Henry James

THIS volume in memory of the late Henry James1 consists of an attempt at an outline of his system of thought, composed chiefly of selections from his own writings and a brief autobiographical sketch, to which is added the important work entitled Spiritual Creation. This essay, constituting the main part of the book, and extending through fifteen chapters, is yet left unfinished. It is the last work of the author, and repeats in another form the thought to which he had given for his own age so deep and passionate expression. The autobiographic sketch is written with the briefest incident and circumstance, and apparently to present through his own experience of life a spiritual conviction of that which forms the common and universal life of man.

In the august presence of the truth which he recognizes so gratefully and so devoutly, he counts the incident and circumstance of his own life as nothing, the subjects of trivial record; as if they were, in the daily and common ways of men, but “ the dust that rises up and is lightly laid again.” But the dates given in this brief sketch are of value, since they connect him with the age to whose deepest thought he gave so clear interpretation, and they associate him, as he would say, with the latitudes in which he lived. It is singular, however, that, while so closely related to the best thought and work of his age, he discloses no relation with any contemporary writer. And his vision was so intent upon the one thought of that life which for him lay at the foundation of human life and human society that he regarded the external incident and circumstance of his own age as slightly as those of his own life. There was, beneath them all, the revelation of a divine life, and their process was but the continuous incarnation and redemption of man ; it was the process of a spiritual creation.

The memoir contains no letters which might further illustrate his thought and work, although his correspondence was extensive, and bore always the impress of his rare genius; in fact, his most important books were written in the form of letters to a friend. His note-books, also, should furnish much of interest, if we may judge by the brief extracts which he gave in his reminiscences of Carlyle and his allusions to Emerson. Their use may invade no privacy; and indeed, in the large human quality which his writings always had, there is no writer where the merely private concern of life is so completely effaced. Thus, again, there is no more that is strictly autobiographic in the paper which is so entitled than may be found scattered through all his volumes.

He has a unique position in literature. He wrote no history, no verse, no essays on nature, or conduct, or art, or life, and no treatise on philosophy; but the slight references which incidentally appear indicate a various learning which was lightly borne, and a rare use of words, and a refined critical culture, and beneath all a svmpathy with the common life of man so profound that it must have had a ground deeper than any mere individual relation. His prose sometimes recalls, in its glow of color and richness of expression and in its eloquence, the prose of the old writers in the greater periods of English literature. His style has a singular freshness and a homely beauty of phrase and illustration, so that it suggests not faintly the freshness of the style in poetry of Chaucer; it is genuine, with no trace of an insincere pedantry of thought or formality of expression, and the pulses of life seem to run and to beat fully and freely through its periods. It is never affected by any conventionalism, and it is delayed by no skepticism. It seems naturally to avoid a scholastic dress, and even the terms and phrases of the schools, when he uses them, are often turned around, as if the stream which is so fresh and strong would mark its own confines and trace the free line of its own banks. Thus the words “ consciousness ” and “ personality,” and in some instances “ nature,” are used in a way which is an inversion of their common use. But one comes soon to ascertain their special significance, and then they do not interfere with the clear apprehension of the thought and purpose of the writer.

He was no mystic and no seer, as he has sometimes been represented ; he was drawn away to no dim and shadowy confines of thought, and held no vague vision of the future, to avert, by its splendor, his gaze from this earth. He might associate with those who had seen visions and dreamt dreams, but for him the common life of man had itself been glorified by the divine presence, and it was in the lowliness of humanity that there had come the revelation of the splendor of God. He was still less the founder or expositor of an institution. For him, the ritualistic and the institutional man belonged simply to the provisional and typical conditions of life. They might stand in the way if they assumed to themselves an exclusive distinction in the divine life, which was alone the foundation of the life of humanity. They became then as in some mask; as the pale and shadowy figures of the past, winch lingered behind the stage-lights of the theatre when the full light of day had come, and kept the accompaniment of the drums and instruments of the orchestra when the full music of humanity filled, for those who would but hear it, all the streets and ways of the city.

This sometimes may have led him to identify real and organic movements of history with the mere forms of an institution. Thus he wrote in a letter to the New York Tribune, many years ago, that a characteristic of the age was an indifference to lapsed nationalities. But the characteristic of the age was to be the rise of a deeper and unitary national life in the very countries from which he wrote, — in Italy and Germany. Yet this process has been itself an evidence of the truth which he most clearly recognized of a spiritual creation, and in its democratic and social form is the recognition of the deeper and divine life of humanity.

