Dearly Beloved Friends: Henry James's Letters to Younger Men.
The Nature of True Virtue: Theology, Psychology, and Politics in the Writings of Henry James, Sr., Henry James, Jr., and William James. By JAMES DUBAN. Cranbury, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press; London: Associated University Presses. 2001. 261 pp. 35 [pounds sterling]. ISBN: 0-8386-3888-0.
Susan Gunter and Steven Jobe's collection of Henry James's letters to four younger men is a welcome and necessary companion book to the numerous recent academic studies exploring the personal and fictive varieties of James's same-sex emotional experiences. In the introduction the editors argue that what differentiates these letters from those James sent to women is the language, which, rather than being just affectionate or domestic, takes a more corporeal and even erotic substance. Language here becomes the medium for expressing physical desire--touching, holding, and caressing--thus enabling James to embody different roles (paternal, fraternal, or erotic), which enriched his sexual and emotional experience and possibly eliminated the loneliness of his later life.
The letters to Hendrik Andersen, however, rather than providing the reader with clues about James's erotic life, remain on the level of the affectionate. James addresses Andersen as 'beloved' or 'my dear, dear Hendrik' and often wishes the latter were situated closer in distance so as to 'lay [his] hands on [him]' (p. 52) but, we sense, in a paternal or brotherly way, as James's wish is always to console, nurse, or comfort the ailing Andersen for the bitterness of his misfortunes. Nevertheless, the letters are valuable in another sense. While, surprisingly, James's own work is never discussed between the two correspondents, James's criticism of Andersen's work is profuse and intriguing, reflecting the novelist's views concerning his own relation to the market. Telling is James's admonition to the sculptor to stop working for himself. Describing Andersen's labour as a kind of 'lonely insanity' (p. 61), James condemns it for its lack of marketability and advises his young friend to abandon his 'brilliant castles in the air' (p. 73) and cure his 'mania for the colossal' (p. 71), for the sake of considering the possible use or application of his art.
James's letters to Jocelyn Persse, which are described by the editors as 'the most erotic' (p. 84), are indeed more sensual in nature. However, read in context and in relation to Persse's biographical details, provided in this collection, they exhibit the novelist's strong desire to partake, vicariously through animated language, of the young man's passionate lifestyle. Persse's 'thrill of life' (p. 98), which, as James enviously acknowledges, could be applied everywhere, at every time, and to every thing, strongly contrasts with James's more critical attitude to life, which at times hindered his enjoyment. Moreover, the passage which the editors deem most erotic ('I remember how when I last saw you I wanted to breathe upon you an entirely cooling affection' (p. 99)), read in context (Persse was on one of his regular hunting trips to Peebles, which James constantly designates as 'passionate Peebles'), has less of an erotic undertone than an intellectual one. James's 'cooling affection' seems to be aimed at breathing a more cerebral effect on the incessantly mobile Persse.
James's letters to Hugh Walpole are by far the most engaging ones in both content and style. James's affection is invested with a poetic lyricism that puts to shame the attempts at sensuality, crude by comparison, in his letters to other correspondents. To 'Belovedest little Hugh' James seems much more inclined to address a multitude of subjects--from his envy of Walpole's vibrating youth, to harsh criticisms of the younger writer's 'loose' and 'formless' (p. 200) literary attempts, and finally to war commentary. James's critique of Walpole's novels, his explication, for example, of what the 'centre of [Walpole's] subject' (p. 206) should be and how it may be retrieved, is reminiscent of the literary theory James so eloquently expounded in his prefaces and reviews. In Walpole's responses, James must have found the linguistic gratification he craved, as he cherishes his young friend's comments which inspire and trouble him. In his last letter to Walpole in 1915, the reader discerns a concern, unusual for James, about the role of literature in the midst of world-changing political events. Obviously affected by a sense of his own uninvolvement in the wartime drama, in contrast to Walpole's 'exposures and escapes' (pp. 233-34) at the Russian Front, James draws his attention to the question whether literature has the ability to represent historical reality without reducing it to 'fiddlesticks' (p. 236). War and politics, which had only fleetingly in the past touched James's writings, now take their place at the centre of his artistic vision urging him to discover a way, even so late in life, of representing them objectively.
Dealing with the more philosophical/theological concerns of the entire James family is the second book reviewed here by James Duban. The author views the work of the Jameses from an original angle, presenting Jonathan Edwards as a fresh source that sheds light on their work, and linking the thought of Henry Sr, William, and Henry Jr according to their response to Edwards's notion of 'disinterested benevolence'. In The Nature of True Virtue Duban embarks on a detailed analysis of Henry Sr's beliefs in order to prove that his doctrines condemning self-love, selfishness, and private selfhood were strongly akin to Edwards's preachings. Private interests are denounced by both thinkers, by James Sr because they are considered a threat to the formulation of a disinterested social being and by Edwards on more theological grounds. Unlike most studies which deem Swedenborg the main influence on Henry Sr's thought, Duban argues compellingly that the Swedish thinker's impact is limited to the socialist edge it added to Jamesian theories already moulded by Edwardsianism.
Duban's study extends to Henry Jr, whose much annotated edition of his father's Lectures and Miscellanies suggests that he was concerned with the disinterestedness of the artist in relation to economic or social matters. Moreover, James must have witnessed the opposition between his father and William, who strongly believed in the personal dimension of cognitive reality and the varying states of individual consciousness. His novels reveal a preoccupation with both perspectives, but his autobiographical writings also acknowledge his father's problematic spiritual and socialist stance, implicit in his distance from the humanity he was so keenly concerned with. Henry Sr's inconsistencies are strongly suggested in his son's novels where, as Duban contends, characters such as Lord Warburton, the Princess Casamassima, and Olive Chancellor are depicted similarly enacting a detached radicalism, which hardly brings them closer to the lower classes they profess to support. In contrast to pretentious and ineffectual radicalism, the spirit of artistic creation, practised, for example, by Hyacinth Robinson, is the equivalent of the elder James's notion of 'spiritual creation' and the closest the son gets to Edwardsian true virtue.
In order to show the novelist's preoccupation with the distortion of the Edwardsian true virtue, Duban examines characters from James's novels--Eugenia Munster, Sir Claude, and Strether--who are proven essentially selfish, deceiving themselves and others into believing they are truly virtuous. Similarly, Densher lulls himself inside a false sense of disinterestedness in his effort to avoid confronting his duplicity, while the appearance of virtue and benevolence cloaks the motives of Osmond and Madame de Vionnet, who initially avoid detection and reproach for their actions by aestheticizing their self-interests. On the whole, this is a lucid and cogent study that covers many aspects of the Jameses' works while, refreshingly, not engaging in the postmodern trend for ethnic, racial, or gender approaches.
UNIVERSITY OF ATHENS
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|Title Annotation:||The Nature of True Virtue: Theology, Psychology, and Politics in the Writings of Henry James, Sr., Henry James, Jr., and William James|
|Publication:||Yearbook of English Studies|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2004|
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