Skip to main content

Jamesian Being

ISSUE:  Winter 1976

Merely to be is such a metier; to live is such an art; to feel is such a career

EVERYONE is his own unpublished biographer. In the pages of the many-leaved consciousness he “writes” a journal in which one question is repeatedly asked: Who am I? Like a historian or portraitist, he tries to connect essence and extension; he composes a private description of that inner selfhood which is somehow involved with what he does and what happens to him; he strives to see these last as linked to significances stemming from the self, to seek, even, a language of action which is a demonstration of his inwardly imaged being. This is why the presumption of free choice, of composing one’s own story in coherence with one’s character, is as precious to the determinist or existentialist as to others. But the distinction between being and doing, their disconnection, can also be precious. Being is not the same as doing, and their discrepancy protects the human spirit from that loss of selfhood which would otherwise result when life is defeating, and especially when our own acts seem unworthy of the mysterious I that has wanted some finer demonstration. It allows, also, a retreat from consciousness at those times when it is more bearable to subsist in our acts and find them sufficient or to take efficacy as all.

For Henry James the question of being versus doing was of more than usually conscious importance, and it is a principal theme of his fiction. His effort to define the relation between the two began in a peculiar family environment. He was the son and namesake of a well-to-do 19th century philosophic eccentric, a Swedenborgian irregular and friend of Emerson who was not unlike him in holding that the condition of personal being was separate from and superior to any doing—in a word that identity was nothing but a state inwardly achieved. Such transcendental antinomianism affected the evolving egos of his five offspring, who had no little difficulty in developing attachments and goals, vocations and achievements; their father, having a benign indifference to these, desired that they should be free simply to be.His educational plan was to expose them to as much and as varied a succession of tutors, schools, systems of study and scenes of travel as possible; their younger lives were spent in the constant process of transfer either in America or Europe, precisely in order that they should fail to make commitment to one thing or another but cultivate instead the stability and independence of the self. When William James later described his brother as being “really a native of the James family and no other country,” he expressed the peculiarly unaffiliated nature of all of the family members which partly derived from this experience and from the elder James’s particular wariness regarding all social roles. When his children were embarrassed by being unable to identify their father’s profession in answer to the question of schoolmates, he advised them to declare him “A Seeker after Truth.” As for religious subscription—they might answer that they were at once Christians and Jews and Mohammedans—and Henry James remembered how he had been troubled by his family’s being “so extremely religious without having, as it were, anything in the least to show for it,” accustomed to make itself at home amid references to the “spiritual world” as routine as the dinner bell or the postman’s call, yet never catching sight of a church interior or a clerical visitor.

All these frustrating freedoms, these denials of exterior obligation, drove the James children to cling to their parents and to each other. Indeed, they had “no other country” than the family where the private sense of self could be validated by the affection that takes brother or sister, parent or child with the same trust one gives to one’s intuition of one’s own identity. William and Henry in particular retained for life an electric connection, almost a twinship, in which affection and rivalry were probably mingled, but which never surrendered its early vibrance despite separations of years. Their father was an intelligent and charming man to whom his children were all excessively devoted. I say excessively, for it is clear that somehow he succeeded in making himself—having denied them all other—their exclusive reference point and measure. Himself a constant example of cheerful spontaneity, who wrote on the lintel of his doorstep “Whim” as Emerson advised, he was indifferent to fame, or claimed that he was, as he was equally indifferent to the appeal of good works. He was always at home, writing, in full view of all, those religio-philosophical treatises that he had to publish at his own expense and that virtually no one read, his ear and attention somehow never really off his progeny. And as they grew older, too, his attention followed them and perhaps possessed them in a way that was ultimately restricting. He had a passionate tenderness for them and spoke in a note to James Fields of his “fiendish” parental feeling, expressing, unconsciously perhaps, the menace behind his solicitous watchfulness. They, for the most part, returned his love without resentment but not without damage. For example, Robertson, the youngest of Henry’s three brothers, ended a life of tragic failure with the observation, “Father was the only being on earth I ever cared for deeply,”


