The American novelist and critic who defined literary realism in the Victorian era passes away a century ago today in Chelsea, London. He is seventy-two years old and controversial in his natal land for becoming a British citizen as an act of protest against the United States’ policy of neutrality. Known for writing long sentences filled with adjectival description featuring every kind of lived experience, James’s lifetime opus is an American reaction to Europe criticized for superficiality and long-windedness. His death in the midst of the great slaughter is notable because of a theme that develops in the year 1916, a historical shared moment that has sparked dissident and dissonant reactions ever since.
A victim of recent health crises — long overweight, suffering heart trouble, a stroke at the start of December, pneumonia in the days thereafter, all of which left him weak and dictating to his secretary Theodora Bosanquet on a typewriter during his lucid moments — James died bedridden and aghast at the self-destruction of a European order marked by peace and progress. His lifelong ambition to write the Great American Novel, a term which he joking referred to by its acronym as GAN, is an example of his reaction to the modern project in collapse, and civilization along with it, for the widespread use of first letters of words in short sequence to describe the mechanized, industrialized, commodified world of civilization and cultural self-slaughter is an example of the effect that war is having on language itself. Henry James does not fear death, for he has gazed into the abyss and heard it howl.
He is unimpressed with the new generation of voices, deeming them mere journalists. The world he lived to describe in such painstaking detail is gone, and so is its literature. Modernism is left to describe the experience of the butchery, and James closes his eyes at the last while understanding that the GAN will never be written. In despair of the future, he probably knows about the German mission-order disaster producing an historic abattoir at Verdun, which offensive shall continue to bleed hard until the end of this special year; despite a formal announcement of victory today in the German Kameruns of Africa, occasioned by the surrender of the Mora garrison, much of the marvelous allied strategy has gone terribly wrong, and conscription is replacing volunteerism; the unexpected enlargement of the conflict zone into the Middle East has brought ancient animosities to bear against one another, spread ethnic and national violence, and stretched empires thin; the Balkans are a total loss, dissolving in acts of vengeance and ethnic cleansing just like in Armenia. Although he has largely failed as a playwright, James has observed the Götterdämmerung — the grand opera of annihilation — but cannot stay for the end of the 20th Century’s opening act.
Fittingly for a man who inspires the stream-of-consciousness genre, among James’s last lucid prose is a satirical letter from Napoleon Bonaparte to his sister. The first grand European war of mass fire was a different affair, without high explosives belching from cannons, or the mess of machine guns and wire and putrefying stalemate, or infantry weapons that can be aimed accurately past 150 meters or so; it was sequeled by the American Civil war, which James was born to see but unable to participate in, having injured his back early in the conflict while fighting a fire; Napoleon is therefore the bookend of the age James has given his life to describe. Most of these ‘Napoleon letters’ were destroyed as embarrassments by a friend and only a fragment remains, which is a pity. James has been a devotee of the idea of France and a passionate defender of its republican virtues. His final effort is a baroque parody of a war conducted according to detailed planning at headquarters that are far removed from the scenes of chaos and carnage they instigate.
Dear and most esteemed brother and sister,
I call your attention to the precious enclosed transcripts of plans and designs for the decoration of certain apartments of the palaces, here, of the Louvre and the Tuileries, which you will find addressed in detail to artists and workmen who are to take them in hand. I commit them to your earnest care till the questions relating to this important work are fully settled. When that is the case I shall require of you further zeal and further taste. For the present the course is definitely marked out, and I beg you to let me know from stage to stage definitely how the scheme promises, and what results it may be held to inspire. It is, you will see, of a great scope, a majesty unsurpassed by any work of the kind yet undertaken in France. Please understand I regard these plans as fully developed and as having had my last consideration and look forward to no patchings nor perversions, and with no question of modifications either economic or aesthetic. This will be the case with all further projects of your affectionate NAPOLEONE
James names the war “the Great Interruption,” “a huge unspeakability,” and a “Grand Niagara” at which the great century of civilization ends, with history flowing into the roar of cataclysm at the end of the European century on its way to an unknown sea. Yet he has been unable to reject the war, even to the end, for the line of civilization must hold. Indeed, he sees America as the essential nation for victory, and strives to convince his readers back home to support the politics of military preparation at every turn. Novels such as The American and The Portrait of a Lady feature characters meeting Europe and falling in sometimes-awkward love with it.
Defying his age and health, James made his decision to become British after giving his own best contribution to the war effort by lending his name and words to the American Volunteer Motor Ambulance Corps, one of many examples of Americans already participating in the Great War. In an interview with Preston Lockwood for the New York Times magazine Current History published last April, when James perhaps felt his health slipping, James gave characteristically laborious answers before ending with an appeal for Americans to send money for the material support of expatriates driving their private cars as ambulances to evacuate wounded men and refugees in France.
The war has used up words; they have weakened, they have deteriorated like motor car tires; they have, like millions of other things, been more overstrained and knocked about and voided of the happy semblance during the last six months than in all the long ages before, and we are now confronted with a depreciation of all our terms, or, otherwise speaking, with a loss of expression through increase of limpness, that may well make us wonder what ghosts will be left to walk.
James does not worry that words are dying, but rather despairs at their changing meanings and declining values. As armies adapt to the immensity of daily attrition, for instance, the war is revolutionizing medical journals, further infusing medical jargon into the popular vocabulary and expanding the English tongue with arcane practicality instead of beauty. New experiments are changing the literary world forever. James spent his career avoiding the censorious limits of his era regarding sex, while the new wave of writers chafes at those linguistic shackles.
Perhaps feeling his health slip, James turned to his teatime friend Prime Minister H.H. Asquith for help becoming a British citizen last year, causing some in America to damn him for lack of patriotism. But this is a superficial reading of his final literary performance. “It would really have been so easy for the U. S. to have ‘kept’ (if they had cared to!) yours all faithfully, Henry James,” he told his friend and fellow American expatriate John Singer Sargent, the great portrait painter living in London. Even before the war ends, Sargent too is being dismissed as a fossil remnant of the antebellum artistic order.