Selling Henry James
by Joseph Epstein



The judges have spoken, and I am declared a clear winner. “Don’t worry, Mom,” as victors by knockout used to say on the old Gillette Friday-night-fight broadcasts, “I’ll be home early.” The judges in this instance are the students in a Henry James course I taught for the first time to undergraduates at Northwestern University this past spring, and their judgments come in the form of student evaluations. I have just been presented with a packet of these evaluations. To switch from boxing to poker, read ’em and leap, which my heart did, at least briefly, in appreciation for finding my own pedagogical efforts so warmly received. Allow me to quote from a few of these evaluations, partly to give some rough notion of what students who study literature are up against and partly out of sheer pathetic vanity:

  • Excellent. Perhaps the best course I’ve taken in college.

  • It was refreshing to look at the work [of Henry James] as just good literature, and not to have to worry about Marxist, capitalist, feminist interpretations.

  • Each class period was among the shortest 110 minutes of my week. Interesting. Stimulating. Controversial.

  • It was refreshing to talk about what an author was actually saying, rather than what he wasn’t saying or didn’t know he was saying. This class was one of the high points of my four years at Northwestern— I’m glad I had it during my final quarter.

  • Top-notch—the champagne of academic experience.

    That last item reminds me that Mumm’s the word—or perhaps ought to have been about such obviously inflated praise. But then I am so pleased that this course seems to have gone over with its audience that perhaps I am a bit out of control. I set out to teach it, I must confess, with some trepidation. I say “with some trepidation,” but it occurs to me that I have done most of my teaching with some trepidation, though I have been told that such nervousness as I might feel doesn’t show. Something else that doesn’t show, at least so long as one is teaching other than foreign languages in the humanities, is one’s effectiveness. How much of what one is saying is getting through to students? How much thinking of a subtle or textured kind can one expect to be absorbed by students between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two who, if memory serves, have a few other things on their minds?

    Confidence in these matters is for fools. Five or six years ago, a colleague, not normally given to bragging, told me that something quite magical had been happening to his teaching. He didn’t quite know how to explain it, but suddenly it all seemed to be coming together for him. In class he would find himself making startling connections, things flowed as never before, fascinating, possibly even original insights that had not hitherto occurred to him seemed to be there when he needed them.

    That same afternoon I ran into one of the most impressive of the then-current batch of undergraduate literature students. She was quick at acquiring foreign languages; was writing a senior paper on Rilke for Erich Heller; had been earnest enough to sit through an entire course of mine, for no credit, on the sociology of literature, for which she did all the reading and contributed brilliantly to classroom discussion. In a casual, merely making-conversation way, I asked her how her quarter was going. “All right,” she said, “but for Professor L.’s class [the colleague mentioned in the above paragraph]. He’s so dry, so dogmatic, so clearly talking to himself.” Whoops, I took—and continue to take—the moral of that story to be, Never say you are teaching well.

    I was not about to say that I do, but I do say that I especially wanted to teach Henry James well. As a graduate student once said to me of another student in a different class who was floundering and about whose fate she was worried, so I now say about Henry James: “I love him, you see.” James seems to me the most artistically intelligent, the most subtle, finally the greatest American writer. No other writer has given me so much pleasure nor, I believe, taught me so much about literature and life. I wanted ardently to get my appreciation for James across. I wanted converts, not to my precise views, but to at least a rough recognition of Henry James’s immense achievement.

    Before this could be done, I suspected, there was a need to scrape free the barnacles of cliché that have clung to the vessel of James’s reputation. The cliché that he was a very great snob—“an effete snob,” into the bargain, in Theodore Roosevelt’s phrase—must be chipped away. So, too, the notion that Henry James’s subject was an impossibly rarified one, that he wrote almost exclusively about people who could really never have existed: unanchored in work, nationally rootless, without financial concern, detached in nearly every way, sheer engines of pure and apparently inexhaustible cerebration. Although Henry James was an immitigably highbrow writer—some would say the first American modernist writer, given his tireless interest in the formal properties of his art—he also happens to have been an extraordinary comedian, in my opinion one of the funniest writers going. The cliché of Henry James as a great square stiffo, the ultimate stuffed shirt, this, too, had to be quickly swept away.

    Were my students even aware of these clichés? Difficult to know. But then it is a bit difficult to know what, exactly, is taught to undergraduates nowadays. In the course descriptions that go out each quarter, which I admit to reading in good part for the unconscious humor I find in them, one often encounters offerings promising the latest theory-a-go-go written in the most rococo gibberish. But then there are also standard survey courses and teachers who haven’t gone in for the nouvelle intellectual diet. My guess is that an undergraduate majoring in English at Northwestern today is likely to have been taught a single work by James—Washington Square, perhaps Portrait of a Lady, just possibly “Turn of the Screw.”

