocracy, no [state] church, no castles, no Oxford...") and then added: "The American knows that a good deal remains." What remains?
  • Toibin says Henry's writing reflects "a real intensity in the effort to move out of the self and learn to see, note, and understand" - especially in "the relationship between English landscape, architecture, and manners." How would you compare English to American landscape, architecture, and manners?
  • In his Introduction Leon Edel writes: "British royalty dazzled America--it does still--but the British class structure and British manners were viewed with a certain distance and chill. It was one way in which the children of New England asserted their independence." Henry was a child of New England. Does he view British class and manners with enough distance and chill? 
  • Speaking of Americans and royalty, what do you think of this recent "small suggestion" (not quite serious but not entirely silly either, in my opinon) from English actor Stephen Fry, that we bring Uncle Sam to life as our sitting monarch?- "...he is America. He embodies the values, history, character, disposition and hopes of the whole country. He has no power to legislate, but he is the first citizen, above politics. Because he is not elected, he has no lobbyists, PACs or special interest groups to placate. Every week, the elected president has to call at Uncle Sam’s mansion, stand before him and explain himself and his administration..."
  • Henry "sees the Victorian world as organised to preserve and reinforce respect for traditional institutions... accepted on the whole by an entire society as a tacit social contract." Does this sound too much like a romantic Downton Abbey view of the world? Is there anything to it?
  • Edel says James was really describing himself when he wrote of Robert Browning's "unprejudiced intellectual eagerness to put himself in other people's place" and his "restlessness of psychological research." Does it also remind you of his brother? (It's been said that Henry the novelist was a better psychologist than his brother the psychologist, who in turn was the better writer.)
  • Spring was in the air when he first arrived in England, Henry writes, "no rain, but still less sun"... Henry's preference for English weather is another point of contrast with William, who preferred "the open air" and sunshine as more suggestive of possibilities for action and amelioration. To what extent do you think Americans and Brits are products of their respective climates?
  • One of the things Henry seems most to appreciate about England is its large history ("All history appeared to live again, and the continuity of things to vibrate in my mind")... Emerson famously rejected the Old World and challenged Americans to create anew. Pragmatism prides itself on being forward-looking. Is there a happy medium between anchorage in history and ahistoricity?
  • Henry says London, "as a place to be happy in, will never do"... but that it nonetheless "communicates the greatest sense of life." So... life is intrinsically unhappy? Or is that not what he's saying?
  • Do you, like me, find yourself envying Henry's walks? "I should have my choice of a hundred pleasant paths" just from Kensington Gardens to Hyde Park..." [If so, you might be interested in the late film critic Roger Ebert's Perfect London Walks and Bill Bryson's comparative accounts of life in the U.K. and the U.S., for an old Iowa boy-see the Bibliography on our syllabus.]
  • "London parks are the drawing-rooms and clubs of the poor..." Making allowance for the fact that Henry was a 19th-century man, is that statement still a bit too smug and insensitive to the deprivations imposed on the poor by a rigid class structure? What do you think of Henry's remark that London is "immensely democratic... a general equality prevails"?
  • Weather again, but maybe more: What does Henry mean when he says English winter is "bad for the eyesight but excellent for the image"?
  • If you've looked at any of Bill Bryson's Notes From a Small Island (see below) or I'm a Stranger Here Myself, any thoughts?
  • Stay tuned
  • Post yours

Henry James-traveler, biker, peripatetic

"Henry loved the softness of the colors on the beach near Rye, the changing light, the creamy clouds moving across the sky as though with a purpose...

Before he left London, he had purchased the bicycle which now lay waiting for him in the lane that led to the beach. He realized that he did not even want the past back, that he had learned not to ask for that...

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Library of America
(LOA edition includes the original illustrations... and you can find updated images of Henry's destinations online-see below)

And below was Rye, the most un-English of English places, red-roofed with meandering streets and clustered buildings, an Italian hill town with cobbled streets, its atmosphere sensuous, but reticent also and austere. He walked the streets of Rye almost every day now..."

