from The New Criterion, April 2013
The American Scene, that itinerary of his brilliantly melancholy return to America, took Henry James through New York and New England, down into the cities of the Eastern Seaboard, and as far as Palm Beach. He left the journey where in a sense it left him:
There was no doubt, under the influence of this last look, that Florida still had, in her ingenuous, not at all insidious way, the secret of pleasing, and that even round about me the vagueness was still an appeal. The vagueness was warm, the vagueness was bright, the vagueness was sweet, being scented and flowered and fruited; above all, the vagueness was somehow consciously and confessedly weak. I made out in it something of the look of the charming shy face that desires to communicate and that yet has just too little expression.
In his fiction, James was the master of such characterization, captured almost in the act of becoming present and vivid to his own imagination, "vague" because the impressions from which character might be "built up" had not coalesced, or solidified, or congealed. (That the character is here the state of Florida suggests how far toward fiction James's journey had taken him.) The passage is a reminder that James's style itself depends on a beguiling, willful vagueness, one extraordinary in how much it reveals while seeming to wind candy floss around a paper core.
There, a sentence or two later, The American Scene ended, at least in its American edition, published in 1907. The British edition pressed on for a few pages, where James ruminated, thoughtfully, lugubriously, over what he had discovered. He had seen an immense swath of country, or as much as the Pullman cars could show him through the "great square of plate-glass." However much the train's "great monotonous rumble" seemed to boast, "See what I'm making of all this—see what I'm making, what I'm making!" James could answer only, "I see what you are not making, oh, what you are ever so vividly not." The America he saw was a solitude ravaged:
You touch the great lonely land—as one feels it still to be—only to plant upon it some ugliness about which, never dreaming of the grace of apology or contrition, you then proceed to brag with a cynicism all your own.
Tocqueville was no more eloquent in his admiration or despair.
James's journey did not end with the book—after his return north, he pressed westward, to Chicago, to Los Angeles and San Francisco and Seattle, then back east through St. Paul. The American Scene was meant merely as an introduction. Though it had been his intention to offer a sequel on his western visit, seeing the vast continent he had previously only imagined, events overtook him. The San Francisco earthquake in April 1906, less than a year after James sailed back to England, disturbed him so much that he ended his American reveries. As his nephew Harry later recalled, "He felt it as an event so stupendous and sensational that it must throw what he had to say into the shade."
It was perhaps this sense of incompletion, this invocation of the artistic idea conceived, toyed with, and reluctantly abandoned, that drew Donald Justice to that western journey. James's impressions survive only in stray letters and a few pages in a notebook, but from their incomplete matter and their troubled grandeur Justice wrote a sonnet as sad and knowing as any in American literature.
Henry James by the Pacific
In a hotel room by the sea, the Master
Sits brooding on the continent he has crossed.
Not that he foresees immediate disaster,
Only a sort of freshness being lost—
Or should he go on calling it Innocence?
The sad-faced monsters of the plains are gone;
Wall Street controls the wilderness. There's an immense
Novel in all this waiting to be done,
But not, not—sadly enough—by him. His talents,
Such as they may be, want an older theme,
One rather more civilized than this, on balance.
For him now always the consoling dream
Is just the mild dear light of Lamb House falling
Beautifully down the pages of his calling.
The sonnet was collected (as "Epilogue: Coronado Beach, California") with three brief preambles under the title "American Scenes (1904-1905)." Here the poet drew from James's journey for portraits, each just two quatrains, of Cambridge houses, a railroad junction south of Richmond, and an old cemetery in Charleston. That is how the poem appears in his Collected Poems, though Justice had originally published the sonnet separately and later published it alone once more, under the title above.
The poem begins almost whimsically, with a sidelong allusion to Poe, whose "kingdom by the sea" has been reduced to a modem hotel room, the sort to which James resorted after those deprivations and inconveniences that were a tax on his patience through much of his travels. (He called the hotel a "synonym for civilization.") The pathos-heavy verses of "Annabel Lee," its lovers parted by death, read now like a popular song composed for the fashionable morbidity of the 1840s (the poem was indeed later adapted in that vein). The constriction and the absurdity of the hotel room—its rented comforts, its transient occupation—seem the wrong casement for that Jamesian brooding from which his rare, rarefied art so often hatched. In a hotel, he was no better than any other tourist. (The first provocation in the poem is the title—who would imagine James, that denizen of the parlor, that habitué of New York and London, having anything to do with the Pacific?)
