In his An Introduction to American Literature, Jorge-Luis Borges wrote of Henry James, “Despite the scruples and delicate complexities of James his work suffers from a major defect: the absence of life.” Borges got Henry James wrong, just as he got William Faulkner wrong. I can understand, because I thought the same about James—up until the time I actually started reading him.
Granted he can appear to be insufferably bland and insufferably gentlemanly. At the same time, he knew what he was about; and he had a moral sense that was more finely wrought than almost all other writers. In his story “Maud-Evelyn,” he writes about a middle-aged couple called the Dedricks:
“Whom do they know?”
“No one but me. There are people in London like that.”
“Why know no one but you?”
“No—I mean no one at all. There are extraordinary people in London, and awfully nice. You haven’t an idea. You people don’t know every one. They lead their lives—they go their way. One finds—what do you call it?—refinement, books, cleverness, don’t you know, and music, and pictures, and religion, and an excellent table—all sorts of pleasant things. You only come across them by chance; but it’s all perpetually going on.”
Sounds rather boring, doesn’t it?—until, that is, you find out what the Dedricks are up to with their dear-departed daughter. With James, it’s all too easy to get stuck on this surface frou-frou.
If you read James’s best story, “The Beast in the Jungle,” you will have the pleasure of seeing James write about himself under the name of John Marcher. Our Mr. Marcher feels that he is being reserved for an unknown and dire fate. His woman friend May Bartram puts it this way: “You said you had from your earliest time, as the deepest thing within you, the sense of being kept for something rare and strange, possibly prodigious and terrible, that was sooner or later to happen to you, that you had in your bones the foreboding and the conviction of, and that would perhaps overwhelm you.”
We spend about forty pages then trying to find out the nature of this curse. In the meantime, John Marcher does not fall in love, though he has a sort of Darby-and-Joan relationship with May Bartram. One pictures him sitting by, his shoulders hunched against the threat of what he calls “the beast in the jungle” that is waiting around some dark corner to pounce on him. In the meantime, May sickens and dies, but not before suspecting the nature of Marcher’s curse.
Eventually Marcher, too, finds out, as he watches a grieving mourner at the cemetery near May’s grave. And the nature of the beast?
The fate he had been marked for he had met with a vengeance—he had emptied the cup to the lees; he had been the man of his time, the man, to whom nothing on earth was to have happened. That was the rare stroke—that was his visitation…. The Beast had lurked indeed, and the Beast, at its hour, had sprung.
Think of Henry James as a John Marcher: He never gets married or falls in love. He exchanges social amenities with all the best people. But he uniquely knows that his very bloodlessness chills many readers to the bone.
The truth is an elusive quantity. Sometimes it comes best expressed by a writer whom one chronically underestimates because of his style of life.