Notes on Henry James
by LOGAN PEARSALL SMITH
OUR dear Howard,” Henry James wrote of Howard Sturgis, “is like a richly-sugared cake always on the table. We sit round him in a circle and help ourselves. Now and then we fling a slice over our shoulders to somebody outside.”
Henry James of course was a cake even more richly spiced and sugared; and as I am almost the last of the guests who sat on golden chairs at that feast, the Editor of the Atlantic has asked me to fling him some slices from it. Two I can send him from the gash that was made when the American was replaced by the British Lion on the ice of that enormous confection. The first slice comes from the table of Mrs. Humphry Ward, whose house in Grosvenor Place Edith Wharton rented, shortly after the outbreak of the war in 1914. I was asked to meet Henry James at luncheon there; and into the room the septuagenarian novelist burst, his great eyes ablaze.
“My hands, I must wash them!” he cried. “My hands are dripping with blood. All the way from Chelsea to Grosvenor Place I have been bayoneting, my dear Edith, and hurling bombs and ravishing and raping. It is my daydream to squat down with King George of England, with the President of the French Republic and the Czar of Russia, on the Emperor William’s belly, until we squeeze irrevocably out of it the last bitter drops of retribution.”
Mrs. Wharton, who had come over, precipitately, in a blaze from Paris, said that she must have a seat with the others. “No, Edith,” was the stern reply, “that imperial stomach is no seat for ladies. This is a war for men only; it is a war for me and poor Logan.”
“But surely we must discriminate,” I mildly suggested to this master of discriminations (and the wear and tear of discrimination was at last to cause his decease, as he remarked on his deathbed), “surely we must look to the right and left, and proceed, all eyes, with care and strategical caution. This is certainly my war, as I am a naturalized British subject; but you, I believe, are a neutral, as neutral as Switzerland or Sweden. Why don’t you come into it?” I asked him as, panting, he paused to wipe away what he felt were splashes of gore on his visage. “Why don’t you take the King’s shilling? It may cost you more than a shilling to become a British subject — as much as five pounds, perhaps. But what is five pounds in this crisis of world history? Then we can march with our bayonets against the Kaiser shoulder to shoulder, to the sound of trumpets.”
More than once, during the winter that followed, I would end with this trumpet-note my colloquies with Henry James on the telephone. “When are you coming into the war?” I would hiss; “how long are you going to sit with the Rumanians on a back seat in the Balkans?”
One day the elaborations of phrase, the parentheses, the polysyllabic evasions, which made a talk on the telephone with Henry James so amazing an adventure (I use the word “amazing” in the old Chaucerian sense of wandering darkly in an actual maze or a labyrinth), were replaced by a few words, tersely spoken.
“ Logan, how — you know what I mean — how do you do it?”
“You go,” I tersely replied, “to a solicitor.”
“Of course! I know just the right person,” and this great man of action rang off with a bang that must almost have smashed the receiver.
Edith Wharton and John Sargent, though both of them “deracinated prestidigitators” (as that patriot, Van Wyck Brooks, unkindly calls refugees from America), had still hid on their persons too much in the way of war-paint and feathers to approve of treating the American Eagle like this; and perhaps Henry James, who, as he wrote to his nephew, had not taken this step till he found that he could no longer go to his house at Rye save as an alien, under police supervision — perhaps he himself may have heard a few muffled squawks from the moth-eaten old Bird in his bosom.
All conversions are followed, religious writers tell us, by reminiscential, even regretful moments, and most allegiances irk free spirits at times, and make them tug at the ropes by which they are tethered. Even my long-tested love of the land of my adoption has not saved me from far-away echoes of the “Fie, Foh, Fum” of my anti-British boyhood; and more disconcerting, even, than English clean fun and the cold-shape and cornstarch of this Bird’s Custard island, I had found a remark of George Santayana’s, to the effect that he would never cross the Channel again, because of the rapid, inevitable Americanization of England. With these words ringing in my ears (for I had just heard them) I broke the silence between me and my Chelsea neighbor on one of our walks in this riverside suburb — silences in which we said so much to each other, though few words might be spoken between us: “Of course,” I said, “you know Santayana?”
“Oh, of course,” replied Henry James; “wasn’t Santayana a great friend of my brother William at Harvard? I knew his friends; I know his crystalclear prose; and what you never find in other writers today, the touch here and there of the fiddle or the note of the nightingale. I know his thought, as far as a humble old dreamer like myself can know it. I know at any rate the lofty realms where he walks among the high places of European philosophy.”
“Then you must often have met him?”
“My dear fellow, I tell you I have spent days, have spent months in his company. I have listened, and listened long, to the sound of his enchanting conversation.”
“The most enchanting in the world, of course,” I answered. “How he gives himself to you, pours out the rich stores of his mind, and forgets all about you the moment you leave the room! He doesn’t dislike you, and doesn’t like you or anyone else. He wouldn’t come to see you, though he lived for months in sight of your windows. That’s what’s broken Mrs. Wharton’s heart — he wouldn’t go near her in Paris. It has broken the heart of many others; it’s a wound that nothing can heal. But you know him personally; he comes to see you when he is in London?”
