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Henry James and Herman Melville

ISSUE:  Spring 1945

Henry James; the Major Phase. By F. O. Matthiessen. Oxford University Press. $2.50. Herman Melville; the Tragedy of Mind. By William Ellery Sedgwick. Harvard University Press. $2.75.

Not long after the death of Henry James, I was told of an incident that he had related during his last visit to America. It was told me by the widow of Professor William Farlow of Harvard, a neighbor and friend of Mrs. William James. Mr. James said that he had stopped, hesitant, at a Boston street crossing and a policeman had taken his arm and escorted him across. He did not know that the officer knew who he was until at the opposite curb he had lifted his hat and said, “Mr. James, sir, may I ask you a question? Which is your own favorite among your novels?” Mr. James said he replied “The Golden Bowl.” “Oh, thank you, sir,” exclaimed the Boston policeman, “That is my favorite too!” This story pleased me at the time because “The Golden Bowl” was my favorite too.

Mr. F. O. Matthiessen in his “Henry James: the Major Phase” recognizes that most critics have preferred “The Ambassadors” and that James himself pronounced the latter “quite the best ‘all round’ of his novels.” He quotes James, none the less, as saying “just as he was finishing ‘The Golden Bowl’ that it was the best he had ‘ever done.’ ” Mr. Matthiessen finds that James has drifted far from “the firm Christian knowledge that Hawthorne possessed, a fact that we will have to reckon with in his curious treatment of evil in ‘The Golden Bowl.’” He objects that Maggie gets “an unnatural knowledge of evil since she keeps her innocence intact” and asserts that love is not enough to redeem a world like Maggie Verver’s “as we can tell by a single glance ahead at the inevitably futile existence that any such Prince and Princess must continue to lead.” He finds Mr. Verver unreal as a robber baron and that the deep devotion between him and his daughter, as James has treated it, would be puzzling to the modern psychologist. At this point we might quote Mr. Matthiessen himself, who rarely it seems to me leaves so weak a spot in his armor, for he is a subtle and understanding critic: “we had better follow the first rule of criticism and turn to what he has done rather than to what he hasn’t.” Adam Verver probably did have his counterparts among American millionaires who made their money by methods familiar at the time and still were so unsophisticated in the consciousness of having done wrong that one among them might have been as much the young cherub (as the Prince once views him) in domestic and social relations as Mr. Verver is. And fathers and daughters have been as devoted as Maggie and her father without benefit of a psychiatrist. James certainly had a right to ignore Freud in the case.

Mr. Joseph Warren Beach has spoken of James’ “transcendental morality.” I am not sure that I take his term aright but it seems to me to differ little from what Mr. Matthiessen says when after making the point that James seeks to create the spell of the fairy tale, he concludes that “he did it, as the great fabulists have always done, for the sake of evoking universal truths.” Isn’t it just that James is able to show the Prince and Charlotte as each “splendid” in a large pagan view and Maggie and Mr, Verver each blind in having shut the doors of love against the outer world in the habits of their continued devotion to each other, that he is also able to bring off his denouement? Charlotte justifies to herself her values, and the Prince, so eager to be worthy of his great good fortune, is not conscious of evil so long as the outward decencies are observed and no one hurt, until a love for his wife gives a sight to his eyes. Theirs, the Prince’s and Charlotte’s, had been a European code of behavior—”what is morality but high intelligence?” In James’ novels the frank, natural, simple American view triumphs: “in some act of generosity, of passionate benefice, of pure sacrifice.” And just as in “The Wings of the Dove” Milly’s vision makes clear Densher’s sight so that her wings cover him and he has come to see Kate Croy as Strether in “The Ambassadors” came to see Mrs. New-some, so too in “The Golden Bowl” the change in the Prince is shown by his coming to see Charlotte. The way he expresses this to his wife is, “I see only you.” Surely the future can take care of itself without fear of futility; but James has had the Prince hint more than once at interesting things he would be doing if it were not for a feeling of obligation to the Ververs.

