March 1865 Fiction The Civil War

The Story of a Year

One of the earliest pieces published by the author, who was 21 years old at the time
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A Union soldier with the tattered colors of the Eighth Pennsylvania Infantry (Corbis)


Henry James was 18 when the war broke out, but his father was protective of his shy second child and urged him not to enlist in the Union army. Instead James enrolled in law school, dropped out, and began to focus on his writing.

As of 1864, only one of his short stories had yet seen print—in an obscure New York publication. Setting his sights higher, he decided to try The Atlantic. He feared rejection, however, and asked the editors to send their response to a friend’s address so that his family (especially his older brother, William, who was wont to tease) wouldn’t see it. To his delight, the piece was accepted, and “The Story of a Year”—about the fate of a couple who get engaged just before the young man heads off to fight in Virginia—appeared in the March 1865 issue.

James’s relationship with The Atlantic would prove long and fruitful: in the years to come, he would contribute numerous reviews, travel essays, and stories, and the magazine would serialize such classics as Daisy Miller and The Portrait of a Lady.

 
—Sage Stossel

My story begins as a great many stories have begun within the last three years, and indeed as a great many have ended; for, when the hero is despatched, does not the romance come to a stop?

In early May, two years ago, a young couple I [knew] of strolled homeward from an evening walk, a long ramble among the peaceful hills which inclosed their rustic home. Into these peaceful hills the young man had brought, not the rumor, (which was an old inhabitant,) but some of the reality of war,—a little whiff of gunpowder, the clanking of a sword; for, although Mr. John Ford had his campaign still before him, he wore a certain comely air of camp-life which stamped him a very Hector to the steady-going villagers, and a very pretty fellow to Miss Elizabeth Crowe, his companion in this sentimental stroll. And was he not attired in the great brightness of blue and gold which befits a freshly made lieutenant? …

These young people, I say, had been roaming. It was plain that they had wandered into spots where the brambles were thick and the dews heavy,—nay, into swamps and puddles where the April rains were still undried. Ford’s boots and trousers had imbibed a deep foretaste of the Virginia mud; his companion’s skirts were fearfully bedraggled. What great enthusiasm had made our friends so unmindful of their steps? What blinding ardor had kindled these strange phenomena: a young lieutenant scornful of his first uniform, a well-bred young lady reckless of her stockings? …

Elizabeth (as I shall not scruple to call her outright) was leaning upon her companion’s arm, half moving in concert with him, and half allowing herself to be led, with that instinctive acknowledgment of dependence natural to a young girl who has just received the assurance of lifelong protection …

They made their way up a long swelling mound, whose top commanded the sunset. The dim landscape which had been brightening all day to the green of spring was now darkening to the gray of evening …

Ford and Elizabeth had quietly watched this great mystery of the heavens.

“That is an allegory,” said the young man, as the sun went under, looking into his companion’s face, where a pink flush seemed still to linger: “it means the end of the war. The forces on both sides are withdrawn. The blood that has been shed gathers itself into a vast globule and drops into the ocean.”

“I’m afraid it means a shabby compromise,” said Elizabeth. “Light disappears, too, and the land is in darkness.”

“Only for a season,” answered the other. “We mourn our dead. Then light comes again, stronger and brighter than ever. Perhaps you’ll be crying for me, Lizzie, at that distant day.”

“Oh, Jack, didn’t you promise not to talk about that?” says Lizzie, threatening to anticipate the performance in question …

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