He was not and could not be an isolated thinker, separated from the spirit that was working in his own age. His conception of creation as a continuous process was not very far away from that of Edwards; his representation of the relation of the Creator and the creature, and of the nothingness of the creature apart from the Creator, recalls the thought of Hegel; his apprehension of the Incarnation as continuous was that of Rothe ; and his statement of the human consciousness and its relation to the formative life of human society has a very beautiful expression in a recent work of Thomas Hill Green on the Witness of God. He was strictly a theologian ; but while a correspondence may be traced between his thought and that of these writers, he has given a far deeper conception of the reality and fullness of the divine Incarnation as the foundation of the life of man. It is a life which is limited by no sanctimonies, for it is a universal life, and its realization is in the redeemed life of human society. This was the ground of his deep humility. He says of it, “I feel such a mental impotence in regard to the ineffable theme, such a sense of silent and amazed and abashed truth in relation to it, that, say what I may, I can hardly feel sure of having said anything to the purpose. I confess, for my part, that this truth of the spiritual creation, or of Goths natural humanity, is in itself so grand and unexpected as utterly to beggar my imagination at the start.” It is the conviction that God has taken upon himself this worn and broken and bedraggled life of man on this earth, and borne it with the Infinite patience to the fulfillment of its divine destiny. He has given a clearer and fuller interpretation of the correlation and correspondence of nature and society; his unfinished work closes with the inquiry, “ Whose image, then, is nature, after all?” But he has said before, in the same work, “ There is but one nature, then, and that is human nature, — so named from God’s true creature, man ; for mineral, vegetable, and animal are God’s creatures only as involved in man, and without him could have no possible cause of existence.” He has lifted the conception of human society above that of a merely physical relation, in physical conditions, to that of a divine and human relation, in which it is moulded and formed through the realization of the divine love. Thus he has given the strongest expression to the inseparable connection between theology and sociology. There are in recent literature, in the works of Spencer and Maudsley, representations of society as a physical organism; but the facts which are the evidence of its spiritual and ethical relations are far more obvious, and it becomes strange to him that men will not see them. For it is not through the exclusive recognition of any merely physical phenomena, nor by the application of any abstract schemes or theories, that human society is constituted, but in the recognition and realization of its redemptive life. In the significant phrase which forms the title of perhaps his most important work, society is the redeemed form of man. He

says, “ The sum of all I have been alleging is that we, as a community, are fully launched at length upon that metaphysic sea of being whose mystic waters float the sapphire walls of the new Jerusalem, metropolis of earth and heaven. It is not a city built of stone nor of any material rubbish, since it has no need of sun or moon to enlighten it; but its foundations are laid in the eternal wants and passions of the human heart, sympathetic with God’s infinitude, and its walls are the laws of man’s deathless intelligence, subjecting all things to his allegiance. Neither is it a city into which shall ever enter anything that defileth, nor anything that is contrary to nature, nor yet anything that produceth a lie ; for it is the city of God coming down to men out of the stainless heavens, and therefore full of pure, unmixed blessing to human life, and there shall be no more curse.” The relations of human society are not to be settled by any adjustment of property nor use and division of land, important as these are, but in the recognition of a life in which all the suffering and trial of the world is reconciled in the coming of a divine and an eternal order. It is true that this may not be counted as yet fully attained. He says himself, “There are, it must be admitted, too many fierce and avaricious natures among us, to whom the state no longer exists as the symbol or representative of an outward order in human life, and at the same time does not begin to reveal itself as the symbol or representative of a much more constraining inward order; and all these necessarily look upon their fellowmen as delivered over to their use, to be fleeced ad libitum.”

In the intense expression which he has given to a single truth, that of the divine Incarnation and Redemption, he sometimes seems to have a restricted conception of forms and phases of life, which so fully engage the thoughts of men. He thus seems sometimes unjust to the ethical drama and its distinctions in its portrayal of life, and yet when we hear a play of Shakespeare, we do not regard it as a finality; it is itself only the representation of an incident or form of experience in the common life of man. He seems, again, unjust to the uses and necessity of an institutional order ; but it is only in the recognition of the law that institutions are for man, and not man for institutions. He seems, again, unjust to physical research, with its labor and large results; but it must be conceded that while Darwin may detect no beneficent end in the tendencies of physical nature, yet he recognizes a beneficent end in the acquisition of that knowledge, to which he devoted his life so patiently and so laboriously, in its gradual gain to the evolution of human society and the subjection of the world to man.

It has been a subject of speculation whether the position which he has maintained might not have been affirmed apart from Christianity. But this is not the conception which he allows. It is the revelation of the divine Incarnation which seems often to him the only reality. He himself says, “ I hold the Christian facts to be authentic, because I see them to be needful ultimates or exponents of otherwise undiscoverable and inconceivable spiritual truth. Indeed, I hold the life, death, and ascension of Jesus Christ to be the only facts of human history which are not in themselves illusory or fallacious, because

they alone base a new creation in man, to which every fibre of his nature, starved and revolted by the actual creation, eagerly responds.”

Browning, in his last work, has given us, after testing the experience and traversing the field of a various and subtle philosophy, the conclusion of his own thought:—

“ Let throngs press thee to me!
Up and down amid men, heart by heart fare we!
Welcome squalid vesture, harsh voice, hateful face!
God is soul, souls I and thou: with souls should souls have place.”

But this recognition of the world seems merely abstract, only the recital of certain particulars in comparison with that profound conception which on almost every page is the centre and ground of James’s thought.

But the interpretation of his thought must be found in his own works. That they will be read more widely in the future we do not doubt. He gave to the truth which he recognized an unceasing devotion. The words would be more just of no other artist, that he toiled,

“gaining, as he gave,
The Life he imaged.”

It was said by a public journalist, in reporting the announcement of his death, “ No one who had known him could read it without tears.” It was a long life, whose devotion was checked by no indifference, and whose faith was itself a record, to remain among the best treasures of memory.

  1. The Literary Remains of Hinry James. Edited by WILLIAM JAMES. J. R. Osgood & Co. 1885. V