In form, too, “The Golden Bowl” has had something less than justice done it. Mr. Matthiessen repeats the view that James indicates in his preface and that Mr. Beach has followed in his analyses of the novel. The implication is that the first and second part of “The Golden Bowl” is not only organized so that Prince Amerigo is the “compositional center” of one and the Princess of the other, but that the point of view is limited to the “process of vision” of the Prince in the first and to that of the Princess in the second volume. James appears to mean just that, but his novel is there to contradict him. He has a little artifice (never so far as I know pointed out) of indicating in the first sentence of a section the process of vision to be followed: “The Prince had always liked his London”; “It was not till many days had passed that the Princess began—” Even in “The Ambassadors,” the arrow points at the beginning of the sections when the process of vision of Strether is followed. In the case of “The Golden Bowl” it is true that the compositional center throughout the first three books (or the entire first part) is that of Amerigo. Clearly, however, the second book opens with “Adam Verver, at Fawns” and for a brief period we follow the flow of his ideas, as for a lesser while we seem, at the opening of “Part Third,” to do with “Charlotte, half way up the ‘monumental’ staircase.” So that we have had the rays of the intelligences of the Prince, of Mr. Verver, of Charlotte, and of course of the “reflector” (to use the James term), Mrs. Assingham, all turned on the situation, or as James would have called it, the “predicament.” Each is flashed off and we never again see what they think except as we are told by someone else. The whole second volume is built around the Princess, and Maggie also gives us the point of view. It has narrowed down to the one focus but the light flares out at last to encompass “universal truths.” It is true that Maggie’s “knowledge of evil” has left her “innocence intact” for she has it, the knowledge, vicariously through the understanding that is a part of her love. James’ triumph should be that we, like the Prince, can see with Maggie’s eyes: perfect love casts out pride and cleanses where it forgives. Rather it is not forgiveness but understanding. The physical golden bowl is broken but spiritually Maggie clasps to herself her golden bowl without a flaw. That may be a transcendental meaning but I think Henry James put it there.

Mr. Matthiessen makes an illuminating point in interpreting the close of “The Ambassadors” to be understood in terms of what Madame de Vionnet had come to mean to Strether, and his restatement of “The Wings of the Dove” is vivified by his knowledge that its heroine is “his tribute to his cousin, Minny Temple.” The chapter on this book is, perhaps, the most satisfactory in Mr. Matthiessen’s book, which is pure ore all through. He says of “The Wings of the Dove” that it is “the purest metal.” I should agree with him that it has the theme of most beauty, and with James that “The Ambassadors” is structurally “most round.” “The Wings of the Dove” suffers structurally from the indirect method of the middle section of the book. “The Ambassadors” is worked out to a close that completes less than the other two novels the fulfillment of the problem set in the “predicament.”

Mr. Matthiessen has had the advantage of the use of Henry James’ own working notebooks, now in the possession of his nephew, and he has used well James’ other comments on his novels. His book is an unqualified success, acute in discriminations, bold in conclusions, and written as few critics of other men’s writings can write. Where he may provoke differences of opinion, it will only be to add a liveliness to the interest of the reader.

If Mr. Matthiessen’s study of Henry James is a basis for pride in American scholarship, William Ellery Sedgwick’s “Herman Melville: the Tragedy of Mind” is a source of regret that the fine critical intelligence that designed this study is not living to enrich further the literature of criticism. I believe it will be accorded position as the best book on Herman Melville. It is not a biography in the usual sense. It is an especial study of the mind of Melville in its grapple with the problem of the meaning of life—a kind of spiritual biography. It begins with “Typee” and closes with “Billy Budd.” It uses the method of a parallel consideration of the periods of Shakespeare’s life as drawn from his plays. “Moby Dick” is taken as corresponding to “King Lear,” and “Billy Budd” to the romances, especially “The Tempest,” in implying in spirit what is suggested by “the combination of words, recognition, restoration and return.” The sketch “I and My Chimney” and the poem “Clarel” are especially illuminating to the critic in showing how Melville passed from the bitterness of “Pierre” to the calm of “Billy Budd.” The tragedy of mind is in the texture of the life rather than in a tragic conclusion, for Melville “has been restored to the radiant visage of life, whose shining secret is, it has its own salvation in its own keeping.” “The same enchantment of life which he had thrilled to in his first book, he has returned to by force of insight in his last.” Mr. Sedgwick found in the simple, luminous story of “Billy Budd” an allegory that other readers have missed. There are intimations that give “the reflection of a heavenly mystery, in which the idea of divine love, as attributed to Christ, is reconciled with the known facts of the rough justice which overrules the world.”

There is still to be made a study of that period when the residue of Gothic romanticism was crossed with transcendentalism (not Emersonian transcendentalism merely), and American literature came of age. Melville, Hawthorne, and Poe are all examples of the blending of these forces. Mr. Matthiessen hints in his book that Henry James owed much to Hawthorne, but how much he owed, I believe, is not yet realized. It may be straining a point to try to find a kinship also between the turbulent Melville and the temperate James, but it might be found in the origins of the “transcendental morality” that is so richly a part of the work of each.


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