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Happy 168th, Henry James!

Last year, I read, and enjoyed, James’s The Golden Bowl, and then, at the end of the year, decided to read through all of the novels in chronological order, reaching and finishing, in early March of this year, his eighth novel, The Bostonians. I took a number of literary detours, but today, in commemoration, of James’s birthday, I picked up my copy of The Princess Casamassima, and I’m already digging, once again, into this singularity’s sentential convolutions.

7 thoughts on “Happy 168th, Henry James!

    1. Thanks, John. I should say that it probably would’ve slipped by me, too, if Greg Gerke hadn’t mentioned it to me.

      And definitely feel free to recommend one or more of the ghost stories. I have (like everyone else, I imagine) read The Turn of the Screw, but I could definitely take another dose of James’s particular brand of eeriness.

      I’m also tempted to go ahead and read all of James’s stories after I finish the novels. When I see, though, that his collected stories amount to pretty much the same page count as the novels, I might have to hold off.

  1. What a great photo of dear Hank. He looks so symbolist like he was thinking of Baudelaire. I read 3/4 of James in one semester, in 1972, one novel per week in a directed study at USFrancisco. I recently read through Conrad, from Almayer’s Folly forward. Still have a few of the very late ones left, including the pot boilers he wrote with Ford Maddox Ford. Really looking forward to that. Big discovery: Chance. Great novel. Very modernist in narrative structure, starting stories and never quite finishing them. Had started CP Snow’s great great Strangers and Brothers monolith, but got derailed by Conrad. Soon come, mon.

    1. Hi, Curtis.

      I might have chosen the photo because of its use of chiaroscuro, the technique achieving volume, dramatic compositional contrasts, and a certain kind of psychological depth; all hallmarks, I’d say, of Henry James’s style. Also, the circles around James’s eyes suggest, to me, a man suffering from some kind of sleeping disorder, as if his desire to see, hear, taste, touch, and smell everything kept him up nights. Besides immortality, perhaps having to sleep (arguably a kind of death, dreams, breathing, and other signs of life notwithstanding) is what distinguishes us from the gods. So maybe sleep is the price one has to pay for literary “omniscience.”

      I once wrote a post about my tendency, in reading, toward completism:

      There I described how I’ve read all of Mary Caponegro, Hart Crane, Leon Forrest, William Gass, John Haskell, Amy Hempel, James Joyce, Ben Marcus, Anne Michaels, Christine Schutt, and Wallace Stevens; and there are more than a few that I have only a few books to read and then will have read all their books, like Haruki Murakami and Salman Rushdie. And I’ve read most, if not all, of Rilke’s poetry, as well as The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, in multiple translations.

      That list, more than anything, reveals how little I’ve achieved. There are just too many writers whose works I’d like to read in their entirety, like Woolf, Dickens, Elkin, Djuna Barnes, Coover, Hawkes, Barth, Barthelme, Donne, Garcia Marquez—well it’s ridiculous to even begin to list them all.

      Reading three-fourths of James in one semester sounds like quite a feat! And I’m envious of your recent reading through all of Conrad. He’s another writer whose work I have yet to read beyond “the usual suspects,” in this case Heart of Darkness and The Secret Agent, and some stories, here and there.

  2. What’s even more fun is to find a complete edition of the works in an edition that dates to the authors life. Hard to do before 1920. The Doubleday Conrad complete works has special prefaces written by Conrad for each volume. I walked into a used bookstore in Springfield, IL, a few years back and there high up on a case was a gorgeous complete Tolstoy in deep green/gold gilt pubd by Scribners circa 1915. Including essays like My Religion and What’s to be Done. Also, you can still find first English pubs of Dostoevsky (1916, Constance Garnett, of course, Brit. Macmillan) and Nietzsche (the much-derided Oscar Levy edition, again Macmillan). I have a mint uncut Thoughts Out of Season. Just to hold those and know that he was so close to them touches me. For James there is the NY edition with all the famous prefaces. He made some questionable omissions from the collection (Roderick Hudson but no The Europeans??? Daisy Miller but no Washington Square (his best early/middle work says I)) The late volumes is pricey and hard to find because it was all done by subscription, volume by volume, and the late work apparently didn’t sell much. Wings of the Dove, and Ambassadors almost nowhere. Still. Just to see the massive row of sky blue spines sitting in a handsome mission oak bookcase as I type this sentence makes me happy.

    By the way, why ain’t I on your completest list?

    1. I have to confess my love for first editions as well. I think of them as works of art in their own right, and, like you, think of them as one way of decreasing the degrees of separation between the reader (me) and the writer. Finding that complete Tolstoy and the Nietzsche must have felt incredible.

      I hear you about James’s questionable cuttings for the New York Edition. He was a pretty ruthless critic of his own work, which is a lesson in itself, I think. I am incredibly envious just reading about that “massive row of sky blue spines sitting in a handsome mission oak bookcase.”

      As for getting on my list, I’d have to get all your books, which would require a better library than the public libraries in NYC, and then I’d have to have enough anxiety (something I have probably too much of to even superhumanly handle) about not reading them to compel me to read them before and instead of everything else. Nothing beats books on a shelf to remind you of what you need to read. (I suspect all those people with a zillion books on their portable whatchamacallits will feel very little pressure to read what’s contained within them.)

  3. James is a bounty both literary and biographical.

    Reading about the Jameses and their beloved Harry is almost as enjoyable as burrowing through the Henry Jr’s opera omnia. Granted, the pleasures that can be had perusing the voluminous secondary literature drawn from the Family’s enormous vault of correspondence is more purely gossipy and voyeuristic than letting oneself get dizzied by a stretch James’s prose.

    Though I’ve read those biogs, I’ve thought about tying together my love for James’s art with my interest in how he viewed his rearing and the part it played hatching his genius (though, one gets the impression he always preferred supposing his triumphs and intellect had been born ex nihilo), which means delving into the memoirs.

    Have you got an opinion on the incomplete memoirs?

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