Up@dawn 2.0

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Was Henry James "the most intelligent man of his generation?"

Another expat American, T.S. Eliot (from St. Louis, MO) famously said Henry "had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it..." I'd always assumed he intended an insult, but in context (see below*) it reads more like praise - Henry was "the most intelligent man of his generation" etc. What do you think?
                T.S. Eliot was not alone in his praise of Henry James.  Edith Wharton knew him and described his transition from a “soberly fastidious in dress and manner” young man to a “compact upright figure” with an “expanded to a rolling and voluminous outline…given way to the dictates of comfort.” [1] She tells of his moving to another country where, “in his new solitude he had come to grips with his genius.”[2] Ella Hepworth Dixon wrote about his focus on insignificant items, “If Henry James dwelt on trifles by the strange alchemy of his genius, they suddenly became of profound significance.”[3]
                Henry James had his own thoughts on genius. “Experience is never limited, and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider-web of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness, and catching every air-borne particle in its tissue. It is the very atmosphere of the mind; and when the mind is imaginative – much more when it happens to be that of a man of genius – it takes to itself the faintest hints of life, it converts the very pulses of the air into revelations.”[4] As a young child, Henry “remembered incidents, places, people, with a tenacious retentiveness to which he later attributed some of his self-formation. Scenes stuck in his mind, details, impressions.”[5] This natural ability provided him with a storehouse for memories that he could later tap into to create stories and develop the characters of those stories.
                For me, Henry James’s genius was reflected in his advice to writers. I have read several books on how to be a writer, but his approach was simple, unvarnished, and helpful.  He recommended that if one wants to be a writer, the first practice that must be followed is a daily observation and recording of everything she or he sees and hears. To accomplish this, carry a small notebook with you always and then transfer appropriate notes to a larger notebook at the end of the day. This gives you a reservoir of experiences to select from when you begin to write. “There are, then, abundant materials waiting to be picked up by any who has the wit to see them lying at his feet and all around him.”[6] When you select what you need, remember that if an element does not advance the story, do not include it. After you select the elements, you must present them like you would a play with you filling all the roles, from writer to director to carpenter to actor, etc. Remember to present the story in the book as if it is a play and imagine how it will be received by the audience if they were sitting in the front rows. Next, know your characters so thoroughly that they become a part of you and you a part of them.  “Nothing, then, it must be insisted upon as of the greatest importance, should be begun in writing until the characters are so clear and distinct in the brain, so well known, that they will act their parts, bend their dialogue, and suit their action to whatever situations they may find themselves in, if only they are becoming to them.”[7] Remember to allow your characters to grow or they will become boring and one dimensional. Study human nature continuously, learn as much as you can about how people act and interact. As James refined his writing skills, it is almost certain that he had discussions and communications with his brother, William, about psychology. Also, as his reputation grew, he interacted with other famous writers, read their stories, and analyzed their character development. His intellectual development spanned multiple disciplines and his intelligence would have permitted him to communicate with almost anyone on any subject.
                While English Hours is a non-fiction travel book, his approach to writing can clearly be applied to that genre of writing, especially his focus on observing objects, landscape, and people. His powers of observation, his recall, and his detailed descriptions reflect the genius of his mind; a mind that was always searching for more. He was certainly one of the most learned men of his time and was acknowledged as such.

[1] Norman Page, ed., Henry James: Interviews and Recollections (New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1984), 26-27.
[2] Ibid., 26.
[3] Ibid., 30.
[4] Henry James, The Art of Fiction (Boston, Cupples & Hurd The Algonquin Press, 1884), 64.
[5] Fred Kaplan, Henry James: The Imagination of Genius A Biography (New York, William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1992), 19.
[6] Ibid., 24.
[7] Ibid., 26-27.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds so simple,to just attend to what you see and report it faithfully. It's no so simple, obviously. Henry was a Master at it. It's interesting that his brother, who thought his own sensibility so much more direct and straightforward, is now remembered as the philosopher of Pure Experience and Radical Empiricism - a philosophy that urges our close attention and honest reporting of what we see.

    Henry's intelligence was of the form that resists ideological compromise. Say what you see, not what you'd prefer to see: how many of us manage that, consistently?

    The advice to writers is excellent. Always carry a notebook - Moleskine, or the equivalent - and write stuff down. Big stuff, little stuff, ephemera, fleeting perceptions and notions.... Emerson knew that too, and told Thoreau: keep a journal.