Happy Birthday Henry James!

Tracy Wuster

Born in 1843, died in 1916.  Henry James remains one of the most studied figures in American literature, possibly the most studied, according to a recent story on the amount of scholarship on American authors.  But relatively little scholarship seems to discuss James’s relationship to humor.  I am not a Henry James scholar, so I will not hazard to say much about the subject, except to state that I believe it is an important subject that I would like to hear more on.  Are there books, articles, or other resources that people can recommend on the subject?

Of course, there is the famous passage from James’s Hawthorne, from the “English Men of Letters” series by MacMillan from 1879, in which James discusses Hawthorne’s American diaries.  America, James wrote, held no romance for the author.  As Hawthorne had stated, “No author, without a trial, can conceive of the difficulty of writing a romance about a country where there is no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong, nor anything but a commonplace prosperity, in broad and simple daylight, as is happily the case with my dear native land.”  James wrote:

The negative side of the spectacle on which Hawthorne looked out, in his contemplative saunterings and reveries, might, indeed, with a little ingenuity, be made almost ludicrous; one might enumerate the items of high civilization, as it exists in other countries, which are absent from the texture of American life, until it should become a wonder to know what was left. No State, in the European sense of the word, and indeed barely a specific national name. No sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church, no clergy, no army, no diplomatic service, no country gentlemen, no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old country-houses, nor parsonages, nor thatched cottages nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals, nor abbeys, nor little Norman churches; no great Universities nor public schools—no Oxford, nor Eton, nor Harrow; no literature, no novels, no museums, no pictures, no political society, no sporting class—no Epsom nor Ascot! Some such list as that might be drawn up of the absent things in American life—especially in the American life of forty years ago, the effect of which, upon an English or a French imagination, would probably as a general thing be appalling. The natural remark, in the almost lurid light of such an indictment, would be that if these things are left out, everything is left out. The American knows that a good deal remains; what it is that remains—that is his secret, his joke, as one may say. It would be cruel, in this terrible denudation, to deny him the consolation of his national gift, that “American humour” of which of late years we have heard so much. (44)

Continue below for Constance Rourke’s view of James…

In American Humor: A Study of the American Character, Constance Rourke discusses the humor of Henry James and William Dean Howells in relation to the influence of European, especially British, criticisms of American culture, or the lack thereof in terms echoing Howells’s discussion of Hawthorne. From Chapter 8–The American :

The American went abroad, often to stay; sentiment overspread his return to “our old home,” and that preoccupation with art which had been satirized in Innocents Abroad became one of his larger preoccupations.

This was mixed with a consideration which had long since been borne in upon the American mind by British criticisms. Culture was an obvious proof of leisure, of long establishment, of half a hundred desirable assurances that had been lacking in American life; it even seemed to re solve the vexing problem of manners. Culture was sought abroad as a tangible emblem. The resultant “pillage of the past” was to mount to monstrous proportions, and to include the play of many unworthy instincts–ostentation, boredom, a morbid inversion of personal desires; often, no doubt, it represented a natural response to the fine accumu lations of time. Yet surely on the wide scale it was some thing more than these. Fumbling and fantastic, the restless habit seemed an effort to find an established tradition, with the solidity, assurance, and justification which traditions may bring. The American wish for establishment had often seemed a fundamental wish, with all the upheaval.

Many Americans continued to make the extravagant de nials of Innocents Abroad, but the exodus was unbroken, and found an interpreter in Henry James.

ALMOST invariably the opening moods and even the later sequences of James’s novels were those of comedy. He instinctively chose the open sunny level; the light handling of his early Confidence, uncomplicated by the international situation, shows what he could do in maintaining this when his materials permitted. He ran indeed through a wide gamut of humor, from that of the happy and easy view and a delicate satire to a broad caricature and irony. Social comedy appeared in Henry James. For the first time an American writer drew a society and infused his drawing with an acute sense of human disparities. Yet the aggregation of his novels does not spell comedy, but a kind of tragedie Americaine, which was in large part a tragedy of manners. “I have the instincts–have them deeply–if I haven’t the forms of a high old civilization,” Newman told Claire de Cintre; but the instincts, if he possessed them, were not enough. Daisy Miller, bringing down a storm of angry reproof upon James’s head, was a classic instance which he multiplied with variations of subtlety and range.

In comedy reconcilement with life comes at the point when to the tragic sense only an inalienable difference or dissension with life appears. Recognition is essential for the play of a profound comedy; barriers must be down; perhaps defeat must lie at its base. Yet the outcome in these novels was in a sense the traditional outcome, for triumph was comprised in it; but the sphere had altered from outer circumstance to the realm of the mind and spirit; and triumph was no longer blind and heedless, but achieved by difficult and even desperate effort.

In this outcome James transcended the nationalistic altogether–that obsession which had had so long a history. Yet in the aggregate of his novels he repeated a significant portion of the old fable. He showed that the American was in truth what the belligerent Yankee had always declared him to be, a wholly alien, disparate, even a new character. In the end the primary concern of James was with that character; and he kept a familiar touch of the fabulous in his narratives.

And finally, a cartoon of James, with Howells, trying to measure up to Thackeray during the so-called “realism war”:

If anyone has a better scan of this cartoon (it is from Punch), I would love to publish it.


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