As he walked through Rye, or took his bicycle through the summer countryside, he studied people at random, ...

When they came to England, [Americans] appeared mysterious to him, so confident, so adept at finishing their sentences, so used to being listened to, and yet they seemed to him, compared with men of their kind in England and France, oddly raw and boyish, their brashness a kind of innocence. His brother William had all of that too, but it was only half of him...

Henry enjoyed being known in Rye. As he walked the streets, he took pleasure in greeting all whom he recognized with courtesy and courtliness. He was often accompanied by his dog, Maximilian, or by the Scot, who found lodgings in Ry and became an assiduous walker and cyclist, or by whatever guests were staying at Lamb House. The idea of residing in a small and traditional English community belonged to his dreams; he found himself, especially in the presence of American guests, deeply proud of his acceptance in Rye and his knowledge of its denizens, its topography and history..." Colm Toibin, The Master

"When he was not walking the hilly streets of Rye, he took to the circling sea roads on his bicycle..." Leon Edel, Henry James: A Life

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"Henry James's walking sticks at the Lamb House entrance"-Henry James: A Life 

As for his ponderous and meandering style, we've already noted that it exasperated his brother...
I read your Golden Bowl a month of more ago, and it put me, as most of your recenter long stories have put me, in a very puzzled state of mind. I don't enjoy the kind of 'problem,'... and the method of narration by interminable elaboration of suggestive reference (I don't know what to call it, but you know what I mean) goes agin the grain of all my own impulses in writing; and yet in spite of it all, there is a brilliancy and cleanness of effect, and in this book especially a high toned social atmosphere that are unique and extraordinary. Your methods & my ideals seem the reverse, the one of the other -- and yet I have to admit your extreme success in this book. But why won't you, just to please Brother, sit down and write a new book, with no twilight or mustiness in the plot, with great vigor and decisiveness in the action, no fencing in the dialogue, no psychological commentaries, and absolute straightness in the style?
I can relate to William's frustration but must also agree with the commentator who says William "seems to have wished for Ernest Hemingway as a younger brother, though the world would be much poorer for it."

Anyway, when you get beyond the exasperation there's real gold to mine, especially (to my taste, and Adam Gopnik's) in Henry's nonfiction:
...the later Henry James obviously looks more appealing in his nonfiction than in his novels, but something close to that conclusion may present itself to the reader happily making his way through the two books of Jamesian autobiography, “A Small Boy and Others” (1913) and “Notes of a Son and Brother” (1914), just reissued in a single volume, together with some other first-person stuff, by the Library of America. For freshness of voice, firmness of purpose (if a firmness always subject to scruples and second thoughts), and general delight on the page, the memoirs are fully alive to the contemporary reader in a way that James’s late novels may no longer be. Although the sentences are always labyrinthine and sometimes exhausting, the feeling at the end of each chapter is one of clarity rather than of murk: a little piece of memory has been polished bright...

And once again, just because... William's infamous letter to Henry's neighbor in Sussex:

To H. G. Wells.

CHOCORUASept. 11, 1906.
Dear Mr. Wells,—I've read your "Two Studies in Disappointment" in "Harper's Weekly," and must thank you from the bottom of my heart. Rem acu tetegisti! Exactly that callousness to abstract justice is the sinister feature and, to me as well as to you, the incomprehensible feature, of our U. S. civilization. How you hit upon it so neatly and singled it out so truly (and talked of it so tactfully!) God only knows: He evidently created you to do such things! I never heard of the MacQueen case before, but I've known of plenty of others. When the ordinary American hears of them, instead of the idealist within him beginning to "see red" with the higher indignation, instead of the spirit of English history growing alive in his breast, he begins to pooh-pooh and minimize and tone down the thing, and breed excuses from his general fund of optimism and respect for expediency. "It's probably right enough"; "Scoundrelly, as you say," but understandable, "from the point of view of parties interested"—but understandable in onlooking citizens only as a symptom of the moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess Success. That—with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word success—is our national disease. Hit it hard! Your book must have a great effect. Do you remember the glorious remarks about success in Chesterton's "Heretics"? You will undoubtedly have written the medicinal book about America. And what good humor! and what tact! Sincerely yours,
(Also see: Out of the Frame-A new portrait of Henry James’s “The Portrait of a Lady” & A Day for Henry James, by Anthony Lane... The Late Late Phase by Louis Menand... The Bookish Pleasures of a Henry James Yearbook... Oh Those Fabulous James Boys! A look at the relationship between the famous brothers William and Henry James.)

