Tuesday, February 16, 2016

A Look Into the Life of Henry James, in His Own Unsimple Words

by Dwight Garner

New York Times

February 16, 2016

“I hate American simplicity,” Henry James (1843-1916) said to his niece Peggy, who had the sense to write his comment down. “I glory in the piling up of complications of every sort. If I could pronounce the name James in any different or more elaborate way I should be in favor of doing it.”

James’s most elaborate books were his late novels, “The Wings of the Dove” (1902) and “The Golden Bowl” (1904) among them. He stacked clause upon clause in their sentences, constructing towering and often opaque chains of thought and feeling. These books don’t merely abstain from American simplicity; they poke it in the sternum.

James’s autobiographical books — “A Small Boy and Others” (1913), “Notes of a Son and Brother” (1914) and the uncompleted and posthumously published “The Middle Years” — are among his final works, and they too are prime examples of his radically unsimple late style.

The Library of America has now, on the 100th anniversary of James’s death, gathered together these three books, and added a selection of his other personal writing, to create the most comprehensive and the handsomest one-volume edition of his autobiographical work we have.

This is not easy reading. James’s prose here is so ornate you often feel you are groping in a giant box of wrapping tissue into which no gift has been placed. You hike backward along his snaking sentences, searching for antecedents to distant pronouns, while experiencing vague terrors, as if you should leave a trail of breadcrumbs. How else will you get safely home?


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