    I recalled my own introduction to Henry James as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago in the middle 1950s. It came when I was twenty years old in a course in the modern novel taught by Morton Dauwen Zabel. The novel was The Spoils of Poynton, a book of 1897, when James had already begun to write in his late—which is to say, more complex and circumambulating—style; and its subject, that of the passing on of a lovingly gathered collection of antique furniture, doubtless must have seemed rarefied in the extreme to a Middlewestern boy to whom the entire notion of “antique” held not the least interest. How much of the novel I could be said to have comprehended I cannot say. Yet I came away with respect for it, which was in part owing to the respect I had for the respect in which my teacher held it. I did at least grasp that Henry James was serious stuff, and that if I were one day to consider myself a serious literary man I should have to return to him.

    It’s probably a bad idea to ask how much anyone gets out of a book. (“None of us,” writes Ned Rorem, “can ever know how even our closest friends hear music.”) The question is especially complicated when applied to the young. I think of myself at nineteen reading Proust. What was going through my mind? Probably chiefly delight at the notion of myself reading Proust. When young, one does a great deal of reading that, if one is going to be among that small portion of people who go on to take books seriously, will have to be done again. As an earnest student of mine once put it shortly before his graduation, “God, I wish I had a chance to do a second draft on my education.” Some of us have been lucky enough to be able to arrange our lives spending the rest of our days putting draft after draft on our education.

    Yet a teacher of the young must not dwell on the question of what, even roughly, his students derive from the books he teaches them. My own assumption is that they, or at least the best among them, do not get much less than I do; and I have always tried to teach to the best in the class. To do less would be to lapse into condescension of a kind that would be defeating. This doesn’t mean that I don’t stop to explain and discuss fundamental matters—how symbolism works, what constitutes style—but I do assume that my students read for the same reasons that I do: aesthetic pleasure and spiritual profit.

    Not that this need preclude a certain quiet cozening on this teacher’s part. In teaching Henry James I viewed myself as a salesman. Like a salesman, I saw no point in making it any more difficult than necessary for a customer to say Yes. No point, in my view, in throwing anyone in at the deep end of the pool. Not that Henry James’s pool has a shallow end; he adored, he positively wallowed in complexity, and toward the end of his life he told his niece that he wished he could find a more elaborate way to pronounce his name. But some Jamesian works are a good deal less daunting than others, and I planned to begin with these, working my way through and up to the more complicated. Here is my reading list in the sequential order that students would be asked to read James:

    1. “The Art of Fiction”
    2. “The Figure in the Carpet”
    3. “The Aspern Papers”
    4. Washington Square
    5. “Daisy Miller”
    6. “The Pupil”
    7. The Europeans
    8. “The Turn of the Screw”
    9. The Princess Casamassima
    10. The Ambassadors (to be read for the final exam)

    Class enrollment was set at thirty students. I wanted the course to be built around discussion of works, for I thought that straight lecturing would be deadly. Something like forty-seven students registered for it, but I closed out enrollment at thirty-six. What their motives—beyond course credit—were in taking the course, I do not know. Most were upperclassmen, four were graduate students; the student who wrote far and away the most brilliant examination in the course turned out to be a sophomore.

    First day of class, right out of the chute, the sales pitch began. After setting out the ground rules—examinations, papers, grades, attendance—I announced what I took to be the point of the course. This was to establish in their minds an appreciation for the work of one of the most subtle of American writers, an understanding of what constitutes an exemplary career in literature, and, somehow, through all this, I hoped they would take away something that, in ways that could not be predicted, would alter, however slightly, their ways of thinking about life and make them a little bit smarter.

    I next touched briefly on a question that, fifteen or twenty years ago, would simply never have arisen—that of “how” we shall read Henry James. “I suppose my answer to this question,” I said, “is, ‘As intelligently as possible.’ I do not myself read him as a Marxist, a Freudian, a Deconstructionist, a Post-structuralist; I don’t read him to discover that he might be ‘elitist,’ or ‘pro-capitalist,’ or ‘anti-feminist,’ or anything of the sort. One of the interesting things about Henry James is that he makes all these ways of reading seem rather beside the point. I read him for the pleasure of his language, for his wit, for his meaning, which, if I may say so, is not always that easily caught. A critic named Philip Rahv [surely no one in the class, graduate students included, is likely to have encountered that name], who once remarked that James was a secular New Englander, interested in the same moral questions that his fellow New Englanders had been interested in, once formulated James’s way of coming at these questions thus: For Henry James ‘any failure of discrimination is sin, whereas virtue is a compound of intelligence, moral delicacy, and the sense of the past.’”