The elder Henry James had purchased his own serenity with difficulty. It had finally been made tenable only by the special circumstances that he was wealthy enough to indulge his crotchets and enjoy his leisure, that he was a cripple, and so exempt on that score also from the ordinary obligation to make some visible mark, and that he had married a woman whose calm, supportive love never failed him and never required anything of him. He had been a lively, rebellious child when his leg had had to be amputated following burns suffered while flying balloons inflated by air heated with flaming tow—and even after two years in bed he remained a rebel whom his conventional and autocratic father regarded as the wild boy of the family; they finally quarrelled over his college debts and he was cut off in his father’s will with a small annuity. This will, as it happens, was broken because its writer, distrusting the rest of his children to only a slightly less degree, had stipulated that his estate of three millions should not be divided among them until the oldest grandchild was of age—and being broken, Henry James, Senior got his share. The other eleven children, having succeeded in taking hold of their patrimony, seemed all to have had a dismal further history, as though—if we can glimpse an explanation in the bare facts of the record—their father’s oppressive spirit had worked against their own emergence into adult identity. They seem to have been an unstable lot and, through disaster or dissipation, seven of the eleven were dead before they reached 40.

Some study should doubtless be made of the rhythms which explain the history of families over several generations—how doers are succeeded by non-doers and vice versa. The James family illustrates the curious fact, at any rate, that if doing was making money, none of these children of the redoubtable William James, the second richest man in the state of New York in the 1840’s (the first was John Jacob Astor), had any will or ability to follow the paternal model. Henry James, looking back at this generation from the vantage point of his own, could boast with a certain seriousness that the Jameses were “never guilty in a single case . . .for two generations . . .of a stroke of business; the most that could be said of us was that, though about equally wanting, all round, in any faculty of acquisition, we happened to pay for the amiable weakness less in some connections than in others.” The progress of American society in the 19th century has also something to do, of course, with such alternations. This William James had been, classically, a poor Irish immigrant who had arrived just after the Revolution and made money out of a dozen enterprises in upstate New York, including an express line, the Erie Canal, a salt works, retail stores, land speculation and banking and considered that he did God’s purposes thereby, for he was a rigidly pious man. But the primary fortune-makers were succeeded in the American experience by a more self-doubting generation. In the mid-century such doing was by no means as heroic as it had seemed earlier, and piety was a disablement for practical life rather than an assistance to it. The literary generation of Emerson and Thoreau, at any rate, could find no occupation for the self that connected the entity of the spirit with work—for work was money-making and debased by the motive of greed. The split between the idealist and the practical man was felt even among the abolitionists—abolition was a cause whose object lay at a distance from Concord and could be handled abstractly in the mind.

To this second generation the elder Henry James belongs. He was actually more vital in body and in intellect, it would seem, than his brothers and sisters. He remembered the anguish of long stale Presbyterian Sundays when the children were so perversely kept from all activity by their father’s command—paradoxically indeed, William the great doer made the elder Henry observe that “nothing is so hard for a child as not-to-do.” Despite his terrible crippling he set forth boldly—got his share of the inheritance and studied theology at Princeton, married and took up the life of the doing man. But like Emerson, whose friendship he made, he broke with received religion and the ministry. Then, one day, while on a visit to England, he suffered what he called in Swedenborgian terms, a vastation—a prostrating experience of sudden, inexplicable terror which he recorded in his autobiography in a description that has often been quoted. The cause of this prostration has been suggested as painful, unconscious conflict and guilt because of his rebellion against his father’s God and against his father, whose wealth he was enjoying. But I would like to draw attention to a later passage in the same autobiography which suggests a different kind of explanation. Still afflicted with deep melancholy, Henry visited a watering—place in search of recovery and looking at the pastoral landscape surrounding the hotel where he was staying and at his fellow-patients arguing about diets and politics and other matters, he had another experience, this time not pure sensation but revelation. The curse of mankind, he suddenly decided, was “its sense of selfhood, and the absurd, abominable opinionativeness it engenders. How sweet it would be,” he realized, “to find oneself no longer man, but one of those innocent and ignorant sheep pasturing upon that placid hillside, and drinking in eternal dew and freshness from nature’s bosom.” Shortly afterwards he was introduced to the works of Swedenborg, and his cure was complete. The failure of self, an identity-crisis, as it might be called, was somehow overcome by this sensitive, unfocused spirit in the temporary surrender of “selfhood” and all that it meant in his social world. Of course, the effect of that vastation and its succeeding illumination lingered. It has not been properly noted by biographers of the novelist Henry James or of his brother William that they were brought up in a confined family world in which the development of identity was in a curious way both invited to flourish in an unlimited riot of pure being and yet punished and suppressed, at least as far as any active relation to work and the world was concerned. To be, not to do—the paternal injunction—was the result of the elder James’s apocalyptic vision that expressive selfhood was evil.