James loved Southern California: "The days have been mostly here of heavenly beauty, and the flowers, the wild flowers just now in particular, ... fairly rage, with radiance:' We would think ill of the novelist had he known nothing of nature; we should not think ill because he was no camper, no lover of the discomforts a hotel's comfort might make bearable. Here at the start, Justice has made a small protest against Thoreau, against the Romanticism that would never truck with hotels—the contemplations of art do not require for their setting the "Rocks, caves, lakes, fens, bogs, dens, and shades of death" of Paradise Lost. The sublime may be purchased on hire, in other words, and at a remove.
That lost freshness is the freshness of the whole country, a century or more after the end of the Revolution. The American experiment always seemed tenuous, perhaps more so to those who had long lived abroad. (Who within the country has ever seen it plain?) There were disasters immediately ahead—the San Francisco quake, the Panic of 1907—but none worse than the disasters behind. Still, every freshness is ground down by history; and James's great theme is the loss of innocence, dramatized most brutally where the innocent meets a Europe wiser and more cunning and fatal. (The distinction is not subtle—freshness is lost gradually, minute-by-minute, but innocence is lost once forever.) The reader cannot ignore that, for the aging novelist now in the shadows of his career, the freshness lost is personal as well. The Age of Innocence, by James's friend Edith Wharton, would not be published until after his death—but it was set in that Gilded Age James knew well.
Sailing to America after an absence of more than twenty years, the novelist sought signs of the life he had abandoned. (He had intended to call his book The Return of the Native.) Perhaps the saddest story of his late career is "The Jolly Corner" (1908) in which an expatriate returns to New York after an even longer lingering abroad, returns repeatedly to his large, old-fashioned house, now closed up, where he is haunted by a figure glimpsed briefly, flittingly, at the end of a vista of rooms or in the shadows, a figure with the face of a stranger and a mutilated hand. Only at the end of the story does the exile realize that this compound ghost is the self he would have become, had he remained. The fiction possesses a rueful substrate for an author long dispossessed. James visited the family home in Boston, the house on Ashburton Place where he had lived during the Civil War, and was so moved that weeks later he came once more, only to find the building razed and the ground naked and bare, "as if the bottom had fallen out of one's own biography."
No wonder James often found solace in his rented rooms. He wrote from a club in Chicago, just before the push west,
I am already ... rather spent and weary, weary of motion and chatter, and oh, of such an unimagined dreariness of ugliness (on many, on most sides!) and of the perpetual effort of trying to "do justice" to what one doesn't like. If one could only damn it and have done with it! ... This Chicago is huge, infinite ... ; black, smoky, old-looking .... Yet this club (which looks old and sober too!) is an abode of peace, a benediction to me in the looming largeness; I live here, and they put one up ... with one's so excellent room with perfect bathroom and w.c.
If even Paradise benefits from a Paradise to escape to, how much more important that hell should. (The charming rumbling and rambling of James's letters might remind us that his brother, William James, coined the phrase "stream of consciousness.")
It may not be surprising that James felt this loss of freshness just where freshness achieved so much amid so little, in that California spring where a man could dine like an Adam ("I live on oranges and olives," James remarked in delight, "fresh from the tree"). That is the Eden for which this Adam had perhaps unknowingly been searching; and yet it casts further into darkness all that he has seen and disliked in the hideously altered cities along the way. Paradise may be regained, but never innocence.
The second quatrain of the sonnet suggests what might be made of those American losses—the exile is always seeking to turn into gold his portion of straw. In view of that alluring emptiness of the Pacific, James, the poet's James, contemplates the inner vacancy of the country he has just crossed. Arriving in Los Angeles after a tedious journey on the Southern Pacific, the real James reported that he had "reached this racketing spot ... many hours late, & after an ordeal, of alkali deserts & sleep-defying 'sleepers' drawn out almost to madness." From all that muddled, middling emptiness, something, perhaps.
The "sad-faced monsters" had been slaughtered nearly to extinction by hide- and tongue-hunters (pickled buffalo tongue was once a delicacy). Much of that Jamesian sense of a future foreclosed falls into the simple, discomfiting sentence, "Wall Street controls the wilderness." This was the end Frederick Jackson Turner had foreseen, or worse than the end. The possibility of infinite American expansion, one that contemplated the eventual annexation of Mexico and Canada, with further annexations abroad, was no longer possible. The escape within, the movement ever west, had died with the closing of the frontier. Wall Street owned the wilderness because Congress had deeded it away. To build a railroad across that vast country known as the Great American Desert, transcontinental railroad companies had been given generous land grants along the track-land greater in area than the state of Texas. The very comforts James enjoyed in his posh Pullman car were purchased from those destroying the wilderness.
