"It would be a great pity," Mark Twain said of Jane Austen, if they allowed her to die a natural death." There is a large, timid, hardly vocal class of people who feel the same way about Henry James. Those who have struggled unhappily through the lessons of the Master will find comfort at last in the breezy iconoclasm of Maxwell Geismar's Henry James and the Jacobites.
Unfortunately, they will find little more. Geismar's book is knowledgeable and occasionally witty--but it is also badly written, ill-tempered, and blased out of all proportion. His point, reiterated throughout the book, is simple enough: he doesn't think Henry James is a great writer and he questions the judgment of any one who does. Consequently, the book is unrelieved polemic against James and his critics.
The first chapter, in which he announces these prejudices, makes good reading. Here Geismar says some bitingly accurate things about James--things which most of us, at one time or another, have wanted to hear. He begins his literary ambush with the declaration that this "writer was not a major writer at all--.. he is a major entertainer..." He notes that Jame's vision of sex was essentially voyeuristic..., in this esoteric Jamesian universe--a literary world that was comprised of one-half of the upper one per cent of the human race at best; and one-quarter of their emotions--the worst crime, next to being poor, was to be sexual." And several generations of slow (but inattentive) readers will be delighted to hear him insist that The Ambassadors is "one of the silliest and most uninformed novels about American business and French art alike...."
But Geismar fails to prove his points. He simply repeats his initial insights-like the contrast between entertainment and profundity -- to the end of the book, without exploring or developing them. At best, any expansion of those insights, is obscured by lack of organization. Geismar might learn from those academicians he so despises ("James is the perfect academic novelist") that literary criticism and literary history demand more than just chronological order. Even a reader intimately familiar with James's work will be confused by Geismar's haphazard approach to analysis and by his assumption that everybody already knows the psychological history of the James family. Sadly, Geismar bases his entire thesis on James's personal inadequacies.
Personality vs. Art
Geismar's problem, I think, is that he identifies James's personality with James's writing. That is, in attempting to ridicule James's critics for making him into a "major writer" Geismar ends by simply ridiculing James. It is interesting, I suppose, that James was sexually inhibited, neurotically fastidious, and incurably romantic. But it isn't literary criticism. A bald assertion like "Perhaps Henry James might better be described as the greatest feminine novelist of any age. If anything, such sniping gets in derstand the man, his writing, or his age. If anything such sniping gets in the way. Geismar means to correct the contemporary estimate of James and to locate him more precisely in the history of American literature--a commendable object, surely. But, because of his approach, he only succeeds in directing a barrage of snide footnotes at his colleagues and in reducing poor James to a psychological heap.
This is doubly unfortunate because Geismar has an opportunity to make legitimate critical re-evaluations. James has been misunderstood in the past, to a degree; parts of his work have been overrated though not, as Geismar claims, by F.O. Matthiessen or Edmund Wilson). The American Scene is a good example of such misunderstanding and exaggeration. But Geismar only writes, this was James's most vicious book at its core, as the 'rootless returner' shall we say?--the orphan-exile from early childhood, the journalist-news paperman-artist, now kicked out, in his own fantasles, from the European castle of culture, still clung to all its familiar furnishing while everywhere. In the American scene revisted, he found only the evidence to confirm his half-discredited but still rigidly embedded dream of foreign culture, his early and nightmarish revulsion from his own society.
This is hardly the point. Geismar is right to argue that the book is no great social document (it has been called that).
The real merit of The American Scene is neither observation nor prophecy, but the sheer experience of James's sensitivity. Reading the book is like wading into a great pool of consciousness.
The American Scene
Such experience can have rare dramatic force for those who take the trouble to understand it. For example, when James visits Ellis Island, he charms us with his personal touch ("Let not the unwary, therefore, visit "Ellis Island") and at the same time makes us aware both of our own situation as Americans and of the irony in James's own special half-alien situation. Geismar pays no attention to this aspect of the book.
On the other hand, the Jamesian experience sometimes becomes too artificial, too obviously fudged to be convincing. James's "experience" in The American Scene often seems little more than a deliberate rehearsal of performing sensibilities. Yet Geismar would have more effectively re-evaluated James if he had taken a kindlier attitude toward these failings and admitted James's virtues as well. Instead, he awkwardly raises a most bane question for literary critics--in a piece of art to be judged apart from the artist who made it?--and never answers it.
One last quibble--Geismar's style. People who read much James tend disastrously to write like James, subjecting us unnecessarily to numerous syntactical Clearings of Throats, verbal blinkings of eyes, italicized emphasis, and such careful distinctions as capital and lower case letters may afford. Geismar is no exception.
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