    Raising the sales pitch slightly, I began, in a brief lecture on Henry James’s life, by calling him a genius. A genius, though, I emphasized, of a particular kind. There are no Mozarts in literature, nor Einsteins for that matter, so that Henry James’s genius was not of the natural kind but came about as the result of fortunate circumstances—chief among them being born into the James family—and the most careful self-cultivation. And I quoted James himself, in The Tragic Muse, on the nature of genius in the arts: “Genius is only the art of getting your experience fast, of stealing it, as it were. …” It is also, of course, the ability to make the most of this experience, to have the energy and determination to make that experience count and to make it tell in works of art. I also quoted James on another character in the same novel: “Life, for him [one Mr. Carteret], was a purely practical function, not a question of phrasing.” To which I added that they, my students, ought to know right off that for Henry James not entirely but in good part life was a matter of phrasing—the right phrasing. I’m fairly sure no one in the room quite knew what I meant.

    The second session of class I brought in a photograph of Henry James in his early sixties, my only visual (non-audio) aid. In this photograph, which I acquired some years ago from the Smith College Archives, James wears pince-nez and is without his beard. I asked the students to take a minute or so with the photograph so that they might recall that the man they would be reading all quarter really was of flesh and blood, however godlike at times he may seem. I also suggested that the more penetrating among them might just discover, behind what at first glance seems a most formidable late-nineteenth-century countenance, a slight but very sly humor lurking.

    Together the class and I worked our way through the essay James titled “The Art of Fiction.” He wrote it in 1884, when he was forty-one, well launched on his career but far from having attained the heights he would soon reach. The essay is too rich to summarize here, but it is about what James calls the “artistic idea” and the variety of possibilities that novels— which “are as various as the temperament of man, and [are] successful as they reveal a particular mind, different from the others”—and all that the glorious form of the novel, then attaining its pre-eminence as a literary form, was capable of achieving in the hands of serious practitioners. Best as I remember it, the discussion was not exhilarating—it is generally easier to teach imaginative than critical works—but earnest, and at least nothing flat-out stupid was said. I also handed out Xerox copies of a sheet of quotations. The most impressive of these, from James’s essay on Turgenev, I read aloud, prefacing it by saying that James himself, in the same essay, remarks that when we read a writer of real power we want to know what he thinks about the world. This quotation, I think, comes as close as any single passage from James that I know to answering that question.

    Life is in fact, a battle. On this point optimists and pessimists agree. Evil is insolent and strong; beauty enchanting but rare; goodness very apt to be weak; folly very apt to be defiant; wickedness to carry the day; imbeciles to be in very great places, people of sense in small, and mankind generally, unhappy. But the world as it stands is no illusion, no phantasm, no evil dream of a night; we wake up to it again for ever and ever; we can neither forget it nor deny it nor dispense with it. We can welcome experience as it comes, and give it what it demands, in exchange for something which it is idle to pause to call much or little so long as it contributes to swell the volume of consciousness. In this there is mingled pain and delight, but over the mysterious mixture there hovers a visible rule, that bids us learn to will and seek to understand.

    I closed that second class, our first working session, by quoting James yet again: “In every novel the work is divided between the writer and the reader; but the writer makes the reader very much as he makes his characters … the reader would be doing his share of the task; the grand point is to get him to make it.” Would James be able to turn this trick with these students? Remains, as political journalists hedging their bets say, to be seen.

    “Taught what seemed to me a decent class yesterday,” my journal for March 30, 1990, reads. “Some bright and earnest kids in the room, I think.” The fact is that, over the years, I have had little to complain about in my students at Northwestern. There have been the usual contingent of the mediocre; a vastly smaller contingent of the genuinely hopeless; but always I have come upon a small number of superior students who are capable of passion and intelligence about art and other artifacts of the mind. Northwestern does not do all that well in the snobbery sweepstakes that I think undergraduate education in the United States has become; in rankings that appear in newspapers or news magazines from time to time, it is usually listed in some such slightly dreary position as fourteenth or eighteenth best school in the country. Who knows what this means—and who cares? But what I do know is that, in order to get into Northwestern, which asks high grades and SAT scores, these students have had to acquire the habits of achievement—which is to say, they do the work. Ask them to read a novel by next Thursday, and generally almost all will have done so; and those few who have not will feel damned guilty about it. I, for one, am glad they do feel guilty.

