The Pilgrimage of Henry James

by Van Wyck Brooks. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company. 1925. l2mo. x+170 pp. $2.50.
The Pilgrimage of Henry James is a study in social biography rather than in literary criticism. In spite of the delicate perceptions and the original points of view which have distinguished his work as a literary critic, Mr. Van Wyck Brooks’s real subject is the perplexing relation of letters to life in America. It was this which inspired The Wine of the Puritans, his first essay in the field; which developed with fuller body and greater depth of feeling in the Ordeal of Mark Twain; and which has now led him to follow Mr. Henry James in a common transatlantic venture — projecting, so to speak, his properly American topic into the intricate field of European reactions. The upshot of this accents the more strongly the American perspective from which Mr. Brooks originally sets forth, for, after following devotedly the ups and downs of his author’s tussle with European life, Mr. Brooks gives up the whole thing as a failure — a hopeless effort doomed to failure from the start. In the end he brings home the body of his hero, so to speak, to rest in his native soil, and with the voice of an irreconcilable isolationist mourns him as an American soldier wandered afar to die in foreign wars in which he had no concern.
In spite of the satisfaction with which Henry James settled himself down once for all in English life, the venture led before many years, according to Mr. Brooks’s diagnosis of the case, into something approaching a stalemate. Mr. Henry James himself remained immovably James — that is, American, foreign — in the midst of even his own chosen English setting. Though his quality as a writer was readily conceded, his position in English life as a literary figure did not develop according to plan, and he saw before him the classic fate of the expatriate lost and forgotten. Against this menace he roused himself, first in the theatrical experiment, and finally, after that failure, in the renewed effort in his own field which flowered as the ‘later manner.'
For all its triumphant prestige, Mr. Brooks finds the later manner to be an empty shell —a thing made up of a grim determination to succeed, plus the complete technical mastery produced at last by so many years of effort. But these prodigies of craftsmanship were lavished upon conceptions both unsubstantial and unreal: plots without action, characters without life; ‘dim visual images—no heart, no mind, no vitals. . . . They collect rarities, objects of beauty, objects of price, animate and inanimate; they become aware of other people as unsubstantial as themselves, they drift in a confused limbo that knows no dimensions.’
Pollice verso! — and in this ruthless extermination of the personages of the later manner we bid, malgré nous, a last farewell to those engaging personages Nanda and Tishy, dissolved at last before our eyes into thin air.
In all his long exile, Henry James had not absorbed English life, and had cut himself off from the inspiration of his own country. Even a belated ‘Old Home Day’ could give no revivifying stimulus. ‘Europe had been a fairy tale to the last,’a stubborn illusion inspired by the picture books and romances of boyhood years; and in this vast surrounding emptiness the undaunted author had to fall back upon himself and the resources of his art.
In this somewhat mechanistic interpretation, one feels a drastic dénouement approaching, but Mr. Brooks does not shrink from carrying the logic of his reasoning to its heroic conclusion.
Henry James should have stayed at home like Howells — ‘sitting up to the neck in the sources of his inspiration. . . . Howells’s works had savored strongly of his native soil, like those of all great novelists; and if he had not been great, well, that was another matter.'
In this last phrase, Mr. Brooks leaps over the cliff. Following him, we find ourselves taking one straight, unbroken, breathless drop — down to the 100 per cent region of Gene Stratton Porter, yawning below.