All the children showed the effects of this philosophic conclusion which was also a psychologic restriction that had other than philosophic causes—their “father-image,” as psychologists would say, was that of a man who had suffered a mutilation both literal and symbolically unmanning. Henry, Senior, whose forcefulness was all style and spirit and ultimate inefficacy in the outer world, was probably a man who even in the domestic circle seemed as often ridiculous as not. He was terribly dependent upon his wife, from whom he could not bear to be separated for more than a night. She, on the other hand, is described in suspiciously conventional terms by their son Henry, as though she were too much a figure of awe and reverence—and perhaps power—to be seen realistically. In his autobiography he identifies her merely as the archetypal mother and wife, the “keystone of the arch.” No jokes are told about her as they are about her husband. Was there something in this parental design that affected the sexual lives of the children? Henry, of course, did not marry; more than any of the children except the spinster daughter, Alice, he suffered from a proscription upon doing in the sexual sense. He seems never even to have had a clearly enacted sexual relation with a woman, and it is only faintly possible that he achieved realized sexuality with a member of his own sex in his later years. William married late, and perhaps might not have married at all; for though he was attracted to women, he kept his sexual urges firmly repressed, believing, as he would write in his Principles of Psychology, that “all human social elevation is dependent upon the prevalence of chastity.” But one day his father returned from a social gathering to announce that he had met William’s future wife. The endorsement was sufficient and the prediction correct, even though the son had not yet met the young woman. Yet marriage did not altogether end his noli me tangere.William was prone to sudden bolts. He would throw everything aside and take off for Europe from time to time—even, or perhaps especially, when his wife was pregnant, as though the domestic role were an imposition upon the free self.

The injunction to be not to do was to be severely challenged in the early lives of the James sons by the outbreak of the Civil War. The war split them along the axis of doing and being more severely than any demand that life would afterwards present. Both William and Henry, the elder of the four, avoided military service in a cause in which their political sympathies and those of all their friends were engaged. In April 1861, thousands of young men in the North responded to Lincoln’s call for volunteers, among them two cousins of the James brothers who were among the early casualties. In Newport, William and Henry rolled bandages and talked of enlisting, too, but their father wrote a friend, “I have a firm grasp upon the coat tails of my Will and Harry.” He was anti-slavery, but he justified his pacificism—or passivity—in terms of that mysticism which, as has been already observed, would be likely to cause him to deprecate the value of external action. He even went so far as to say: “Let us then accept political and all other destruction that chooses to come because what is disorder and wrath and contention on the surface is sure to be the deepest peace at the centre.” In the fall of that fatal year William enrolled at Harvard in the Lawrence Scientific School. Henry also hung back as the summer months passed with their bulletins of battles, but in October, while helping to extinguish a fire in Newport, he suffered the famous “obscure hurt” about which biographers have speculated so much. As he wrote years later in his autobiography, he now had, or believed that he had, justification for non-participation. William never offered any excuse, though like his brother, he was afflicted by various nervous disorders, particularly backaches, then and for years later. Whatever their physical disabilities, it is also unquestionable that temperament made both brothers prefer the participations of the imagination to active doing. In Henry’s case it is particularly revealing to hear him declare that the injury he suffered made him such a participant: “One had the sense, I mean, of a huge comprehensive ache, and there were hours at which one could scarce have told whether it came most from one’s own poor organism, still so young and so meant for better things, but which had suffered particular wrong, or from the enclosing social body, a body rent with a thousand wounds and that this treated one to the honor of a sort of tragic fellowship.”

