It has long been self-evident that Henry James was thoroughly apolitical in any practical sense of the term. He did not involve himself in public affairs as such and hardly took more than passing notice of the Civil War, even though his two younger brothers, Wilkinson and Robertson James, served with distinguished records in the Union Army. Roughly a half century later, as if in mitigation of his previous indifference, Henry suffered most bitterly the effects of the First World War. He was active in Belgian Relief services and in other phases of the Allied Cause. In the year of his last illness, 1915, after some 40 years in England, he became a British subject.
Europe itself had long since become the locus not only of James’s consciousness, as realized in the remarkable art of his fiction, but also as formed in his finely tuned conscience as well. And yet, for James, the war was not so much a political as a socially calamitous event. But in the anguish of this event, he sought no political answers as far as the uncertain future was concerned. He never felt compelled to ask the necessary questions of his age; and though a man of no political party (Tory, of course, would have been the most appropriate party label), he was nevertheless a man who, more than anything else, espoused a classic stability of the social order.
In this cultural sense, Henry James was one of the most formidable conservatives of the age. He was, in the waning of one century, the prototypical social conservative and possibly the last of such before the general breakdown, at the beginning of the new century, would manifest itself in the seeming chaos of postwar arts and letters. As a writer whose primary gift was a prodigious amassing of wellordered words, James’s genius projected itself into a mere decade and a half of the new century in such a way as to force us to think of him as a modern novelist.
A sense of human complexity and the superlative style of his middle period were the means by which James would achieve this level of our awareness, especially insofar as a great style always contributes to preserving the integrity of social communication. At his best, he was never merely experimental for its own sake or given to an obsession with special or sometimes bizarre effects. The dominant quality clearly recognized in James by the late Flannery O’Connor was, in sum, his overriding “devotion to form”; and in this regard he was duly acknowledged as the Master by the best—or at least by the most nearly approachable—of his peers.
Still, with all this to the good, there remains an unsatisfied yearning to discover in what other ways James was—or was not—the complete conservative. In short, what was the nature of his conservatism? It seems unlikely that such a highly organized and complex English style, as James certainly had, could have evolved from solely reductive principles. If James had a passion for anything, it was—in his later years especially—for (1) a contrapuntal construct of language and (2) an almost salvific need for manners as a guarantee of privacy against the encroachments of an increasingly restive world. But, as Marion Montgomery points out in his excellent study Why Hawthorne Was Melancholy (Sherwood Sugden, 1984), “One does not find James concerned with the mystery upon which Miss O’Connor found manners to depend.” This is nothing less than that sacred mystery from which all modes of human behavior, whether as gestures of the moral impulse or as given maxims of conduct, are ultimately derived.
The point of inquiry, quite bluntly, is whether Henry James had an essentially religious nature; and if so, did it to any appreciable extent influence his writings? To what extent, moreover, did James manage to shed the Swedenborgian influences of Henry James Sr.? In fact, there are all kinds of critical testimonies which would deny him any religious orientation. P.O. Mathiessen contrasted James with Hawthorne, whose “general vision of evil came to him directly from theological tradition.” James, on the other hand, was very early on liberated from orthodoxy by his father’s insistence on educating his elder sons to “have their ethics cleared from any restrictions of dogma.”
Whatever his sympathies, James would never subscribe to a creed. It was T.S. Eliot who said, in one of those utterances which seem to suggest more than they actually say, that James “had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.” This is not conservatism, however. It is angelism. It is Emersonian, and James himself knew better than to subscribe to any such notion. For instance, of the three great Concord worthies—Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne—it was, of course, with Hawthorne that James, creatively speaking, had formed a striking and abiding affinity. He acquired from Hawthorne a highly developed moral sense, but still recognized no authoritative source from which it derived—other than that which had to do with good taste and especially with a sense of decency as the inviolate tenet of acceptable human behavior.
