Up@dawn 2.0

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Week 6 - Essay 5, English Hours by Henry James

The experience of reading Henry James is very different from that of reading his brother or J.S. Mill.”

Having already sampled William James and J.S. Mill, I fully agree with that statement. The difference (at least for me) between J. S. Mill and the James brothers is as daylight is to dark. I would not expect, however, that the style of a novelists and a philosopher would be alike.

The reason I like Mill’s writing, whether or not I agree with him, is because he leaves little room for doubt. Mill, for the most part, comes to the point without vagueness or innuendo. That is not the style of Henry James. In English Hours, I attempt to read between the lines and discern what James really means in simple and clear terms. That has proven to be difficult for me and it is not necessarily the fault of James. One reason is because I do not have an English social and cultural background. I am lacking the foundation required to fully appreciate his writing as those of his day could or as those who today have an understanding of the times in which he lived and the geography of Chester,  England and the surrounding area.

One of the first things I picked up on, however, was that Henry James seems to have a disdain for America in a social sense, while he speaks fondly of “the aristocratic constitution of English society” and how they (the aristocrats) are above and independent of the pleasures of the common people. He certainly has a point and he would not have been alone in his feelings for the period of time in which he lived. From what I have read of early American history, most Englishmen (and many Americans) thought the people of America were crude, course and common, with little of the sophistication required of an English gentleman. Americans were seen as having a severe lack of deference for those of upper society that were, according to English tradition, were due it. Some people who were loyal to Britain before, during and after the Revolutionary War wanted to maintain the old English social layering from peasant to royalty.  Those wanting to maintain the English standard were, of course, in the upper strata themselves, of which I assume Henry James was one. I am convinced that the citizens of Massachusetts would have long ago made some member of the Kennedy family king if it were not expressly forbidden by the United States Constitution.[1]

From what I have read, all of Henry James’ writings are not as sophisticated as English Hours. The most simplistic of Henry James’ works are said to be his early works. Since I am a simple man, this should be my starting point and after reading a little something about each of his books, I think I would begin with The American (1877). But since I already have English Hours (1905) in my possession, I have started with it.

Another thing I noticed is that Henry has a liking for irony and paradox. He speaks of London as being dreadful and delightful at the same time and states that if it were a small town, it would be an abomination, but the possibility of being an abomination is an impossibility because of its “extent and number”(p.5).

Borrowing from Jesus in the Book of John[2], Henry James, while speaking of London, says, “…you may be in it, of course, without being of it…” (p.16). I understand what Henry means by this. Jesus, when speaking of himself and his followers, said in a prayer to his Father, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.” The Christian’s relationship to the world is like the visitors relationship to London – one may be in London, but not a part of London. Christians are in the world, but they are not citizens of it…they are merely sojourners.

[1] United States Constitution – Article 1, Section 9, Clause  8
[2] John 15:19


  1. And Henry, as an American expat and "alien observer," was also in Britain but not of it... though eventually he did embrace an English identity, in solidarity with the war (WWI) effort. He wasn't really of America either. William wanted his brother to come home and write about the land of his nativity, finding Henry's fascination with English manners and society an insufficient subject for his art. But it seems that Henry finally settled in, in Lamb House. It's hard to picture him dressed to nines, pedaling his bicycle or walking his dog Maximilian, anywhere else.

  2. That's very interesting that you said "I am lacking the foundation required to fully appreciate his writing as those of his day could..." because I too have had difficulty reading some of the readings from time to time and it had never really dawned on me the extent of change that occurs each generation in regards to language. I had only chalked my inability to fully comprehend the thoughts of the philosophers as my lack of strong or polished vocabulary or the elevated minds of great philosophers, and thus the reason we are studying them instead of someone in class studying me. But when you step back and look at today's language we speak in a totally different way and with a different vernacular than we did 25-30 years ago. A person who died in 1980, if they were to be brought back to life and placed in a room with a 16 year old and a cell phone they would be lost on a lot of things. The 16 year old could say a simple sentence like "I'm going to connect to the wifi at Starbucks to order an Echo for my mom, from Amazon because it's her birthday." That simple sentence means something totally different to people outside of this time frame. Language is constantly evolving and words are being added and phased out all the time. But somethings never change, like Henry's use of Irony as you mentioned. Whether Shakespeare, or Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes...some aspects of communication will always remain.