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Winter 2005

An (Unfortunate) Interview
with Henry James

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Cynthia Ozick

The interview took place at Lamb House, Rye, Sussex—rather, its precise duplicate in the Other World. The house, red brick with numerous mullioned windows, fronts the street. One approaches it along the curve of a narrow flagstoned path. Four shallow steps lead up to a white door overhung by a cornice. The modest brass knocker is tapped, and a young man responds. He is Burgess Noakes, James's valet.

James (within): Noakes? Is it our appointed visitor?

Noakes: Yes, sir. It's the American lady from that magazine.

James (coming forward with a certain fussy anxiety): A lady? I was rather expecting a gentleman. Forgive me, dear madam, do come in.—Noakes, the tea things, if you please.—Ah, my most admirable typewriter is just departing. Quite a morning's toil, Miss Bosanquet, was it not? We are getting on, we are getting on!

Miss Theodora Bosanquet, James's typist (writer's cramp has in recent years forced him to dictate), emerges from a room behind, pinning on her hat. She neatly rounds James's bicycle, precariously lodged against an umbrella stand in the central hall. She nods, smiles tiredly, and makes her way out with practiced efficiency.

James (seating himself before a finely tiled fireplace, and motioning for the visitor to join him there)
: I must again beg your pardon. I discover myself increasingly perplexed by the ever-accelerating extrusions of advanced women—

Interviewer (interrupting): You don't like us. You were opinionated enough about all that in The Bostonians.

James (taken aback by this feminist brashness, and glad to have Noakes deflect it with the arrival of a tray holding teacups and a variety of jellied pastries): Thank you, Noakes. The advent of cakes, the temptation to the sweet tooth, how it brings to the fore one's recent torments at the dentist's! One must perforce disclose one's most private crannies to this oral Torquemada—which I take to be the unhappy emblem of an age of interlocutory exposure. The ladies seem to swim in it! Especially the American ladies.

Interviewer: I suppose that's what you were getting at in your portrait of Henrietta Stackpole, the peppy American journalist in The Portrait of a Lady.

: May I say, mutatis mutandis, that she may have been getting at me! In point of fact, dear madam, I have in mind rather my unfortunate engagement with your predecessor, an American lady journalist representing the New York Herald, with whom I sat, as it were, for an interview during my American journey in 1904, my maiden voyage, so to speak, into a venture of this kind. This lady's forwardness, her hagiographical incessancy, was, in fine, redoubtable. She hastened to remark upon how I had so far, and so long, escaped the ministrations of uncanny inquirers such as herself, and undertook to portray my shrinking from her certainties as a species of diffident bewilderment. She declaimed it her right, as a free citizen of my native land, to put to me all manner of intimacies. I warned her, as I now warn you, madam, that one's craft, one's art, is in one's expression, not one's person. After you have heard Adelina Patti sing, why should you care to hear the small private voice of the woman?

Interviewer: I gather that you intend to inhibit my line of questioning.

James: Madam, I do not inhibit. I merely decline to exhibit.

Interviewer: Is that why you've had the habit of burning things? When your ailing sister Alice died, her companion, Katharine Loring, had copies of Alice's diary printed up especially for you and your brother William. You burned your copy.

James: Ah, the mask and armor of her fortitude, poor invalid!—and with such ironic amusement and interest in the presentation of it all. It would not, could not, do. My fraternally intimated morsels of London gossip, for the simple change and relief and diversion of it, came ultimately, and distressingly, to animate her pen. The wit of those lucubrations loomed, may I say, as a vulgar peril. So many names, personalities, hearsays, through me! I hardly wished to be seen as privately depreciating those to whom I was publicly civil.

Interviewer: Yet in 1909 you might have been seen as doing exactly that. You made a bonfire in your garden of the thousands of letters sent you by your devoted correspondents, many of them your distinguished friends. And six years later, you threw still more papers into the fire: it took you a week to get the job done. Will you agree that you've been singularly merciless to your biographers?

James: Put it that the forewarned victim subverts the future's cunning. I have been easier in my mind ever since, and my little conflagrations scarcely appear to have impeded posterity's massive interventions.

Interviewer: Well, true, they haven't stopped us from speculating that you're gay and always have been.