Henry James has had many biographers, but Michael Gorra has taken an original approach to this great American progenitor of the modern novel, combining elements of biography, criticism, and travelogue in recreating the dramatic backstory of James's masterpiece, Portrait of a Lady (1881). Gorra, an eminent literary critic, shows how this novel - the scandalous story of the expatriate American heiress Isabel Archer - came to be written in the first place. Traveling to Florence, Rome, Paris, and England, Gorra sheds new light on James's family, the European literary circles - George Eliot, Flaubert, Turgenev - in which James made his name, and the psychological forces that enabled him to create this most memorable of female protagonists.

Appealing to readers of Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club and David McCullough's The Greater Journey, Portrait of a Novel provides a brilliant account of the greatest American novel of expatriate life ever written. It becomes a piercing detective story on its own.

Biographer Hermione Lee, writing in the Guardian, says, "It is a tribute to his book that he makes us feel the life, of the book and its characters and its author, so deeply. He earns the right to end with James's wonderful words, 'There is really too much to say.'"

Henry James(born April 15, 1843New York, New York, U.S.—died February 28, 1916LondonEngland), American novelist and, as a naturalized English citizen from 1915, a great figure in the transatlantic culture. His fundamental theme was the innocence and exuberance of the New World in clash with the corruption and wisdom of the Old, as illustrated in such works as Daisy Miller (1879), The Portrait of a Lady (1881), The Bostonians (1886), and The Ambassadors (1903).

Early Life And Works

Henry James was named for his father, a prominent social theorist and lecturer, and was the younger brother of the pragmatist philosopher William James. The young Henry was a shy, book-addicted boy who assumed the role of quiet observer beside his active elder brother. They were taken abroad as infants, were schooled by tutors and governesses, and spent their preadolescent years in Manhattan. Returned to GenevaParis, and London during their teens, the James children acquired languages and an awareness of Europe vouchsafed to few Americans in their times. On the eve of the American Civil War, the James family settled at Newport, Rhode Island, and there, and later in Boston, Henry came to know New England intimately. When he was 19 years of age, he enrolled at the Harvard Law School, but he devoted his study time to reading Charles Augustin Sainte-BeuveHonoré de Balzac, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. His first story appeared anonymously two years later in the New York Continental Monthlyand his first book reviews in the North American Review. When William Dean Howells became editor of The Atlantic Monthly, James found in him a friend and mentor who published him regularly. Between them, James and Howells inaugurated the era of American “realism.”
By his mid-20s James was regarded as one of the most skillful writers of short stories in America. Critics, however, deplored his tendency to write of the life of the mind, rather than of action. The stories of these early years show the leisurely existence of the well-to-do at Newport and Saratoga. James’s apprenticeship was thorough. He wrote stories, reviews, and articles for almost a decade before he attempted a full-length novel. There had to be also the traditional “grand tour,” and James went abroad for his first adult encounter with Europe in 1869. His year’s wandering in England, France, and Italy set the stage for a lifetime of travel in those countries. James never married. By nature he was friendly and even gregarious, but, while he was an active observer and participant in society, he tended, until late middle age, to be “distant” in his relations with people and was careful to avoid “involvement.”
(Leon Edel, continues)
Henry James: Interviews and Recollections-


