My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This short 1879 book is Henry James’s critical biography of the man who would at the time have been considered his most distinguished precursor in American fiction, Nathaniel Hawthorne. James was early in his career and was moreover writing Hawthorne as the only entry on an American to appear in a series published in Britain on “English Men of Letters”; he is consequently forced to fight on two fronts throughout his text. On the one hand, he struggles to clear a space for himself in American letters by defining himself against his precursor as a member of a more complex, ironic, cosmopolitan, and realistic generation of writers; on the other hand, he must defend the honor of American literature, even of America itself, against the condescension of the erstwhile mother country.
In the first task of guarding against literary subsumption by Hawthorne, James acquits himself with grace and aplomb. It is an exceptionally dignified performance, considering what it might have been—compare, for instance, the sometimes ludicrous vitriol of the later modernists against their own precursors (e.g., Ezra Pound: “From an examination of Walt made twelve years ago the present writer carried away the impression that there are thirty well-written pages of Whitman; he is now unable to find them”). James even manages to recast Hawthorne’s faults as virtues. Understanding that Hawthorne will be judged by English or European readers as unsophisticated by the standards of “that quality of realism which is now so much in fashion,” that the thinness and simplicity of his fiction’s social settings will be found wanting in comparison to Balzac or Flaubert, James nevertheless emphasizes that Hawthorne’s very narrowness and intensity of focus make his work all the more valuable as a testimony to its time and place:
His very simplicity has been in his favour; it has helped him to appear complete and homogeneous. To talk of his being national would be to force the note and make a mistake of proportion; but he is, in spite of the absence of the realistic quality, intensely and vividly local.
James implies that a Balzac would have struggled to produce novels like Lost Illusions if he had had to take New England small-town life as his subject matter, with its lack either of Europe’s medieval survivals (church, aristocracy) or of its ultramodern developments (industrialization and urbanization). In Hawthorne‘s most famous passage, James gives us a seriocomic list of everything the early-19th-century American writer did not have to write about:
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!
Precisely these absences were considered by 18th- and early-19th-century American writers to be advantages: Franklin, Crèvecœur, Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman were certainly grateful to live in a country unencumbered by ruined abbeys or aristocratic racecourses. But they were not novelists, and the novel was invented—according to the strictures of high realism to which the young James adhered—to anatomize a complex society and to analyze the human being as social animal. Without a complex society to portray, spending most of his life in small towns and villages, Hawthorne had recourse to symbolism and psychology. And while James cannot stop himself from judging that Hawthorne, even in his masterpiece (The Scarlet Letter), exhibits “a want of reality and an abuse of the fanciful element,” he also concedes that it could hardly have been otherwise.
While we might see James as influenced by contemporaneous naturalist ideas in judging Hawthorne so completely a product of his environment, we could also consider this book an ahead-of-its-time exercise in postcolonial criticism—an examination of the difficulties and opportunities for the writer in a newly-born country still culturally dominated by the empire and lacking in the full development of its own political and social powers. James’s tone wavers between the admiring and the patronizing when he writes of Hawthorne as “the last of the old-fashioned Americans,” above all in “in the vagueness of his sense of social distinctions and his readiness to forget them if a moral or intellectual sensation were to be gained by it” (in one passage, James apologizes to the sensitive English reader because in one of his stories Hawthorne refers to a tavern-keeper as a “gentlewoman”!). James seems overall, though, to mourn the passing of a generation so ingenuously and innocently democratic as that of Hawthorne, the Transcendentalists, and, indeed, James’s own parents.
The postcolonial critic, however, usually gets around to censuring the national bourgeoisie for its complacency, and James is no different—nor, surprisingly, is his verdict on Hawthorne’s Jacksonian America really so different from our own. James predictably but very gingerly upbraids Hawthorne for his politics—he was a lifelong Democrat, making him, by the time of the Civil War, a northern moderate opposed to abolitionism and eventually opposed to the war itself—but the judgment extends to the entirety of antebellum white America (or New England, anyway—America seems largely to mean New England for the purposes of this book) as James notes when he argues for the Civil War as a decisive break in the national character:
[The good American] has eaten of the tree of knowledge. He will not, I think, be a sceptic, and still less, of course, a cynic; but he will be, without discredit to his well-known capacity for action, an observer. He will remember that the ways of the Lord are inscrutable, and that this is a world in which everything happens; and eventualities, as the late Emperor of the French used to say, will not find him intellectually unprepared. The good American of which Hawthorne was so admirable a specimen was not critical, and it was perhaps for this reason that Franklin Pierce seemed to him a very proper President.