The great novels of the Master (as his disciples called him, perhaps not always without teasing) were now behind him—The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903), The Golden Bowl (1904), and more distantly The Portrait of a Lady (1881). Only recently behind him, the greater of them, but behind him nonetheless. Ahead lay the tedious gathering and finicky rewriting of the New York edition, with its extraordinary introductions; but his triumphs would now be rare, dominated by mishaps and failed projects. Apart from the New York introductions and half-a-dozen mostly mediocre stories, his finished work would be reduced to his refined memoirs of childhood and the end of youth. It was perhaps James's fear of what lay ahead at sixty-one that drew Justice at sixty to contemplate the artistic crisis every artist may eventually face.
There might have been a Jamesian novel of the West, a novel that encapsulated the American character—its industry, its careless ambition and go-ahead nature, its heedless desire for profit. It would have been unlike any novel the Master had written. He had often set the American character in the frame of Europe, where in mutual incomprehension the American sometimes lost more than innocence. ("Innocence," with its brute capital letter, is where the poem leaves the freshness offered by youth—the novelist aging as well as his country—and enters the realm of Adam's innocence and the loss of Paradise.) There seems no evidence in his letters or journals that James ever contemplated such a novel, but Justice uses the idea to broach the real subject, the artist's recognition of his own limits, and of his eventual extinction. Justice, who never wrote a poem of major length, and except once or twice never a love poem, filled his late work with gestures of valediction, often in poems of quiet refusal.
It is a terrible moment, when a man realizes that he no longer possesses a reflexive understanding of his own country. On his belated return to America, James found once familiar cities he hardly recognized (as well as a few, like Philadelphia, that came as a relief). "The Jolly Corner" suggests that to have stayed would have been an invitation to tragedy, but of course James could not know what novels he might have written, what triumphs he might have endured, had he not moved to England.
The terms in which Justice casts that knowledge are those of talent. The word, in its modern sense, derives from the parable in Matthew 25:14-30, where before a long journey a man divides his money among three servants. On his return, when asked how they employed their "talents," the first two servants boast that they had doubled his money by using it for trade. (It would be profitable to know what sharp practice or Yankee cuteness the servants employed.) The talent was no mean amount of money, by rough estimate equivalent to a quarter million dollars, or even perhaps twice that. The last and lowest servant confesses that, fearing his master's wrath, he had buried his single talent. The master retrieves the talent and has him cast out "into outer darkness." The parable, of course, looks toward those gifts granted by God—what we now call talent. If we do not use God's gifts, the burden of the parable implies, we shall be cast out as well.
One of the stray amusements of Justice's sonnet is the poet's care with words—the rhyme between talents and balance that calls up the moneychanger's balance, the alliteration tying Wall Street grotesquely to wilderness, the brute conjunction of Master and disaster (used to very different effect in Elizabeth Bishop's villanelle "One Art"). From the moneychanger's balance we have acquired our sense of an account in balance. When Milton wrote, "To serve therewith my Maker, and present / My true account" in the sonnet "When I consider how my light is spent," the word refers both to financial accounting and to the account rendered to God at the Day of Judgment—it may also be the tale the poet feels impelled to write. Such small pleasures, such small recognitions of pleasure, are those any good poet scatters by the way. Though they may be bound to meaning, they are not necessary to it; yet they come with such frequency in Justice's poem that a reader may be tempted to look deeper, to find perhaps in those vanished sad-faced monsters a reminder of the vastation James's father faced in midlife, a year after his son's birth—or of those devastations, those terrible epiphanies, James himself forced upon his major characters.
Perhaps, at the outer edge of affection and allusion, "Innocence" possesses hidden ties to "immense," partly because "Innocence" has been conditioned by the previous "lost," which sits menacingly above it at line end (like the warning Dante saw over the gates of Hell), and "immense" is dramatically enjambed with "Novel"—the play between these collusions is intricate, and not just because James was often drawn in his novels, immensely, to the theme of lost innocence. Though I resist critics who find meaning in the physical—often accidental—placement of words, had I written the poem I would not have been displeased by accident. In his sonnet, Milton too uses the parable of the talents. The line "And that one talent which is death to hide" swings Janus-like between Matthew and our modern usage, which predates Milton by two centuries. Milton's crisis is his blindness—how can he continue to write afterward? If a man fails to use God's gift, will he be cast, in this case, from an inner darkness to an outer one? What lay before the poet was the epic of lost innocence, Paradise Lost, the work (really the long novel of a different day) that looms in the background of this closing of the frontier.