There were, however, younger sons of Henry James whose participation was actual. The following spring Garth Wilkinson enlisted and was soon writing letters home about his experiences in the field, and then Robertson followed him into the service before he had reached his 17th birthday. These two, boys though they were, served with distinction, it appears; their heroic activeness gave them, for the only time in their lives, superior standing to the votaries of being in the family, the father and the two formidable elder brothers who had stayed at home. But the doers were to be destroyed by the war. Wilky was nearly fatally wounded at Fort Wagner and was brought back to Newport on a stretcher, and though he returned to the front, he was never really well again; he died in his late thirties. Bob, participating in Seymour’s Raid in Florida, suffered severe sunstroke and was invalided for months; he always afterwards had “nervous symptoms,” as people used vaguely to say. These boys continued, nevertheless, to be the doers of the family and to illustrate at the same time the difficulty that all the James children had in achieving the exterior identity which validates the self. Both of them still under 21, they undertook to enact the principles for which they had fought by running a cotton plantation with free black labor—they got their father to buy the plantation for them. The experiment was a financial failure, however, and they then went out to Milwaukee where places had been found for them in clerical capacities with the railroad. Their lives petered out. Bob spoke with bitterness in later years of the business organization which had trapped him as a “tomb to which the young men go down and in which the many bury and have to bury every emotion and desire which can glorify life.” Action, which they had chosen as though to escape the intense confinement of being which is the fate of such inward intellectuals as William and Henry, had ended by betraying them. They were destroyed by the feebleness of their plans and efforts for which they were less equipped, actually, than their cleverer brothers might have been. Only Wilky, of course, who never read, was a complete reaction against the intellectuality of the James family; Bob was in reality a frailer Harry or Will, a charming, sensitive person who wrote poetry and like his eldest brother was later interested in spiritualism. The youngest, he married young, but had trouble in this as in other enterprises, Although he lived till 1910, he was intermittently alcoholic and frequently depressed, a manifest failure.

The fifth James child was a girl, Alice, and the fact of her sex taken with the peculiar challenges of her upbringing, accounts for a great deal of her life-story. Amid the thrusting male egos of the household in which the mother was a domestic presence almost without color and outline, with no interest either in ideas or the world of outer enterprise, this brilliant, spirited girl had no model of her own sex. She must have resented the destiny assigned her and identified herself with her brothers at a time when a woman had no expectation of either kind of future. She possessed intellectual gifts, but there was no career open to her talents, She was as interested in politics as any one else in the family—perhaps more so—but her femaleness sentenced her to inaction. Certainly she did not choose it. She has left an unforgettable picture of herself as a very young girl taking long lonely walks in Newport while the two younger brothers were at the front and the two elder were involved in their own struggles for ego-realization, “absorbing into the bone that the better part of life is to clothe oneself in neutral tints, walk by still waters and possess one’s soul in silence,” It was a self-schooling in repression which had expectable consequences. The identity crisis of early adolescence became chronic breakdown, for there was no surmounting it. She, who worshipped her father, had hallucinatory moments of realized hate when she imagined “knocking off the head of the benignant pater as he sat with his silver locks, writing at his table.” Her first breakdown, at 20, was to be followed by others—her breakdowns became a permanent retreat. Yet behind the palisade of her status as an invalid, she was a shrewd and even a brilliant observer of the world who followed public events with a close interest. Her dependence on the men in her family-father, brothers—had its paradoxes; one of her best moments of recovery came when her mother died and she took over the care of her infirm father. Her rejection of female identity probably accounts for her ultimately finding love not in a man but in another woman. When, during her illnesses, only Katharine Loring was able to help her in body and mind, the family knew enough to be grateful. Alice’s journal records her intensive, if unwilling, cultivation of the art of being, She wrote in it at one point of “longing for action, relentlessly denied, all safety-valves shut down in the way of the “busy ineffectiveness of women.”“


