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Arts & Culture

The Native Henry James

February 26, 2016 | by

February 28 marks the hundredth anniversary of James’s death.

Photo: Alice Boughton, 1916.

Henry James died in London, at the age of seventy-two, on February 28, 1916, in the midst of World War I. His funeral was held at Chelsea Old Church on March 3, with a mostly British congregation of mourners—though his sister-in-law Alice, widow of his brother, the philosopher William, was in attendance, having crossed the war-torn ocean when she heard of his illness.

The U.S. had not yet entered the war—the issue was controversial, and indeed, James and his old antagonist Theodore Roosevelt, who had long denounced him as un-American, had found common cause in their indignation at their country’s prolonged neutrality. This caused particular tension on James’s death, because the novelist had taken British nationality in July 1915, an implicit protest against America’s refusal to join the conflict. As he had written to his fellow American-in-London John Singer Sargent just after the event, “It would really have been so easy for the U. S. to have ‘kept’ (if they had cared to!) yours all faithfully, Henry James.” He had finally grown tired of waiting for America to end its neutrality, and felt he needed, by this gesture, to end his own detachment from the conflict. The memorial in Chelsea Old Church tactfully describes him as “a resident of this parish who renounced a cherished citizenship to give his allegiance to England in the first year of the Great War”—the “cherished” insisting from the grave that James had been a good American. 

James’s writing, particularly late in life, was known for its ambiguity; and so maybe it’s not surprising his paradoxically patriotic act (doing what he felt his country should do) was misread and resented—even by friends like Edith Wharton and William Dean Howells. The always fragile Anglo-American understanding he had spent most of a lifetime trying to improve had failed yet again, so that many Americans did not grasp the subtle implications of his Anglicization. After his death, those who loved him reclaimed him for the U.S., literally and figuratively. Alice James smuggled his ashes back to Cambridge, Massachusetts, despite wartime restrictions, and buried them in the family plot: she would have been familiar with her late husband’s opinion that Henry was “a native of the James family, and has no other country.” Howells, meanwhile, asserted in a memorial essay that “James was American to his heart’s core to the day of his death.”

Issues of allegiance and nationality deeply inform the last books James finished—his memoirs, A Small Boy and Others (1913) and Notes of a Son and Brother (1914), which are the main texts in the Library of America volume I have just edited, Henry James: Autobiographies, alongside the unfinished The Middle Years, a selection of autobiographical writings across his career, and Theodora Bosanquet’s charming but critically very acute memoir, Henry James at Work (1924). It is the last of the Library’s now-complete set of volumes of James’s major works.

In A Small Boy and Notes James set out to write about his brother William, who died in 1910. But as his dictation progressed, as he found the memories flooding back, he gave free rein to the exquisite subjective rendering of his own experience. In the first book, the novelist who had so sensitively charted a young girl’s bewildering experience in What Maisie Knew (1897), portrayed his childhood self as “a little gaping American,” and re-created a child’s thrills and confusions—the latter of which were much enhanced by having a rich, eccentric, restlessly paradoxical, religious philosopher father in whose household, as James says, “we wholesomely breathed inconsistency and ate and drank contradictions.”

The autobiographies were warmly received even by many who were none too sure about James’s complex late fiction—partly for their vividly detailed pictures of the past he recalled, scenes in New York, Newport, Paris, London, Switzerland, bringing back the textures of a vanished past—and also for the proliferating cast of characters, eccentric and touching, feckless or exploitative or victimized, who are rendered with a quasi-Dickensian power (amongst them, in fact, is Dickens himself, whom James encountered in 1867). James conjures up an Edenic world of peaches, uncles, streets, theaters, circuses, restaurants, hotels, schoolrooms, and atmospheric houses. No one who reads these books can doubt the earnestness of James’s baffled quest to immerse himself in American life; while at the same time, he makes clear how far the James family’s foreign travels and education left him enthralled by a European culture that was broader and richer than what was available in the America of his time.

When the Great War broke out in 1914, James was immediately reminded of the outbreak of the American Civil War five decades before—writing to a friend that the war

leaves one small freedom of mind for general talk, it presses, all the while, with every throb of consciousness; and if during the first days I felt in the air the recall of our Civil War shocks and anxieties, and hurryings and doings, of 1861, etc., the pressure in question has already become a much nearer and bigger thing, and a more formidable and tragic one, than anything we of the North had in those years to face.

James engaged himself actively as far as he could, given his age and state of health, visiting Belgian refugees and British soldiers, writing pieces toward the war effort, becoming President of the American Volunteer Motor-Ambulance Corps.

Half a century earlier, at Harvard Law School, amid “fine fierce young men, in great numbers … who hadn’t flown to arms,” James had followed the progress of the Civil War with equally passionate attention, and he saw in his own academic strivings a modest symbolic parallel to the heroics of combat. Begun amid his nation’s great calamity, his literary career could itself be seen as in its origins a kind of patriotic endeavor—and his sense of his function as an American writer in Europe became, and continued to the last, that of a cultural ambassador for his homeland. In this service he has had an extraordinary reach and endurance—for James’s work continues to find passionate, engaged, thoughtful readers in both his native and his adoptive countries, and indeed around the world.

Philip Horne is professor of English at University College London and the editor of Henry James: Autobiographies, just published by the Library of America. He is the founding general editor of the Cambridge University Press Complete Fiction of Henry James, the first volumes of which, The Europeans and The Ambassadors, were published in 2015. For the centenary of James’s death, he has put together a series of radio episodes for the BBC program Book of the Week, to be broadcast from February 29 to March 4 under the title “The Real Henry James.”