The minor pleasures extend to meter—Justice's pentameter is canny enough to absorb the juddering of the third line, where the poet has probably invoked the rare privilege of an initial anapest: "Not that HE foreSEES." (Otherwise the line would be trochaic pentameter—or even hexameter.) The tenth line is similarly difficult, and would require an odd emphasis ("SUCH as THEY MAY be"—trochee-spondee—when the phrasing seems to ask for "SUCH as THEY may BE"). That stress on "may" introduces a fine hesitation to James's thinking that, given his manner, might be perfect here. The anapests scattered through the poem are otherwise naturally inserted, so never assertive; and, because of the sharp caesura, the reader might not notice that the seventh line is probably an alexandrine.
The sonnet is a form with certain debts that must be recognized and paid. Justice was a poet who rarely worked in form without testing it a little—he trusted that a good artist could get away with things a bad one cannot. It is by such pressure on convention, by such slight fractures of the expected, that a reader is made sensitive to the artist's finesse—the finesse evident, for example, in the mimicry of the final line, where the initial trochee allows a fall brought up short, amusingly, by the word "down" (the fall begins with "falling" in the previous line). A reversed first foot is the most common variation in iambic pentameter; but it's unusual to find in meter the echoes of meaning, or at least ones the least interesting.
A man who knew nothing but civilization might have found a novel on the wilderness, or what wilderness yet remained, a bad idea. Twain perhaps reached a similar impasse when he came to write the sequel to Huckleberry Finn. On the Mississippi, he was in his medium—the world where he had grown up, the river he had traveled as a cub pilot during the great days of the steamboat. The sequel was titled Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer among the Indians, and after some fifty pages Twain abandoned it. It's one thing to imagine a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court—such a novel can dine on secondhand medievalism—but the American wilderness was to Twain both too close and too far away. He was out of his element, and he knew it.
The sonnet ends with a dying fall, a couplet using feminine rhymes. Falling/calling echoes the feminine rhymes of Master/disaster and talents/balance—among the most galvanizing rhymes in the poem. The consoling dream for James can no longer be of the elsewhere, of America unseen or America abandoned—both are now lost to him, and he is driven back to his beloved house in Rye, Lamb House, where he had written the three extraordinary novels of the early century. The consoling dream may be a retreat, as the poet must have realized—in its first printing, the line read "recurring," which feels darker, more burdened, a haunting. Justice meant the dream to be comforting, no doubt, for a James so far from home. "Consoling" secures the better reading.
The return to Lamb House feels like a defeat, however, a defeat only partially rescued by that falling light—falling handsomely, but still falling. "Fall" is a charged word after so much talk of innocence. Adam and Eve were ejected from their kingdom—but in a sense James has withdrawn to his own paradise, there to live out his days like Prospero in retirement. The word that ends the poem, however, is "calling." Milton quarreled with himself about how to use those God-given talents; he found his answer, not in Matthew 25, but in the parable of the vineyard in Matthew 20:1-16, where men hired in the morning complain when those hired later in the day are paid the same amount. "God doth not need / Either man's work or His own gifts." Milton is informed by Patience, one of the Christian virtues. "They also serve who only stand and wait." (James knew patience as a devil—he remarks in his brief notes on California, "I can only invoke my familiar demon of patience, who always comes, doesn't he?, when I call.") Milton must wait, in other words, for the call. We still use that word, in the sense of artistic calling, though we know it better by its Latin equivalent, vocation.
At the end of the poem, James is called back to his calling, to those words he puts down so masterfully—and the reader should not ignore the quiet, almost religious gesture, neither to be mocked nor really to be believed, of the English light falling onto the page (an illuminated manuscript!) like the light of the Annunciation. In this ending, the artist has been summoned to his gifts once more, called by whatever figure we wish to name (God, the Muse, one's private demon of artistic necessity). It is perhaps a sly touch that those late novels had been composed by what might also be called a calling—beginning in 1897, at least at Lamb House, a secretary typed out James's sentences as he dictated them.
A reader of more religious temperament might discover in the name Lamb House a hint of passivity and sacrifice. Indeed, James could be seen, if not a lamb led to ritual slaughter, then as the passive recipient of those gifts—but the retreat to Rye does suggest that no longer will James take on a major challenge in the novel. (Indeed, he never finished another.) He will merely go over his life in his autobiographies and his art in the New York edition, waiting for the end. The name makes an accidental but severe contrast to those monsters of the plains, shot down in their thousands and tens of thousands for that most American of religions, commerce. Though that calling back was in some ways a failure for James, it was not for Justice, whose late poems were among his most gorgeous and most darkly revealing.