“To answer your question, my dear Logan, as plainly — and I may say, as brutally— as you put it, I have not personally (to use your blunt adverb) met Santayana, nor shall I ever meet him. He has never rung my doorbell, nor will he ever ring it. He wouldn’t ring it even if he were in London, and now he isn’t seen in London any more.”
“But I saw him yesterday; he is now in London in person, and is lunching with me tomorrow. Though you don’t like blunt questions, I shall permit myself bluntly to ask you, will you come to luncheon to meet him ? ”
“Come? " Henry James cried, raising his hands to heaven. “I would walk across London with bare feet on the snow to meet George Santayana. At what time? One-thirty! I will come. At one-thirty. I shall inexorably make my appearance.”
HE WAS only a minute or two late; as my sisters and I were shaking hands with Santayana, we saw a taxi drive up. Then we heard heavy footsteps on the stairs; there was a pause before the drawing-room door opened and there entered the most portentous of all the personalities I have ever encountered. With a rudeness which was perfectly right (for on grave occasions the small coin of good manners must be treated as trash), he ignored us all but the Spanish hidalgo, whom he gravely approached, and laying his arm on his shoulder, “Now tell me,” he almost reproachfully queried, “are you really George Santayana?” When fully reassured on this point he turned to the rest of us with greetings of elaborate but quite unapologetic courtesy, and we all went in to luncheon.
Our talk was about England. I expressed my lifelong satisfaction in being domiciled with so admirable a race as the English. “Yes,” the Spaniard agreed, “in my opinion the most superior white race, since the Greeks, which has peopled this planet.”
And yet, and yet, wasn’t Santayana about to say farewell to this island forever? And hadn’t our other guest just received two great slaps in the face from his new British compatriots? He had certainly been trounced, but a few months ago, by a moral thinker and best-selling novelist, who had held the old man up to public derision. And the year before, British suffragette females, with a ferocity even greater than that of the author of Boon — the “phophet,” as Henry James called Wells — had slashed with a knife the great face of his exhibited portrait, and had tried to cut it to pieces.
Wasn’t it possible that these two encounters with British Philistinism, joined with the unmentionably awful ordeal and yelled-at exposure when he stood before the theatrical curtain in the nineties — wasn’t it possible, or even probable, that such queer and quite undeserved misadventures might have caused the correct author of so many exquisitely well-bred stories, to cast a backward and perhaps a rueful glance at the amenity of previous uninsular freedom? Could a prudish and well-conducted old gentleman swallow without gulping what Henry James had been forced to swallow?
Remembering my own former qualms, I adumbrated a query. Was there any loyalty or transfer of allegiance which could be wholeheartedly rushed into without reservation? Mustn’t such things, like all that is mortal, be subject to qualifications, to occasional drawbacks, and even to moments, at least, of disillusion?
In silence our august guest pondered my question; nor did Henry James ever impress one as more awe-inspiringly portentous than in his moments of wordless rumination. He now seemed to be silently shaking (to borrow one of his own metaphors) the bottle into which life had poured for him the wine of experience; shaking it to taste what lees might be stirred by this oscillation. “Disillusion” — no, that was not the word to be used of his experiences with regard to these decent and dauntless people. Though he was much too magnanimous to speak of—or perhaps to remember—the slaps in the face I have mentioned, he still hesitated over the word “drawback.”
Well, perhaps there were drawbacks, or rather qualifications; and especially the one which had forced Edith Wharton to depart from the shores of this island. The numbness and dumbness of the tongue-tied people of England! No good talk, no good general conversation, none of that famous coöperative criticism of life which was the solace of existence in France and in Italy. No house any longer in London where fine spirits could gather and wag their tongues freely. No echo of Holland House, nor even of the shoddy Blessington Salon. No tirades, no denunciations; nothing but dreary mumblings and grumblings about politics, diseases, and dentists, and insipid duologues automatically turned on and switched off at vapid luncheons and dinners.
As we four sat round that great cake or, as it were, Christmas confection; as the candles upon it seemed to burn more and more brightly, till there was at last a final outpouring of ignited spirit, I felt that this great combustion was no impromptu performance, but something that was being developed to lead up, for this company and this occasion, to a climax. An anticlimax it seemed at first, but wasn’t it in a way a climax? Henry James’s voice dropped to a conversational level.
“I am now going to tell you a story,” he said. “It’s a story I have never told before, and shall never tell again; a story that in decency I oughtn’t to tell. But now I shall indecently tell it! Some years ago my friend Alphonse Daudet was in London; he often came to see me, and we met at dinners and luncheons. On the last of these occasions, when he came to say farewell, ‘My dear friend,’ he remarked, ‘I have been observing you carefully for some months; I have met almost all your friends and acquaintances; and I sec that you are living among people less fine than you are yourself.’ That was what he said when he left England for Paris. Oh, for the wings of the dove, I sigh sometimes, to follow after him, and after Edith, to that conversational city!
“But I see that I have lingered too late in this pleasant society; at my age one is apt to prolong one’s happiest moments. I hadn’t the slightest notion how the clock had been ticking. Do you think, Logan, that you could ring up for a taxi for me?”