Yvor Winters dared to carry the implications of this premise a little further by claiming that James’s moral consciousness was “the product of generations of discipline in the ethical systems of the Roman Catholic and Anglo-Catholic Churches, a product which subsisted as a traditional way of feeling and of acting after the ideas which formed it . . . had ceased to be understood or, as ideals, valued.” One could almost say the same, in our own time, for that supreme novelist of manners, Evelyn Waugh—though, in his case, the Church, even when perceived to be withering away, was nevertheless valued precisely because of its ideas.
One of the most remarkable statements in contemporary appraisals of Henry James comes from a rather unlikely source—that is, from the Manichaean sensibility of the novelist Graham Greene. Greene wrote four refreshingly keen appreciations of James. One essay was written to refute the notion that the religious sense is singularly absent in James’s works. Greene cites letters, travel writings, the novels and shorter fictions as rich in allusions to the curious, if tenuous, hold that Catholic Christianity had on Henry James.
Even this much, however, must not be taken as an aesthetic attraction merely, the comforts of which James could just as readily have found in similar, and perhaps even more refined, manifestations within the Algonquin community. What he sought instead were those certainties of Catholic definition on Hell, Purgatory, supernatural evil, and prayers for the dead, etc., which might more properly inform an art and life sourced largely by now in the ethos of European culture itself. However, as Greene prudently concludes, “It would be wrong to leave the impression that James’s religious sense ever brought him nearer than hailing distance to an organized system.” James was a novelist and did not have it in him to become a flawed religionist in the bargain. Although in this sense he was a kind of deracinated conservative, Henry James paid his dues to society and to art—to the latter very much in full, of course, and to our everlasting enjoyment. But there remains, in any retrospective reading of the great last novels, a pervasive sense of sadness. It is like the sadness of a waltz that is danced in slow-motion time, to a music almost unheard, and at the end of which the dancers themselves fade into the darkness.
“The truth is God’s,” says the ancient lady in The Aspern Papers, “it isn’t man’s; we had better leave it alone. Who can judge it—who can say?” (echoing Montaigne’s eternal ‘Que sais-Je?’). Perhaps this was as far as Henry James dared to go. He could not quite strike roots into that abiding source which continues to animate, however diminishingly. Western civilization. As for his Pilate-like sense of the truth, the saddest prospect of all was that James never fully realized that it may indeed be given to large portions of humanity to know at least something of the truth, and to know that it can be ours. In this regard, too, it is almost heartbreaking to read James’s superb letter to Grace Norton on the question of human suffering: “Sorrow comes in great waves,” he concludes, “It wears us, uses us, but we wear it and use it in return; and it is blind, whereas we after a manner see.” With these biblical intonations of the natural law, James’s letter remains a thoroughly Christian statement; but the pity of it is that he would also perceive in his comforting advice to Grace Norton the more demanding “voice of stoicism,” as he called it—anything, it seems, than have to admit the Christian connotation.
We have only to hope of James, therefore, as the translator Donald M. Frame has said of Montaigne’s early “stoicism,” that it was more an admiration than a conviction. Otherwise, the best we can hope for beyond a self-serving form of the conservative impulse is what Hawthorne had earlier recognized as the fidelity of an unchanging heart. James certainly had that much to his credit. But it would be left to Yvor Winters later to discern all too clearly that one of James’s major defects was that he had attempted “to understand ethical problems in a pure state.” There seems little question of that now.
In the main, it must also be said that James lacked any full—or fulfilling—sense of the human context beyond the periphery of his own privileged experience. This has always been the fatal error of the deracinated conservative. It thus remains one of the more interesting paradoxes of Anglo-American letters that an intelligence as incandescent as Henry James’s, present on almost every page he wrote, could have written indeed so knowingly about the phenomenon of human manners without having seen in this complexity the unifying presence of a sacred mystery. In the end, the only sacred fount he knew was the one ensconced in the private garden of his own art and imagination.