Justice drew heavily from The American Scene for the sets of paired quatrains that preceded the sonnet in "American Scenes (1904-1905)." In "Cambridge in Winter," for example:
Immense pale houses! Sunshine just now
Light up and pauperize the whole brave
Each fanlight, each veranda, each good address,
All a mere paint and pasteboard paltriness!
These winter sunsets are the one fine thing:
Blood on the snow, some last impassioned fling,
The wild frankness and sadness of surrender—
As if our cities ever could be tender!
The original lines in the notebook read:
The snow, the sunshine, light up and pauperize all the wooden surfaces, all the mere paint and pasteboard paltriness. The one fine thing are the winter sunsets, the blood on the snow, the pink crystal of the west, the wild frankness, wild sadness (?)—so to speak—of the surrender.
You must cast an eye upward from these lines for the phrases condensed and formed into the initial exclamation: "the immense rise in the type and scope and scale of the American house, as it more and more multiplies." The poet has adjusted the syntax, tightened the prose here and particularized it there (to striking effect in the third line), and allowed the rhymes suggested in James to drive to the surface some of the themes he chose to leave buried. The scene of the houses is so resplendent that the reader who fails to give due weight to "pauperize" and "paltriness" may not realize how much James detested new American architecture.
Justice had less material for the California scene—or, more likely, he conceived of the sonnet differently, as a portrait of James, not an invocation of the Master's observations of the here or there. The only debt the sonnet owes lies in the penultimate line—James had remarked in his notebook, "These things are all packed away, ... till I shall let in upon them the mild still light of dear old L[ amb] H[ ouse]."
The sonnet may have a more obscure source, however—"On First Looking into Chapman's Homer." The poems each concern discovery of a land often rumored but never visited. Lack of ancient Greek kept Keats beyond the borders of Homer's domain, as no doubt sheer discomfort had for James when thinking of California—the transcontinental railroad was not completed until he was in his mid-twenties, and offered only miserable comfort for years thereafter. Balboa (I shall correct Keats's error) reached the shores of the Pacific after a slog through jungle and swamp, a journey of some twenty-five days. James could have traveled from Chicago to Los Angeles—two thousand miles or better—in less than three, though delays made him late. If he was swaddled in the absurd comforts of a Pullman car, he would have been provided with a chef and a stock of good wines (he mentions in a letter from Chicago that he believes the train to have "barber's shops, bathrooms, stenographers and typists"). According to William Robertson in The History of America (1777), when Balboa reached the Pacific with his cohort of men, he
advanced alone to the summit, that he might be the first who should enjoy a spectacle which he had so long desired. As soon as he beheld the South Sea stretching in endless prospect below him, he fell on his knees, and lifting up his hands to heaven, returned thanks to God .... His followers, observing his transports of joy, rushed forward to join in his wonder, exultation, and gratitude.
This was the version Keats knew—he too wrote from books. Balboa stood alone, looking out at his discovery, knowing that history had changed. Beyond the horizon lay other lands to conquer and the great trading entrepôts of Asia. He had found the realms of gold.
Keats too was changed. Having been introduced one night to Chapman's translation of Homer, he wrote his sonnet rapidly and fluently the next morning—it was the first poem of genius he produced. Having come the immense distance, James—the James whom Justice partially invents—takes stock of himself, looking back over the country so rapidly compassed. It is a retrospective of a life unlived—he sees the great themes a novelist might gather in force, the life of the country to which he had been born. He knows he must abandon them, as he had abandoned the country itself twenty-odd years before. For James, that country, his own country, must remain unwritten. He would turn homeward, having found at the far reaches of the New World, not possibilities opened, but possibilities finally and forever closed.
Each poet has used a great literary figure as the medium of self-discovery—these are poems in part about the rewards of reading. Keats casts his discovery in terms of conquest. Having written the sonnet, he embarked upon his brief, radiant career. For Justice, his career nearing its end, the question is whether age makes the artist impotent. If the later sonnet is a peculiar inversion of "Chapman's Homer," each is also a performative act whose writing resolves an artistic crisis. Keats felt denied the greatest poet of the Western world by his ignorance of ancient Greek. Chapman's translation opened the borders, and the poet responded by showing what his gifts could accomplish. Justice considered whether the aging artist could continue to write, whether age makes the artist impotent—the beauty of the sonnet proves the anxiety premature. In "When I consider," Milton also found the answer to a question—whether, though blind, he could still employ his magnificent gifts.
I once asked Donald Justice whether he had recognized the odd, subterranean links between "Chapman's Homer" and "Henry James by the Pacific." He seemed surprised, then gratified. After thinking for a moment, he said, "Not at all."
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