    Originally, the James course was to meet from 9:00–10:30, but then I thought perhaps Henry James at nine in the morning might be pushing it, and so I changed the time to 10:30–12:00. The room we met in was on the fourth floor of an old Charles Addams-like building called University Hall, which has good light and for some reason thirty or so extra chairs, all metal and plastic, many of which seemed to be massed up at the front of the room, giving the joint the feel of an abandoned warehouse once owned by a Scandinavian furniture company. Within a week or so, I learned the names of the students, whom as always I addressed as Mr. and Miss, and had my initial hunches about their differing intellectual quality. A graduate student named Pataky, who spoke ardently and well, could be depended upon to come in anywhere from five to ten minutes late. Soon it began to feel like that strange academic social unit—a class.

    I generally began each session by gassing away for twenty or so minutes on a general subject, such as the distinctions between highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow art, the meaning and use of irony as a literary method, the relation between morality and the novel, the best short formulation of which, in my opinion, remains that of R. P. Blackmur: “Novels do not supply us with morals, but they show us with what morals have to do.” Sometimes I would use my twenty or so minutes to talk about a more strictly Jamesian subject: James’s friendhip with Edith Wharton; the history of his reputation; his working methods, including the switch from handwriting his novels to dictating the later books to a typist. But the greatest portion of time in class was given to discussion of Henry James’s stories and novels.

    Henry James is nothing if not discussable. He never comes straight out to tell you what to think, though those of us who have lived long with his fiction have a pretty good notion of his partialities. He had a positive horror of generalization. When T. S. Eliot famously said that Henry James had “a mind so fine no idea could violate it,” he did not mean that James couldn’t understand or handle general ideas, but instead that his mind was too finely textured ever to be dominated by an idea and that he carried on his own aesthetic operation at a level well above the ideational. “It is the business of literature,” wrote Desmond MacCarthy, “to make ideas out of facts.” James was content to work with the facts alone—the lush, languorous, lovely facts—and let his readers discover in his writing such ideas as they deemed useful. So that many a Henry James story or novel, ending in renunciation or death, leaves a reader to work out the true meaning of what he has read on his own. Some people hate this challenge; others among us feel that this is precisely how sophisticated commerce between a novelist and his audience ought to be carried on. Naturally, I hoped my students would develop the respect for Henry James and the aesthetic patience required to join the latter camp.

    Certainly, the very first story in the course, “The Figure in the Carpet,” called for aesthetic patience in the extreme. It is a story about a search for the deep and underlying meaning of a writer’s work. “My little point,” the writer in question calls it, then enlarges upon his meaning:

    “By my little point I mean—what shall I call it?—the particular thing I’ve written my books most for. Isn’t there for every writer a particular thing of that sort, the thing that most makes him apply himself, the thing without the effort to achieve which he wouldn’t write at all, the very passion of his passion, the part of the business in which, for him, the flame of art burns most intensely? Well, its that!”

    Readers of James’s splendid story will recall that, although most of it is about trying to discover what that little point, the figure in the writer’s carpet, really is, we never finally find out. We can only surmise, which is far from everyone’s idea of how a story ought satisfactorily to end. What is more, it is very difficult to be human and not draw parallels with the writer in the story and its author and wonder what the figure was in Henry James’s own carpet. At least I hoped it was difficult. I put this story first on our reading list because I wanted students to begin thinking of James’s general intention, the passion of his passion, the part of the business in which, for him, the flame burned most intensely.

    I teach by what is very loosely called the Socratic method, though I am much better dressed and epically less intelligent than the man after whom it is named. Chiefly, I interrogate, sometimes pressing fairly hard, asking four, five, six questions of the same student, yet stopping, I trust, well short of the general tone of the Gestapo. I ask a question, then call on those students who raise their hands. If no one raises his or her hand, I call on someone anyhow. I try quietly to convey that it is a mistake to come to one of my classes unprepared. Nothing wrong with injecting a small element of fear in education. I know fear contributed greatly to my own.

    Building gradually in complexity and in length, the course next took up “The Aspern Papers,” a nouvelle, “the beautiful and blest nouvelle,” James called it. He was much enamored of the form, for it allowed him to undertake serious psychological examination while practicing what he termed “exquisite economy in composition.” I hadn’t read “The Aspern Papers” in more than twenty years and on rereading this “other story about Venice” it struck me as even better than I remembered it: more subtle, more powerful, more beautiful. I attempted to teach it around a general issue—that of the correctness of digging into the past of the personal lives of famous people to make them public in the name of scholarship, biographical interest, art, or what have you. I did not neglect to mention, by way of introduction, how lively this issue remained in our own day (the Mencken Diary had just been published against Mencken’s own wishes with serious consequences for the author’s reputation), and I brought up the fact that Henry James himself had at one point burned forty years of his own correspondence, lest it fall into the hands of a “publishing scoundrel” like the narrator of “The Aspern Papers.”

