Monday, April 15, 2013

This Day in Literary History (Henry James, Son, Brother and Writer, Born)

April 15, 1843—Henry James, a member of perhaps America’s most gifted literary clan, was born in New York City to parents who transmitted to him abiding interests in transatlantic culture, angst, ambiguity, autonomy and avarice.

This past weekend, I was startled –and (tentatively) pleased—to read that a new film adaptation of James’ novel What Maisie Knew would be released next month. I say “tentatively” because I don’t know how this update of this 1897 work will fare. If audiences refuse to accept the wondrous Julianne Moore as an aging rock star in the middle of a nasty divorce and custody battle, we could have a disaster on our hands. 

On the other hand, if it blows away some of the cobwebs that have accrued to his work from those Merchant-Ivory productions (e.g., The Europeans), it will be all to the good, as audiences will get to see a work of startling contemporary relevance.

The news about What Maisie Knew got me to wondering about James’ own childhood and how it might have shaped (or misshaped) him. He adored his mother, who came of  inherited wealth from upstate New York (“She held us all together, and without her we are scattered reeds,” he wrote of her at the time of her death in 1882), but his father had the more powerful influence, for good or ill, on his life.

Henry James Sr. came from even greater affluence than his wife, as the son of the man who bought the village of Syracuse just before it boomed and invested in the Erie Canal. This gave Henry Sr. carte blanche to what was at the time the second-largest fortune in New York State, as well as the leisure to pursue his restless, not always structured philosophical meanderings. 

He might have been eccentric, but his wealth and wit made him a companion to the leading literary intellectuals of his time, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, as well as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Thomas Carlyle, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

The patriarch resided with his family, when they weren't traveling abroad, in New York in the novelist's childhood. Nearly 40 years later, Henry Jr. left an indelible picture of that in one of his finest works, Washington Square (the basis for the play and movie The Heiress):

 "I know not whether it is owing to the tenderness of early associations, but this portion of New York appears to many persons the most delectable. It has a kind of established repose which is not of frequent occurrence in other quarters of the long, shrill city; it has a riper, richer, more honourable look than any of the upper ramifications of the great longitudinal thoroughfare--the look of having had something of a social history. It was here, as you might have been informed on good authority, that you had come into a world which appeared to offer a variety of sources of interest; it was here that your grandmother lived, in venerable solitude, and dispensed a hospitality which commended itself alike to the infant imagination and the infant palate; it was here that you took your first walks abroad, following the nursery-maid with unequal step and sniffing up the strange odour of the ailantus-trees which at that time formed the principal umbrage of the Square, and diffused an aroma that you were not yet critical enough to dislike as it deserved; it was here, finally, that your first school, kept by a broad-bosomed, broad-based old lady with a ferule, who was always having tea in a blue cup, with a saucer that didn't match, enlarged the circle both of your observations and your sensations."

Henry Sr.’s principal biographer, Alfred Habegger, termed him a ``blocked and monomaniacal hierophant'' who so stunted the intellectual instincts of daughter Alice that she became suicidal. That powerful and maligned paternal blighting bears more than a little resemblance to Dr. Sloper of Washington Square. Older son William (who became a world-famous philosopher and pioneer in psychology at Harvard) and Henry Jr. would display in adulthood the same disabling depression that afflicted their father. 

In another respect, however, the father's instincts proved salutary. He not only insisted that Henry Jr. and William be tutored in languages and literature, but wanted them exposed to the best that Europe could offer, too.  

Because he was moved around so constantly, Henry Jr. had no stable school or instructor—he would be shuffled from one to another, depending on which country or city he was staying--New York, Boston, and Newport on this side of the Atlantic, and Paris, London, and Geneva in Europe. What he learned depended not on what was instilled, but on what he could pick up—from visiting museums, galleries, opera houses, and from piecing together remarks by adults or one of his tutors.

These collective experiences gave James what may have been the most cosmopolitan education that any major American novelist has ever had. But it also left him with a feeling of restlessness and shifting identity. Much of his fiction would deal with questions of unstable mental states (e.g., the ghost stories “The Turn of the Screw” and “The Jolly Corner”). 

In this regard, it probably wasn’t coincidental that both Henry Jr. and William would be struck by nervous breakdown similar to the “vastation” suffered by their father.

Henry Sr. could be impulsive, capricious, narcissistic and irresponsible. As he held no regular job and, indeed, earned no real money from his lectures, his wife was left to manage the financial affairs of the household. Their children would hardly suffer from poverty, but the money stream was not always there.

Better she than he in making decisions, since his own made so little sense at times. 

Why were younger sons Robertson and Wilky sent to the abolitionist-oriented Concord Academy but not William and Henry—and why were the oldest sons protected from the Civil War draft but not the younger ones? (Veterans Robertson and Wilky spent their postwar lives adrift, suffering from alcoholism.) 

Why did Alice have to look after him rather than go off by herself, particularly since his wife and sister-in-law Catherine were already in the same household and capable of the same duties?

Henry Sr.’s collegiate rowdiness compelled his merchant father to write a restrictive will—a document that the son went to court and successfully abrogated. In one sense or another, he reenacted the same contentious struggle with his children, a motif embodied in the fiction of Henry Jr. 

Many guardian figures in the novelist’s work, though emotionally and even physically distant, still attempt to exercise control over their children:

*In “The Pupil,” for instance, a pair of wandering parents leave their precocious son to the care of his tutor, the only adult the boy can trust and believe can extricate him from a nomadic, dishonest environment.

*In The Portrait of a Lady, as Isabel Archer’s marriage to the egotistical Osmond deteriorates, part of their ongoing struggle occurs over what to do about her stepdaughter Pansy, whom Osmond wishes to be placed in a loveless marriage not unlike his own.

*In “The Turn of the Screw,” an uncle leaves a governess with instructions that she is on no account to communicate with her about the niece and nephew he is leaving in her hands—a situation that becomes fraught with peril as she becomes aware of what might have been a corrupting relationship between them and two prior employees of the estate, Miss Jessel and Peter Quint, perhaps now appearing to them as ghosts.

*In Washington Square, Catherine Sloper may be the most besieged of all these characters: scorned by her father for ungainliness (an ironic reminder of the beautiful mother who died while giving birth to her), pursued by a fortune hunter, and undermined by an insipid aunt, she must negotiate the path to adulthood without honest, practical advice from any adult.

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