James seems to have taken his tree-of-knowledge metaphor literally: he expelled himself—forever, in the end—from the New World’s garden, becoming a good American by becoming no American at all.
To return from politics to literature: there is obviously much of Hawthorne in James’s fiction, despite the later author’s choice of European cosmopolitanism over American provincialism and of realism over romance. Isabel Archer is the daughter of Hester Prynne (almost literally, considering the fate of Pearl in The Scarlet Letter) while The Bostonians comes straight out of The Blithedale Romance. James’s description of Hilda from The Marble Faun could caption his own whole procession of besmirched Protestant madonnas from Daisy to Milly:
This pure and somewhat rigid New England girl, following the vocation of a copyist of pictures in Rome, unacquainted with evil and untouched by impurity, has been accidentally the witness, unknown and unsuspected, of the dark deed by which her friends, Miriam and Donatello, are knit together. This is her revelation of evil, her loss of perfect innocence. She has done no wrong, and yet wrongdoing has become a part of her experience, and she carries the weight of her detested knowledge upon her heart. She carries it a long time, saddened and oppressed by it, till at last she can bear it no longer.
James even unwittingly (and amusingly) foretells his own destiny in writing of Hawthorne’s stylistic development:
[The Scarlet Letter] is admirably written. Hawthorne afterwards polished his style to a still higher degree, but in his later productions—it is almost always the case in a writer’s later productions—there is a touch of mannerism.
James’s own sometimes scarcely readable late style, though, is more a pummeling than a touch of mannerism. Finally, James’s balanced assessment of Hawthorne’s temperament—”The play of [his] intellect was light and capricious, but the man himself was firm and rational”—is a welcome contrast not only to the French critic James is explicitly arguing against, who saw Hawthorne as a kind of Poe-like nihilist, but also to Melville’s projection of Hawthorne as an author who said “NO! in thunder,” a strange thing to claim about a writer whose central symbol is ambivalence embroidered. If you miss Hawthorne’s rationality, you miss the irony that preserves his fantasy from decaying into mere sensationalism—you miss the novelistic temper behind the romancer. This was not lost—little was—on James.
My own contribution to the theory of literary influence is less psychedelic than Eliot’s (“the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past”), Borges’s (“every writer creates his own precursors”), or Bloom’s (“influence is influenza—an astral disease”), even though they well illuminate those moments in which Hawthorne sounds like James. But perhaps my homely contribution will be more practically persuasive: I think strong writers overcome the anxiety of influence by adopting modes that startlingly combine those of the most disparate of their major precursors.[*]
In the best work of James’s middle years, for example, he seems to have proceeded as if he were Jane Austen writing The Scarlet Letter or Nathaniel Hawthorne writing Pride and Prejudice. Bereft of a broad social canvas and moreover tormented by extreme Puritan inwardness, the early American writer dug deeply rather than venturing widely. This seems to have been James’s hint to tunnel a deep burrow into the English or European social novel and excavate the psyche’s symbols. James turns the socially realist novel inside out, lining drawing-room walls and urban streets with his character’s inner lives. In his excellent Portrait of a Novel, Michael Gorra argues that James’s Portrait of a Lady is the hinge text that swings modern fiction from Middlemarch to Mrs. Dalloway. James could never have accomplished this without the example of Hawthorne, whose fiction—however local, however provincial—became world literature in the hands of his successor.
[*] The harder it is to imagine making the combination work, the greater the literary rewards will be. Feel free to take this as a writing prompt, by the way. What if Edith Wharton wrote Paradise Lost? What if J. G. Ballard wrote Daniel Deronda? What if Zora Neale Hurston wrote Blood Meridian?
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