    A number of other ways of approaching the work were available, not least among them as a study into the nature of an idée fixe, or, as F. W. Dupee puts it in his book on James, as a book about the “power [of the past] to bargain with the present.” But I could have lingered as well on the sheer beauty of James’s rendering of his story, fondling details, highlighting descriptions, noting the scores of delicate phrasings. When James speaks of Juliana Bordereau, the aged lover of the dead poet Jeffrey Aspern, he remarks that, as an American, she had first come to Europe before “photography and other conveniences [had] annihilated surprise.” Forgive a bit of gushing, but that phrase “annihilated surprise” seems to me worth the entire price of the ticket. I pointed this out in class; I mentioned other lovely Jamesian touches. But when teaching the work of a genuinely elegant prose writer I have always felt that I have never done this element in their work sufficient justice. If poetry is what is left out of translation, it is the fine and artful details that tend to depart in teaching.

    The student response to “The Aspern Papers” seemed to me generous in its appreciation. I felt that there was a strong sense in the room of the quality of the work that we had just read and of the superiority of the artistic intelligence that had produced it. Meanwhile, personalities began to emerge, and they were not uninteresting. Of a class of thirty-six students, twelve or so were fairly impressive talkers, and three or four were capable of saying things of the kind that kept the old professor on his own wobbly toes. The class, in other words, had begun to take on character, and it was not a displeasing one. “Students in my Henry James course seem filled with good will,” I note in my journal for April 7. “Don’t know if my Henry James sell is working, but thus far no one is walking out.”

    Washington Square, the next book in the course, is a novel that James chose not to include in the New York Edition of his works, The Novels and Tales of Henry James, which he prepared for publication between 1905 and 1909. Around the time the Edition began to appear, James wrote to the novelist Robert Herrick that “by the mere fact of leaving out certain things (I have tried to read over Washington Square and I can’t and I fear it must go!) I exercise a control, a discrimination, I treat certain portions of my work as unhappy accidents.” Not a good decision, in my view, for this slender novel, written when James was thirty-seven, continues to stir the mind and agitate the heart of an attentive reader. Dealing with one of the great Jamesian themes—the immorality of an attempt by one human being to dominate the spirit of another, or to use another as a means to his or her own ends—the novel also provides a potent argument against theoretical modes of thinking in its attack on the figure of Dr. Austin Sloper, the successful physician who kills the love and respect in which he was held by his own daughter by treating her as essentially a pawn in a chess game of his own theoretical devising. Scientific by training, the doctor is a man used to dividing people into classes and types, and as he avers at one point in the novel, nineteen times out of twenty he is right. The problem is that the twentieth case can be decisive—it can be, this twentieth case, your own daughter. Implicit in this I read James’s criticism of scientific—and in our day, social-scientific and psychoanalytic—thought. “Never say you know the last word about any human heart,” James wrote, and it ought to stand as the permanent motto for those, great writers and all readers alike, who take their instruction from literature seriously.

    In class, discussion of Washington Square revolved around the question of how James had taken a relatively small cast of what looked to be fairly stock characters—an ugly-duckling daughter, a busybody aunt, a severe father, a handsome fortune hunter—and made them vivid and serious and immensely interesting. I recall the talk about this question being of good quality. I raised the question, too, of how James was able to transform his heroine, Catherine Sloper, the ugly-duckling daughter, from a rather dreary, misbegotten young woman to a formidable, quite admirable woman of resolute character. I mentioned a formulation of Desmond MacCarthy’s in this connection, which runs, if I have it correctly, that in the novels and stories of Henry James only the good are beautiful and there is no shortcut to being good. All that it generally takes to qualify as good in James is consistent kindness, heightened awareness, scrupulosity of behavior, and just possibly an act of renunciation that at the time it is made is likely to seem the moral equivalent of amputation. Yet in James it always, in the elaborate working out of his plots, seems persuasive.