James: Indeed, there has been a frequency of jolly corners...delightful hours with Turgenev in Paris...the soliloquizing intimacy of one's London hearth in winter, or the socially convenient pleasures of the ever so felicitous Reform Club...going in to dinner with a gracious lady on one's arm in some grand country house...all rewardingly gay at times, to be sure; but neither have I been spared sojourns upon the bench of desolation. Despair, I own, dogged me in particular in the year 1895, when at the opening of my play, Guy Domville

Interviewer (breaking in hurriedly): I mean you've loved men.

James: And so I have. To choose but one, my fondness for the dear Jonathan Sturges, that crippled little demon, resonates unchecked for me even now. How I embraced the precious months he came to stay at Lamb House, with his mordant tongue and bright eyes, full of unprejudiced talk and intelligence. Body-blighted Brother Jonathan! Yet he made his way in London in wondrous fashion.

Interviewer: I'm afraid we're not entirely on the same page.

James: The same page? Would that be an Americanism? With all your foreign influx, we shall not know our English tongue for the sacred purity it once resplendently gave out. A young American cousin, on a visit here, persisted in pronouncing "jewel" as "jool," "vowel" as "vowl," and was driven at last to deem my corrections cruel. "'Cru-el,' Rosina, not 'crool,'" I necessarily admonished. The young ladies of Bryn Mawr College, in the vicinity of Philadelphia, when I lectured there in 1905, had similar American afflictions. They would articulate the reticent "r" in words such as motherrrr, fatherrrr, millerrrr—

Interviewer: I admit to that "r" myself. But to come back to your, um, fondness for men. One of your more reckless biographers believes that in the spring of 1865, in your own shuttered bedroom in Cambridge—that's Cambridge, Massachusetts—you had your earliest experience, your initiation première, as you yourself called it in your journal.

James: Ah, the epoch-making weeks of that memorable spring! The bliss of l'initiation première, the divine, the unique! It was in that very March that my first published story appeared in the Atlantic Monthly.

Interviewer: We're definitely not on the same page. He claims that this initiation première of yours was in the arms of the young Oliver Wendell Holmes, Junior, the future Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. He says that you slept with Holmes. Carnally.

James (recoiling, and pressing his fingers to his temples, as if a familiar migraine is coming on): My dear lady—

Interviewer (digging into her tote bag and pulling out a thick biographical volume): And what about Hugh Walpole? No one burned your letters, after all. Here's what you wrote to your "dear, dear Hugh": "See therefore, how we're at one, and believe in the comfort I take in you. It goes very deep—deep, deep, deep: so infinitely do you touch and move me, dear Hugh." Such obvious ardor! What do you say to it?

James: I say I deeply, deeply, infinitely favor the universalization of epistolary arson. The twaddle of mere graciousness had perhaps too often Niagara'd from the extravagances of my inkpot.

Interviewer: And how about your "exquisite relation" with Jocelyn Persse? A good-looking Anglo-Irishman, the nephew of Lady Gregory, thirty when you met him; you were sixty. Now it was "my dear, dear Jocelyn." You went so far as to ask for his photo to moon over. And then there was Hendrik Andersen, that big handsome blond Norwegian sculptor—"I have missed you," you confided, "out of all proportion to the three meagre little days we had together. I hold you close, I feel, my dear boy, my arms around you, I draw you close, I hold you long." So why shouldn't the homoerotic question come up?

James (reddening): Andersen's sculptures, those monstrously huge swollen ugly things. Let us pass over this unseemly subject.

Interviewer: Here in the twenty-first century we pass over nothing, we let it all hang out. You mentioned earlier your despondency over your theatrical failure.

James: Madam, you hurl me from unseemliness to unseemliness! The sacro terrore of it all! My charmingly contemplated eloquences were vigorously upon the boards when out of nervousness I slipped out to sample a neighboring drama—An Ideal Husband, Oscar Wilde's juvenile folly, flailing its silly jocularity. When I returned to the St. James, the last act was just finishing—there were cries of "Author, Author"—and then the hoots and jeers and catcalls of the roughs began—roars—a cage of beasts at some infernal zoo—

Interviewer: You fell into a long depression after that. One of the many in your life, despite brilliant friendships, fame, the richness of travel, Paris, Rome, Florence, Venice, family visits to America-

James: Never say you know the last word about any human heart.

