Monday, December 27, 2010

Henry James: Burned Before Reading

I was required to read Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw in school.  I didn't like the former and didn't understand the latter.  But over the last few years I've discovered that writers whom I enjoy reading have said good things about Henry James.

Granted, these were more likely to be good things about him as a person than good things about his elephantine verbal style.  E.F. Benson has a great story, told by James, about how he went out to run some errands and when he came home and opened his front door, something advanced towards him down the hallway.  He said it was "something black, something canine."  As Benson points out, anyone else would have just called it a black dog.  (A friend of James' housekeeper had come to visit and brought her dog.)

Be that as it may, I finally braced myself and plunged into Henry James.  And I'm glad I did.  Of course, the real reason I wanted to read him is that I found out he was queer.  When I referred to "writers whom I enjoy reading," the two I mainly had in mind are Benson and Gore Vidal, who presents Henry James as a character in his novel Empire and makes him seem charming, if long-winded.  Benson knew James personally and bought his house sometime after he died.  And of course, Vidal is openly gay and Benson and James  . . . give off very strong signals, shall we say.

In fact, I don't understand how anyone could enjoy James' writing, or even comprehend what he's on about, without interpreting it as coded homosexual content.  Why is he so allusive, so elusive, so reluctant to come right out and call a black dog a black dog?  What is the unspoken thing, buried under tons of words?  Thomas Hardy once said that James had "a ponderously warm way of saying nothing in infinite sentences."  But the truth is that nobody says "nothing," especially not someone who wrote at such length and with such care.  There is meaning in those infinite sentences: so what was it?

The James story that most struck me is "The Jolly Corner."  It was written close to the end of his life.  It's about a man named Spencer Brydon, who returns to his childhood home in New York City after spending thirty-three years abroad.  Everyone else in his family has died, and he inherits the big old house.  Although he refers to this house as "the jolly corner," he also believes that it's haunted, and one of the ghosts is his own: the ghost of the person he could have been, if things had been different.  (What things?  Here James is elusive again.)

The passage in "The Jolly Corner" that really caught my attention occurs when Brydon is wondering what he could have been:
Only I can’t make out what, and the worry of it, the small rage of curiosity never to be satisfied, brings back what I remember to have felt, once or twice, after judging best, for reasons, to burn some important letter unopened.  I’ve been sorry, I’ve hated it—I’ve never known what was in the letter.
I want to know:  who destroys important letters without reading them?  How often does that happen in real life?  Moreover, how would you know it's important without reading it?  The only clue you might have is knowing who it was from.  And so we have the image of a man receiving messages from some significant person - messages which he knows are important although he refuses to read them, messages which he has some knowledge of even without reading them - messages which must be deleted.  Messages about himself, which he regrets not reading.  These letters burned unopened are the quintessential symbol of life in the closet.

Brydon starts going back to his old house at night.  But he doesn't want anyone to know what he's doing.  When he leaves his hotel, he says he's going out to dinner:  but he goes to his house.  Other nights, he leaves the restaurant, saying he's going to his hotel:  but he goes to his house.  And even though he has a key, he's afraid of the cop on the beat seeing him enter or leave his own house.  He spends the dark, lonely hours hoping and fearing to encounter the ghost of himself.

James wrote another short story, "The Beast in the Jungle," which many people have interpreted as being about a closeted gay man.  In that story, the main character believes that someday something special will happen to him, or he'll do something extraordinary.  He doesn't know what, or if it will be good or bad, but he spends his life waiting for it.  I find it interesting that a story about what someone might do is more likely to be classified as "homosexual" than a story about what someone might be.

But these two stories have something else in common:  the presence of a sympathetic female character.  In "The Jolly Corner" she is so attuned to the male protagonist that she dreams about his ghost before he has ever seen it (and this despite the fact that they have been separated for thirty years; she stayed in New York while he went to Europe.)  Her affection for him is almost maternal; she seems to represent a refuge from the frightening, fascinating male figure that haunts him.

Critics of "The Beast in the Jungle" have theorized that she stands in for a close female friend of James' in real life.  But I have a different theory.  One of James' close male friends was a young sculptor named Hendrik Andersen.  James wrote the following words to him, as part of a letter of condolence on the death of his brother:
Let yourself go and live, even as a lacerated, mutilated lover, with your grief, your loss, your sore, unforgettable consciousness.  Possess them and let them possess you, and life, so, will still hold you in her arms, and press you to her breast, and keep you, like the great merciless but still most enfolding and never disowning mighty Mother, on and on for things to come.
The woman in "The Jolly Corner" saw Brydon's alter ego in her dream. She pitied him and didn't hate him, even though Brydon himself is sure that he is a "wretch" and a "horror."  "'[To] me,' she said, 'he was no horror.  I had accepted him.'"  Those are the words of the Great Mother.

Recommended Reading

The Henry James collection I've been reading is The Portable Henry James, published by Penguin.  It contains a wide assortment of his work:  fiction, travel writings, literary criticism, letters, memoir.  Also for some reason a list of character names which we are supposed to find amusing.  I could not stay focused on the travel writing at all (although it was interesting to observe his different writing styles,) but I really liked his essay on "The Art of Fiction."  It was a bit of a shock to discover that he apparently thought of himself as a realist writer. What is realistic about The Turn of the Screw?  That one still baffles me.

E.F. Benson's story about Henry James and the black dog is found in his book As We Were: A Victorian Peep-Show.

Henry James on Project Gutenberg

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