- - Tuesday, March 1, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

AUTOBIOGRAPHIES

By Henry James

The Library of America, $37.50, 848 pages

 

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” The Anglo-American writer Henry James never read these words, which begin L.P. Hartley’s novel “The Go-Between,” because they were written nearly four decades after his death, which occurred almost exactly a century ago on Feb. 28, 1916. Yet they kept going through my mind as I read this latest addition to the invaluable Library of America’s James Collection because they apply so perfectly to these autobiographical writings, issued in honor of the centennial of his death. And particularly the three late memoirs which take up most of this substantial volume: “A Small Boy and Others” (1913), “Notes of a Son and Brother” (1914) and the unfinished “The Middle Years” (1917). Indeed, Hartley’s memorable insight applies to James‘ oeuvre as a whole, preoccupied as it is with the cultural clash between what in his time were still known as the Old and New Worlds.

But these three memoirs were written in the aftermath of the death of his older brother, the distinguished philosopher, physician and psychologist William James, which had forced him to spend a year away from England, where he had lived most of long life, across the Atlantic supporting and comforting his widow and helping her sort out her affairs. I have used the word “forced” deliberately, since that enforced sojourn in Cambridge, Mass., seems to have been a penitential experience for the elderly expatriate. His London friend, the much younger writer W. Somerset Maugham, who visited him there, has left an indelible portrait of a man so bewildered and ill-at-ease as to almost define the phrase “a fish out of water.” James‘ elaborate efforts to guide the well-traveled Maugham through the intricacies of Boston’s streetcar system among other putative pitfalls seem to be a classic example of projecting one’s own fears and general sense of discomfort and alienation onto another. As his psychologist brother would no doubt have so well understood.

But reading these delvings into the past engendered by a combination of fraternal grief and culture shock at this unwilling reimmersion into his native milieu, it is clear that much of the remaining five years of his life back in his adopted homeland England was taken up with delving into that foreign country’s past and remembering how differently they did things there and then. The result is a marvelous melange of portraits of family members and friends on the one hand and orgies of nostalgia which all his preference for his chosen domicile could not allay. He may have deplored the lack of castles in America — perhaps his most famous putdown of the nation he’d left behind — but, oh, the varieties of its vegetables, notably its squashes; and, described as only the Master (his customary accolade) could, its fruits:

“Some vast succulent cornucopia. What did the stacked baskets and fruits of our youth represent but the boundless fruitage of that more bucolic age of the American world? … Where is that fruitage now, where in particular are the peaches d’antan [French for the past, a typically Jamesian locution]?, where the mounds of Isabella grapes and Seckel pears in the sticky sweetness in which our childhood seems to have been steeped? It was surely, save perhaps for oranges, a more informal and familiarly fruit-eating time, and bushels of peaches in particular, peaches big and peaches small, peaches white and peaches yellow, played a part in life from which they have somehow been deposed; every garden, almost every bush and the very boys’ pockets grew them .”

To anyone familiar with the orotund style of James‘ fiction, it will be immediately obvious that no one else could describe fruit in such terms. The elaborate, ornately encrusted imagery, the preternatural ability to bring things to life in all their glory, the echoing of Francois Villon’s medieval French poem with its peerlessly evocative phrase, “Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan?” [Where are the snows of yesterday?] — could anything be more absolutely, distinctively, definitively Jamesian? But nostalgia brings great variety in these pages. Only the viewpoint of a scorned younger brother could produce this picture of the future great man of American philosophy and psychology speaking condescendingly in the eternal putdown manner of swaggering youth: “I play with boys who curse and swear!” But the great and enduring admiration and affection for a much-loved older brother shines through every anecdote and memory — or souvenir, as the Master would phrase it.

This volume, expertly edited and annotated by the distinguished James scholar Philip Horne, professor of English at University College London, is an important aid in our understanding of James as both writer and person. When we read of his own experience of arrival as a newcomer in England so many decades before, we see what is so indelibly reflected in the beginning of one of his most esteemed late novels, “The Ambassadors.” And such is the strength of the emotions behind these excursions into memory that it even manages to penetrate the veil of overly elaborate locution that might otherwise tend to obscure the genuine feeling apparent throughout.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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