    I was putting in a good deal of time in class preparations, and I found I was enjoying myself greatly, looking forward to entering class and feeling a slight drop in emotional temperature after each session was over. This was owing in part to the students, but even more, I believe, to Henry James. A few months before the course had begun, I read some of James’s novels that I had not read before (Watch and Ward, Confidence, The Reverberator, The Tragic Muse) and reread others that over the years had become blurry in memory (Roderick Hudson, The American, The Bostonians). I also read the one-volume abridgment of Leon Edel’s original—and, in my opinion, triumphant—five-volume biography of Henry James. I read some of James’s art criticism and reread some of his travel pieces. I read a fair amount of the vast body of criticism of James; and in so doing was reminded how the revival of James’s reputation in the 1920s and 1930s, consequent upon the creation in the university of American literature as a respectable academic subject, happily paralleled the emergence of a brilliant group of critics, including T. S. Eliot, Yvor Winters, Lionel Trilling, Philip Rahv, F. W. Dupee, Joseph Warren Beach, William Troy, Edmund Wilson, and Jacques Barzun, all of whom much admired James and wrote interestingly on him. For four or five months, then, I had been living on an almost exclusively Henry James literary diet and felt myself flourishing on it.

    Odd but I have found that I can write with enthusiasm about things I dislike—anger, after all, can be an inspiration—but I can only teach with delight what I love. Part of the reason for this may be that, with undergraduate life so brief, it seems pointless to me to waste any portion of it asking students to read and think about third- and fourth-rate things. One can scarcely hope to acquaint them, in the span of four years, with more than a soupçon of the ample quantity of the first-rate available in art and thought. Perhaps this is why the heavy dosage of recent academic talk about changing the canon in undergraduate education has always seemed to me a sad (usually political) cheat, where it has not been altogether beside the point. Besides, I have my own selfish motives for teaching. Apart from doing one’s job—teaching the Kinder properly—I need to feel some sense of intellectual progress while doing so, usually in the way of feeling I am getting a bit smarter myself, and possibly learning a thing or two about writing. Teaching Henry James allows one to think one is progressing in both ways.

    Not that all was euphoria. “Daisy Miller,” which I taught to introduce James’s international theme—or, as he called it, “the Americano-European legend”—presented a few bumps in the road. (“Daisy Miller” was the story that gave James his initial jolt of fame: the character of the American girl loose on the Continent established a type, as F. Scott Fitzgerald was later to do for the flapper; and James was asked to provide stories of the same kind for other magazines, which, being Henry James, of course he didn’t.) One of the difficulties the story provided was that many of James’s little jokes about the vulgarity of the Miller family sailed blithely over the heads of students for whom vulgarity isn’t currently a vivid category. A small business early in the story, for example, has Daisy’s younger and thoroughly spoiled brother announce the names of the members of his family each with his or her middle initials: Annie P. Miller, Ezra B. Miller, Randolph C. Miller. The use of the middle initial is a wholly American phenomenon, and James brings it in merely to show the comic combination of American naïveté and pomposity. Explaining this admittedly minor point, I distinctly felt a collective fish eye upon me, as if the entire class were asking itself, “Why is this man bothering to tell us this?”

    But the problem went deeper. It felt somewhat strange to explain to a roomful of students who, so far as I knew, had been going at it with their boy and girl friends since high school that there was something quite scandalous about a young American woman going about Rome unchaperoned but otherwise quite innocently with a lower-middle-class Italian. In “Daisy Miller” Henry James wrote a comedy of manners, a rather dazzling one at that, but when manners change radically, as they have in our time, other comedies are played. Or so I felt up there in front of the class explaining what exactly it was that Daisy did to scandalize the American colony in Rome in the last third of the nineteenth century.

    Things picked up with “The Pupil,” one of James’s middling-long stories, written when he was forty-seven and very much at the top of his game. It is a pure Jamesian tale, fascinating in and for itself. It tells that story of a boy of vastly precocious sensibility and intelligence who is being brought up by a family of failed social climbers who are monstrously unreliable. The tutor quickly senses how extraordinary the boy is, and rather more slowly discovers how shabby is the family. Meanwhile, the two of them, tutor and pupil, in moments of shared fantasy, talk about how fine it would be if they could one day escape the family and live together on their own.

    At the close of the story precisely that opportunity arises, and the tutor, vacillating ever so slightly, is caught doing so by the boy, which causes his already weakened heart to fail. It is a story that demands the utmost attention, particularly at the very end, lest the tutor’s vacillation be missed. Many students did miss it, and a good discussion followed upon the subject of whether a young boy would have been so delicately attuned as to be able to pick it up. “Why,” said one of the best students in the class, who didn’t really think so young a boy could pick up so subtle a hint as James provides, “in order to do so, he’d had to be a little Henry James.” (As the odious radio performer Art Linkletter used to say, “Don’t kids say the darndest things?”)