The two veritable and realized geniuses among the James children showed, no less than the rest, the effects of the struggle to achieve Jamesian being. William had a history of prolonged vocational uncertainty and identity crisis. He carried out his father’s program of non-committal self-development beyond the boyhood years, shifting from one dedication to another. At 18 he was studying painting with William Morris Hunt in Newport with the seeming expectation of becoming an artist, but a year later he was enrolled at Harvard. Like a great many college freshmen, he did not know where his real inclinations lay. He thought of medicine as well as of natural science, the course he had first enrolled for, and once, having visited a printing shop, he wondered whether he shouldn’t quit school and become a printer. Nothing remarkable about this, of course, but the fact is that William didn’t resolve his dilemmas as most young men of his generation did. He shifted to the medical school but stayed only a year before leaving to join Agassiz on a collecting expedition in Brazil and on his return was vaguely and neurasthenically too ill to continue his studies. He took another year out in Germany before coming back for his degree, but there was no question of his practicing medicine. After several more years spent as a semi-invalid at home in Cambridge, he accepted President Eliot’s offer to teach anatomy at Harvard, but after a term was again forced to take another year’s respite in Europe. He was 33 when he finally began teaching a course in psychology and, as he said, the first lecture he heard in this new subject was his own opening discourse. William James, of course, was hardly confined by psychological preoccupations; four years later he was teaching philosophy. He would at different times be Professor of Psychology and Professor of Philosophy at the University. It is precisely in the breadth of his interest in all aspects of mind that his special quality as a thinker lies. But this unique and valuable richness was earned by his long unwillingness to direct his mental energy into a channel of expression, his long preference for being over doing.

Yet his life was marked by a struggle between the resolution solely to be and the urge towards doing. He had had his “vastation” like his father when he found himself sinking into listlessness and depression in his parents’ house after taking his medical degree. His experience took the form of a hallucinatory vision of a mental patient once seen, a mindless creature whose dehumanization or loss of ego he saw as potential in himself. Not to find the doing that was correlative to his being was to lose the confirmation of identity. His fear was never to be altogether routed. At the age of 64, he dreamed, as he later recorded, a dream of extreme terror in which he seemed to be possessed by the dream rather than to be dreaming it, to have his consciousness itself snatched away and replaced, not so much to pass from one plane of experience to another as to become another person. Erik Erikson, analyzing James’s extraordinary description of this dream, has detected in it the record of severe identity confusion and the loss of ego boundaries. The experience gave James himself an insight into cases of dementia involving ego-loss. Of such patients, he sympathetically urged, “We ought to assure them and reassure them that we will stand by them, and recognize the true self in them, to the end.”

His faith in being was, of course, the root of his philosophic—psychologic interest. The mind, he said, is a stream, but he added that when Peter and Paul wake up in the same bed each mentally reaches back to one of the two streams broken by sleep; nothing is more essential than that continuity of self. A letter to his wife at the time of their marriage discussed the question of “the real me” experienced inwardly as a mental or moral attitude. He described himself as “trusting outward things to perform their part so as to make it a full harmony, but without any guaranty that they will,” Hope, yes, but the guarantee trammels. Pjeing could subsist without doing if it had to. Yet despite his difficulties he did embrace the life of the family man, he did teach and write as well as contemplate after the publication of his Principles of Psychology he felt impelled to popularize his ideas for wider audiences so that their effect might be felt.And was he not, after all, the founder of pragmatism, which is the philosophy that declares that the truth of an idea is established by the extent of its usefulness in practical situations? His rebellion against his father’s idealism probably began when he went to Brazil with Agassiz. As he recalled, “the hours I spent with Agassiz so taught me the difference between all possible abstractionists and all livers in the light of the world’s concrete fullness that I have never been able to forget it.”