Interviewer: But George Bernard Shaw was in the audience as a reviewer that night, and he praised and championed you. You've had scores of champions and admirers—Edith Wharton, for one.

James: The Firebird! Her motoring habits and intentions, so potent and explicit, bent on catching me up in her irresistible talons, the whirr and wind of those great pinions cold on my foredoomed brow! Oh, one's opulent friends—they cost the eyes out of one's head. Edith, always able and interesting, yet insistent and unpredictable. Her powers of devastation were ineffable.

Interviewer: She came with her car and her chauffeur and took you away from your work. But she also facilitated it. There was that scheme she cooked up, getting your mutual publisher to give you a portion of her best-seller royalties—eight thousand dollars—while pretending they were your earnings. It was arranged so shrewdly that you swallowed it whole. And then she took up a collection for your seventieth birthday—

James: A more reckless and indiscreet undertaking, with no ghost of a preliminary leave asked, no hint of a sounding taken—I am still rubbing my eyes for incredulity. I undertook instant prohibitive action. It was shame heaped on shame, following as it did on the failure of my jubilant yet woebegone New York Edition, for which I had such vain hopes, the hopes, alas, of my vanity—my labors uniformly collected, judiciously introduced by the author and improved upon according to the author's maturer lights. I have been remarkably unwanted and unread.

Interviewer: Not lately. They make films of your stories and novels. They make novels of your life. You're an industry in the graduate schools. But isn't there something of this frustration in "The Next Time," your tragicomical short story about a literary genius who hopes to turn himself into a popular hack so as to sell, to be read?

James (gloomily): With each new striving he can draw out only what lies in him to do—another masterwork doomed to obscurity. Poor fellow, he falls short of falling short!

Interviewer: Which is more or less what happened to you when you were writing Paris letters for the New York Tribune at twenty dollars apiece. It ended with your getting sacked for being too good. Your brother saw it coming—he'd warned you not to lose hold of the pulse of the American public. You were over their heads.

James (with some bitterness): William instructed me, in point of fact, and not for the first time, to pander. I gave it my best, which is to say my worst. It was the poorest I could do, especially for the money! — Madam, is there to be more of this extraordinary discourse?

Interviewer: Well, I did want to ask about the women in your life. Your tubercular young cousin, Minny Temple, for instance, who inspired your heroines Daisy Miller and Isabel Archer and Milly Theale...she pleaded with you to let her join you in Rome, a city she longed to see, hoping the warmer climate would cure her—

James: The sublime, the generous, the always vivid Minny! Yet in the pursuit of my then burgeoning art, I could not possibly have taken on the care of a dying young woman.

Interviewer: And what of your friendship with Constance Fenimore Woolson? A novelist of sensibility herself, who hung on your every word... you stashed her away, you kept your frequent visits to her a great secret from your London circle—

James: I had a dread of being, shall we say, "linked" with Miss Woolson. I feared the public charge of an "attachment." But she was deranged, poor lady. She was not, she was never, wholly sane.

Interviewer: You decided this only after she jumped out of a window in Venice and killed herself. Until then you regarded her, in your own words, as "a deep resource." She put aside her own work for the sake of yours. You exploited her.

James is silent. The fire's flicker darts across the vast bald dome of his Roman head. Then, with a faint groan—he is notably corpulent—he rises from the armchair.

James (calling out): Noakes, will you be good enough to escort our visitor to the door?—Ah, my dear lady, let us bring this fruitless exchange to the termination it has long merited. I observe with regret that you possess the modern manner—you proceed rather in the spirit of an assize, you place me in the dock! You scrutinize without scruples. You pry into the dignified celibacy of a contented bachelorhood. Heartlessly you charge on, seizing upon one's humiliations, one's defeats—Mount Ossa on Mount Pelion! You come, in fine, not to praise Caesar, but to bury him. Put it then, madam, that you and I are not, cannot, shall never be, on the same page!

Noakes (considerately): Mind the Master's bicycle don't strike you in the shins, ma'am. Miss Bosanquet, hers was black and blue, but she's got used to it, and goes round.

The interviewer picks up her tote bag (unbeknownst to James, a tape recorder is hidden in it), and also one of the jellied pastries, and wordlessly departs.

Cynthia Ozick is the author of numerous books, the most recent of which is Heir to the Glimmering World, a novel.

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