    Not long after this I ventured a quotation about “The Pupil” from F. W. Dupee: “A kind of fraternal-homosexual affection unites the boy and the tutor in ‘The Pupil.’” Anything to it?, I asked. I myself didn’t think there was, though I did not just then say so. But suddenly the discussion in the room was once again enlivened; the class in fact, divided. A few students came forth to say they felt that homosexuality was the key to the story. Another student said that he hadn’t really thought of it before, but now that it had come up he discovered a few passages—one of which he read out to the class—that sounded rather homosexier than he had at first realized. On and on it went, unresolved as the bell rang to end the class. In the hall, Miss Jennie Davidson, who has been in another of my classes, remarked dryly that perhaps there ought to be a statute of limitations on discovering homosexuality in literature. No dope, Miss Davidson. At the next class session I simply announced that, for my money, the element of homosexuality in the story, if indeed it could be said to exist, was quite beside the point. But then, I added, you must realize that a critic’s work is never done. How many students in the class picked up the irony of that last comment I am not prepared to say. I felt, though, that I owed it to them not to explain it.

    It was in “The Pupil,” too, that that miserable old hag, Auntie Semitism, staggered into the room. In a line toward the middle of the story James notes of the boy’s family: “They were good-natured, yes—as good-natured as Jews at the doors of clothing shops! But was that the model one wanted one’s family to follow?” Several were the Jewish students in the class. The teacher’s last name is Epstein. What was to be done? I offered a brief sermonette—the question had come up near the end of the class—saying that I wished Henry James’s work was entirely clear of this sort of blotch, but it wasn’t. In this he did not, as he did in so many other ways, rise above his time and social class. I then went on to say that it might assuage people much disturbed by this to know that, in the Dreyfus Affair, James was absolutely on the correct side, applauding Emile Zola’s J’accuse and deploring the anti-Semitism of such longtime French friends as Paul Bourget, which quite sickened him.

    When I asked how many in the class had ever heard of the Dreyfus Affair, none had. Everyone who teaches has stories about what shockingly obvious knowledge the current generation of undergraduates doesn’t have. For my part, I must report that I no longer get much worked up by this sort of thing. If I knew anything about the Dreyfus Affair as an undergraduate, it couldn’t have been much. Such historical material as most of us possess we come to through our special interests or by simple accident. Thus I know a fair amount about the Russian Revolution but not a single fact about the administration of President James Polk. Perhaps the one serious difference between my students and me at their age is that, I suspect, I was more embarrassed about my ignorance than they, and I still may be.

    More significant is what the lack of experience owing entirely to being young does to one as a reader. This came up when we read The Europeans, another novel James claimed not to think much of but which impressed me (and F. R. Leavis, among others). In this slender novel, in which the international subject runs the other way round, with two immensely Europeanized Americans visiting their New England cousins, the conduct of the characters and the nature of the situation into which James has inserted them, calls for a reasonably strong flow of generalization on the author’s part. “It must be admitted … that nothing exceeds the license occasionally taken by the imagination of very rigid people” is a mild example. But the generalization that incited the most strenuous comment was that which reads: “a woman looks the prettier for having unfolded her wrongs or sufferings.” What about it, I asked, is this true? Do women look prettier under such conditions?

    The young women in the room with conventional—and none were rabid—feminist views felt not. They were generally committed to denying that there are any serious differences between men and women, which may or may not be sound social policy but is certainly tough on literature, which is in good part the historical record of these very differences. Others, male and female, who thought of themselves as operating solely on reason, said that they just didn’t see how this generalization could hold up. A few students—all of them women—said, yes, that it seemed to them true, at least when they recalled women they knew who recounted genuine sufferings to them. (Mere kvetching, I insisted, didn’t count.) I said that I thought James’s generalization true, too, though my word on this point didn’t come anywhere near carrying the day.

    I asked what checks there were on generalizations, and when no one come forth with any, I said that I could myself think of only two: reason and experience. The interesting problem, I noted, was that experience, as Pascal and other powerful thinkers have testified, frequently outrages reason. I cited an instance from an Anthony Powell novel. In the novel the narrator remarks of another character that he was very quick at picking up speaking knowledge of foreign languages and that, like every other man whom the narrator knew who had this skill, this man, too, was fundamentally untrustworthy. “Crazy,” I said to the class, “quite nuts, right?” Much shaking of heads in agreement. “Very well, then, what am I supposed to do if the only four men I have known who are similarly quick at picking up speaking knowledge of foreign languages are also, yep, fundamentally untrustworthy?” No advice was offered.