Henry James’s vocational uncertainty after his Jamesian upbringing of being-not-doing was brief compared with William’s. He quickly discovered the false starts to be false; no such trauma as attended his brother’s renunciation of a medical career ensued upon his decision that a year at law school had been a mistake. He passed painlessly into the medium of literature—it took only the publication of a book review or two and a few modest short stories to convince him that his role for the rest of his life was to be a writer. From this dedication he never wavered. Literature gave him a way of both doing and being as nothing else might have, and the result was supremely contenting. It was, after all, an indwelling self-exploration so intense as to seem a mode of action; it was doing at its most motionless and invisible, on the other hand, a thing so entirely of the mind that one might forget that it was also a way of interacting with other human beings.

Probably his personal arbitration between the claims of being and doing was achieved with difficulty. His guilt for having escaped the damaging effects of action in the Civil War was to linger in the mind for Henry, who never forgot what his younger brothers had paid for being soldiers. He was never to be tempted to engage himself in the trampling outer life of politics, business, even journalism—he kept himself to the quiet and lonely dramas of the writing-desk. Yet it is probable that he often felt the challenge and reproach of those more engaged. Toward the end of his life he would look on with wistful admiration as younger men responded again to the summons of war and envy his friend Edith Wharton for her war-work in France. But he had long made his choice by then and did not really regret it, He did not regret, either, that his life was solitary—the engagement, the doing, of family life had been, to his mind, a necessary sacrifice to art. Yet there had been an urgency to his need to justify the life of being, to make it another and equally honorable way of doing. “I am that queer monster the artist,” was his final declaration of identity to his friend Henry Adams. He rejected utterly that cult of experience which had been and would continue to be the creed of American writers from Melville to Hemingway. Art itself was a sufficient relation to the world, he thought. While he would not have advocated the attempt to use materials quite outside the writer’s experience, he did feel that much could be inferred from little; it was only necessary, as he once told a young writer, to be someone on whom nothing that happened in his view was lost. The principle involved was moral as well as practical. To give life its due, to be responsible, it was only necessary to feel deeply enough.

In a curious way he absorbed his father’s message, yet of all his family perhaps resisted it best. He may have been aided by the example of his mother, whose favorite child he is supposed to have been. She was, it is pretty evident, no intellectual—but that is precisely the point. Ideas were entirely the province of her husband for whom she had immediately and willingly given up all her sectarian religious ties upon marriage. She would refer, in mingled affection and dismissal, to “your father’s ideas,” and these, somehow, were gently put in their place by a simple force of actuality which was her own quality and strength. Henry, as already noted, was himself bemused as a child by the abstractness of his father’s formulas. Perhaps it was in reaction to the excessive stress upon “ideas” felt in his youth that he became the novelist so astutely complimented in Eliot’s remark: “He had a mind so fine that no idea could penetrate it,” Certainly it is as a potential novelist that he pictures himself in Notes of a Son and Brother when he speaks of the family spirituality. To quote further from that remarkable autobiography:

The oddity of my own case, as I make it out so far as it involved a confused criticism was that my small uneasy mind, bulging and tightening in the wrong, or at least in unnatural and unexpected places, like a little jacket ill cut or ill sown, attached its gaping view, as I have already more than enough noted, to things and persons, objects and aspects, frivolities all, I dare say I was willing to grant, compared with whatever manifestations of the serious, these being by need, apparently, the abstract; and that in fine I should have been thankful for a state of faith, a conviction of the Divine, an interpretation of the universe—anything one might have made bold to call it—which would have supplied more features or appearances. Feeling myself “after ‘persons so much more than after anything else—to recur to that side of my earliest and most constant consciousness which might have been judged most deplorable, I take it that I found the sphere of more nobly supposititous habitation too imperceptibly peopled; whereas the religious life of every other imily that could boast of any such (and what family didn’t boast?) affected my fancy as with a social and material crowdedness.

