I took up this volume as Halloween approached and I realized I had never read James’s second most famous ghost story, “The Jolly Corner.” (I love James, but his most famous ghost story, the novella The Turn of the Screw, has always struck me as a bit of a gimmick, a work written to order for a syllabus on literary interpretation.) Nor had I read “The Altar of the Dead,” also collected here; and while I had read the collection’s middle story, “The Beast in the Jungle,” I cannot claim to have understood it.
These three stories belong to James’s later period: “The Altar of the Dead” is from 1895 (the disastrous year of Guy Domville), “The Beast in the Jungle” from 1903 and “The Jolly Corner” from 1908. The prose in this volume accordingly grows more involuted and periphrastic and vague, James’s late style being a vast effort at artful evasion. (I do not admire the notion adopted by many of the modernists that their styles were tending toward some absolute uniqueness, untouched by reality. I prefer the discoveries of their middle period, when their styles developed under the novel pressures of their themes, with form and content inseparable: I like Ulysses better than Finnegans Wake, Mrs. Dalloway better than The Waves, Molloy better than “Ping”—and The Portrait of a Lady better than The Wings of the Dove.)
These three tales are all one story, really: a man turns aside from the course of normative life—family, business—and develops a monomania or obsession with something absent—a dead loved one, a mysterious destiny, his own past self; in this bizarre worship of the vanished, he is joined and goaded by a woman who is not quite a lover but who fills something like a lover’s role. All three chart the peril and potential of a life consecrated to something other than the natural or the conventional. Because this “something” remains yet to be realized in a social reality that is bound to custom or else has vanished with the potential of an individual’s evanescent youth, it is often said that all James’s stories are ghost stories, haunted by the elusive possibility of a richer existence that never materializes in the present, just as his increasingly unreadable prose never fully brings meaning before the reader.
“The Altar of the Dead,” being the earliest of the stories in this slim volume, is perhaps my favorite. It concerns a man named Stransom who devotes himself to a shrine to his dead loved ones; soon he is accompanied in this morbid devotion by a woman who becomes “the priestess of his altar.” They seem happy in their two-person cult until Stransom discovers that all her mourning is directed at his own late ex-friend, Acton Hague, who appears to have cruelly used her sexually, in spite of which she has forgiven him. The quarrel over whether or not to memorialize Hague divides them until each realizes that they have nothing to live for but their shared worship. The story is redolent of church candles and incense, all that fin-de-siècle longing for an inviolable and sacred haven amid the industrial soot, the tenement filth, and the noise of the emergent mass culture. Not that there is religious belief in this story; what Stransom intends by his memorial project is precisely the prolongation of the presence—if only as fire—of his beloved dead, a kind of secular immortality that Walter Pater, who died the year before this story’s publication, might have called art:
It was in the quiet sense of having saved his souls that his deep, strange instinct rejoiced. This was no dim theological rescue, no boon of a contingent world; they were saved better than faith or works could save them, saved for the warm world they had shrunk from dying to, for actuality, for continuity, for the certainty of human remembrance.
Now for the “The Beast in the Jungle.” I am not well-versed in James criticism, but I gather there have been two successive tendencies in interpreting this story about a man who, convinced that some vast destiny awaits him (the titular beast), does nothing with his life, abetted in this inaction by a devoted woman whom he realizes too late—after her death—that he might have loved. The first (moralizing) school of interpretation sees this as a story that warns against the arrogance of believing yourself set apart from the duties of the ordinary; the second (politicizing) interpretation sees this as a tragic tale of the closet, about a furtive gay man and his kindly, knowing beard. Both of these critical allegories, though, seem to evade the story’s main action, in which a canny and imperious woman takes a rather formless, dreamy man and molds his life into a sublimity of nothingness, a vast abstraction. Marcher, as his name may imply, is a mere conscript or trouper in May Bartram’s lifelong project to shape a life. Marcher’s epiphany—that he ought to have loved her—is a bathetic and sentimental falling-off from the glory of absolute and inhuman art that they had shared; he fails to see that this is what she meant when she told him that his destiny had already come without his knowing it—his destiny was to be her creation, her character, an artwork like those of the coming century that would have no reference to our common life. She was the beast all along, and he her prey in a city that has forgotten that it remains a jungle. Read this way, instead of as a sentimental tale about a man who is either a moral delinquent or a political victim, “The Beast in the Jungle” becomes as austere as a Greek tragedy about a mortal man who falls victim to—and is therefore elevated by—the immortal designs of the gods.
“The Jolly Corner” is, as its title hints, a more genial tale than these. It is about an American expatriate who returns to New York City after a long absence and begins to wonder what his life would have been like had he chosen an American destiny of swashbuckling capitalism instead of opting, like James, for the Old World. To find out what might have been, Spencer Brydon becomes convinced that he can encounter the ghost of his alternate self haunting his childhood home (which sits on the eponymous corner). In this obsession he is, like the previous protagonists, helped by a woman—Alice Staverton has had “an unbroken career in New York” and seems poised to love Brydon. Most of the story is an exercise in suspense, a build-up to Brydon’s dead-of-night encounter with the ghost and to the climactic revelation that Alice has also seen this grizzled spirit—anguished and maimed (missing two fingers) from its hard life of American business. (You can almost see the faint smile on the aged James’s lips at these sportive exaggerations.) Alice seems more attracted to the businessman ghost of Brydon than to the bohemian reality, but she comes around by the end, and the story seems to end happily. A very poignant but also witty reflection on the artist’s dream of having been “normal”—if you will let me end on a self-indulgent note, it reminds me very much of my own short story, “They Are in the Truth,” which is admittedly less complex, though probably easier to read.