    As for the hard sell, I thought it going very nicely indeed when, the week that we read “The Turn of the Screw,” the class overwhelmingly rejected Edmund Wilson’s theory that everything the governess saw and felt during the course of the story was imagined, the result of neurotic sexual repression. The theory was rejected, moreover, on the interesting grounds that, in the class’s view, it made the story itself less interesting; that it somehow degraded James’s artistic intention; and that, finally, Henry James being Henry James, his intentions ought to be assumed to be of the highest. (Philip Rahv, writing about “The Turn of the Screw,” similarly remarked: “So far as intention goes, we should keep in mind that in James we are always justified in assuming the maximum.” Don’t grown-ups say the darndest things?)

    I also sensed, in our discussion of “The Turn of the Screw,” a patience with James’s ambiguity. Perhaps it had come with all else that we had earlier read of James, but there seemed to be an understanding that for Henry James ambiguity, along with irony and penetrating observation, had its own rich artistic uses. “The Turn of the Screw” is the ultimate tale of ambiguity. Edmund Wilson was not wrong when he said that in it “almost everything from beginning to end can be read equally in either of two senses.” The story’s devastating ending, in which the governess, hitherto entirely a force for good, contributes to the child Miles’s death, is itself a paradigm of the ambiguity in the human soul, where good and evil often cohabit. But without the student’s respect for James’s intentions and understanding of his use of ambiguity, I don’t think we could have worked our way through this great tour de force of James’s with anything like the appreciative reading that emerged.

    “May 23, 1990. Taught first flat Henry James class yesterday. Too few students finished reading the 591-page Princess Casamassima, the little dears. Too late in the quarter to yell at them.” In fact, I was angrier than this journal entry reveals; lest there be any doubt, “little dears” is pure euphemism. The academic quarter was drawing to a close; papers were due in other courses; examinations in other courses would soon have to be taken. Let us not speak of love lives, emotional crises, and simple lassitude, complications not unknown to phylum studentia. Still, with the greed of every selfish teacher, I wanted these students to save their very best for me, which, up till now, I think the majority of them had done.

    I also wanted to make good use of The Princess Casamassima to help nail down my quarter-long hard sell. In many ways it is among my favorite of Henry James’s novels. He never availed himself of a larger canvas. Not only is the book filled with rich and beautiful things, but in it James puts to rout almost all the arguments that have been used to make him seem a less complete writer than he really is. The dark third chapter of the novel, with its terrifying tour through Millbank Prison for women, is as good as anything Dickens ever did in the same line and worthy of the great Russians. The cast of characters in the novel ranges through the entire English class system. James’s depiction of working-class characters is beautifully brought off, and without a trace of snobbery. “I take no interest in the people,” says Mme Grandoni, a secondary yet important character in the novel, “I don’t understand them and I know nothing about them. An honorable nature, of any class, I always respect; but I won’t pretend to a passion for the ignorant masses, for I have it not.” The Princess Casamassima is, in fact, a philippic in novel form against political snobbery and shows its dread consequences in the world. It is also the ultimate defense of the literary mode of thought, as opposed to the political or social-scientific, and sets out, with no ambiguity this time round, the forces that, for the literary imagination, rule the world. As another character in The Princess Casamassima puts it:

    The figures on the chessboard were still the passions and jealousies and superstitions and stupidities of man, and thus positioned with regard to each other at any given moment could be of interest only to the grim invisible fates who played the game—who sat, through the ages, bow-backed over the table.

    Well, perhaps no salesman can expect utter satisfaction. Better to close the deal and move on to the next customer. I think that with perhaps a third of these students I got across what it meant for Henry James to be “the historian of fine consciences” that Joseph Conrad called him. Maybe, too, at the end of our nine weeks together reading this one writer, several of these students would depart with a glimmer of what James himself meant when he said that “It is art than makes life, makes interest, makes importance, for our consideration and application of these things, and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.” At the end of the course, they wrote those generous student evaluations. The two sets of examinations they wrote for me were strong, with an occasional James-like formulation popping up in them. “James’s endings,” wrote one student, “seem often to be a twist of the knife rather than the actual stab.” “In this story, as in so much of James,” wrote another, “The victories are small and often so much more valuable because of it.”

    What sticks? Will there be residue? What remains? Will any of these students eventually join the narrator of James’s story “The Next Time,” who remarks of the select band of readers devoted to high literary culture, “We’re a numerous band, partakers of the same repose, who sit together in the shade of the tree, by the plash of the fountain, with the glare of the desert round us and no great vice that I know of but the habit perhaps of estimating people a little too much by what they think of a certain style”? These are questions the answer to which a teacher of Henry James wishes to but cannot know. Still, the prospect of having possibly put two or three more Jamesians in the world, from the standpoint of a high-pressure, hard-sell literary salesman, makes all those mornings talking one’s head off seem, just possibly, worth it.

    From The New Criterion Vol. 9, No. 3, November 1990
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