The appetite for a “social and material crowdedness,” the passionate interest in people, was precisely the impulse behind his first strivings as a novelist. Persons, objects and aspects, features or appearances, to these “frivolous” externalities his imagination attached itself in earliest youth. It made him the observer of the visible that a novelist must be, at least in the “great tradition” of realism. But Henry James was also to be a novelist concerned more than any before him with invisible essences. His father’s preference for being prevailed to make him the historian of fine consciousnesses, the finer the better.

He identified in a way with his mother; her understanding of ordinary human conditions was a capacity that his visionary and impractical father lacked. Her feminine passivity, so different from the elder James’s bluster, was a strength he himself possessed. But he also was his father’s child, cast in his mold, or, rather, fashioning himself in a like image. As William had repeated their father’s vastation, so Henry made his accident at the outbreak of the Civil War a disablement for action which was a psychic as much as a physical counterpart of his father’s loss of a leg. Perhaps, too, he wanted to imagine that he had maimed himself sexually—in this sense those who have suspected that James received a sexual injury may be symbolically right, even if it can be shown that he suffered only a literal sacroiliac strain. This would seem to reverse the example of his philoprogenitive father, surely—but it may also enact his emotional impotence, his surrender of power within the family and outside it. The strength Henry sought instead was very different. Extraordinarily secure, as has been said, in his vocation, he was unwavering in his choice of loneliness. In the place of his father’s uxoriousness there was his fear of the surrenders that the sexual relation seemed to entail.

It is in his fiction, above all, that Henry James expressed his merger and reconcilement of the claims of being and doing. He was both to criticize and celebrate the passive personality in his fables; in the end he was to show that being, if sympathetically aware of what surrounded it, could rival the active doing of those who engaged themselves in the loud drama of events, those whose life-histories were full of striking action. In how many ways the theme of being and doing may be contrasted for better or for worse is known to the reader of James’s fiction in great fullness. Mere spectatorship was not enough, of course. To merely watch the lives of others could be, as Hawthorne before him had shown in tale after tale, a coldness of heart, a frigid aestheticism. There were those who only observed and did not take on the burden of life, those who failed through indifference or lack of imagination like Winterbourne, in Daisy Miller, who in his censorious remove from the rashly acting Daisy failed to notice her feeling for him, failed to feel himself. James’s fiction is full of detached observers who in their concentration upon their own being fail to act—the case is unmistakably put for Marcher, the anti-hero of “The Beast in the Jungle,” who discovered that his self-absorption had finally made him the man to whom nothing was ever to happen.

Yet to participate fully in others’ lives by means of the imagination extended to its utmost limits was to exceed the unreflective doer. In James’s early novel, Roderick Hudson,there had been the romantic artist who exemplified the notion that life must be extravagantly lived before it can be expressed in art—the cult of experience. And in contrast, there had been his friend Rowland Mallett, who never expresses the passion he feels but is the witness and patron of Roderick’s passions. At the other end of James’s long sequence of studies, there is the supreme fable of The Ambassadors with a similarly contrasted pair, Chad and Strether. Midway in that novel, Strether, that avuncular, quiet fellow who has come to Europe to look into the affairs of Chad Newsome, is moved to an outburst of regret for life unlived, for having failed to live it to the full as Chad apparently had been doing in Paris. But the shallowness of Chad’s “living” is made to expose itself. Thus Strether, it turns out, has lived fully after all in the intensely moving experience of his observation of those livers and lovers, Chad and Madame de Vionnet, lived the “grande vie” more truly than they. Jamesian being had become triumphant doing.


By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Recommended Reading