(Not really)

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Bill Bryson's style and sensibility is about as un-Henry Jamesian as can be, but his situation - American ex-pat living in and writing about Britain - parallels Henry's. Worth a look, and a chuckle. For instance,

Image result for notes from a small island“I know this goes without saying, but Stonehenge really was the most incredible accomplishment. It took five hundred men just to pull each sarsen, plus a hundred more to dash around positioning the rollers. Just think about it for a minute. Can you imagine trying to talk six hundred people into helping you drag a fifty-ton stone eighteen miles across the countryside and muscle it into an upright position, and then saying, 'Right, lads! Another twenty like that, plus some lintels and maybe a couple of dozen nice bluestones from Wales, and we can party!' Whoever was the person behind Stonehenge was one dickens of a motivator, I'll tell you that.” 

“Suddenly, in the space of a moment, I realized what it was that I loved about Britain - which is to say, all of it. Every last bit of it, good and bad - Marmite, village fetes, country lanes, people saying 'mustn't grumble' and 'I'm terribly sorry but', people apologizing to me when I conk them with a nameless elbow, milk in bottles, beans on toast, haymaking in June, stinging nettles, seaside piers, Ordnance Survey maps, crumpets, hot-water bottles as a necessity, drizzly Sundays - every bit of it.

What a wondrous place this was - crazy as fuck, of course, but adorable to the tiniest degree. What other country, after all, could possibly have come up with place names like Tooting Bec and Farleigh Wallop, or a game like cricket that goes on for three days and never seems to start? Who else would think it not the least odd to make their judges wear little mops on their heads, compel the Speaker of the House of Commons to sit on something called the Woolsack, or take pride in a military hero whose dying wish was to be kissed by a fellow named Hardy? ('Please Hardy, full on the lips, with just a bit of tongue.') What other nation in the world could possibly have given us William Shakespeare, pork pies, Christopher Wren, Windsor Great Park, the Open University, Gardners' Question Time and the chocolate digestive biscuit? None, of course.

How easily we lose sight of all this. What an enigma Britain will seem to historians when they look back on the second half of the twentieth century. Here is a country that fought and won a noble war, dismantled a mighty empire in a generally benign and enlightened way, created a far-seeing welfare state - in short, did nearly everything right - and then spent the rest of the century looking on itself as a chronic failure. The fact is that this is still the best place in the world for most things - to post a letter, go for a walk, watch television, buy a book, venture out for a drink, go to a museum, use the bank, get lost, seek help, or stand on a hillside and take in a view.

“...it occurred to me, not for the first time, what a remarkably small world Britain is. That is its glory, you see--that it manages at once to be intimate and small scale, and at the same time packed to bursting with incident and interest. I am constantly filled with admiration at this--at the way you can wander through a town like Oxford and in the space of a few hundred yards pass the home of Christopher Wren, the buildings where Halley found his comet and Boyle his first law, the track where Roger Bannister ran the first sub-four-minute mile, the meadow where Lewis Carroll strolled; or how you can stand on Snow's Hill at Windsor and see, in a single sweep, Windsor Castle, the playing fields of Eton, the churchyard where Gray wrote his "Elegy," the site where The Merry Wives of Windsor was performed. Can there anywhere on earth be, in such a modest span, a landscape more packed with centuries of busy, productive attainment?” 

“I can never understand why Londoners fail to see that they live in the most wonderful city in the world. It is, if you ask me, far more beautiful and interesting than Paris and more lively than anywhere but New York—and even New York can’t touch it in lots of important ways. It has more history, finer parks, a livelier and more varied press, better theaters, more numerous orchestras and museums, leafier squares, safer streets, and more courteous inhabitants than any other large city in the world.” 

“It sometimes occurs to me that the British have more heritage than is good for them. In a country where there is so astonishingly much of everything, it is easy to look on it as a kind of inexhaustible resource.” 

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