Commentary Magazine

Literary Criticism. French Writers. Other European Writers. The Prefaces to the New York Edition, by Henry James

The Critic as Moralist

Literary Criticism. French Writers. Other European Writers. The Prefaces to the New York Edition.
by Henry James.

Edited by Leon Edel and Mark Wilson. Library of America. 1408 pp. $27.50.

At the close of his nation's Civil War, the twenty-two-year-old Henry James entered upon the “delicate task,” as he would later describe it, of mediating between the French writer and the American reader, of interpreting a foreign culture to his own through literary criticism. Of the hundred separate efforts he made in this connection, the bulk appeared as book reviews in the 1870's when he needed the income that journalism could bring him, although it is also true that one of his most remarkable performances, “The Lesson of Balzac,” was first delivered as an address to the Contemporary Club of Philadelphia in 1905, and that his final word on George Sand did not appear until 1914, two years before his death. Ninety-seven of these pieces have now been brought together for the first time in the huge first section—running to 890 pages—a Library of America volume edited by Leon Edel, with the assistance of his University of Hawaii colleague, Mark Wilson. Five pieces on Turgenev, five others on other European writers, and the eighteen prefaces James wrote in his sixties for the New York Edition of his novels and stories fill an additional 430 pages of text.

We can say of James as a critic of French literature what he himself said of Sainte-Beuve, that there was something feminine in his tact, his penetration, his subtlety and pliability, his rapidity of transition, his magical divination, his sympathies and antipathies, his marvelous art of insinuation, of expressing himself by fine touches and of adding touch to touch, and that there was something masculine in his solid sense, constant reason, moderation, copious knowledge, passion for exactitude, and appreciation of general considerations. The richly ambiguous “international” light in which his novels of the 1870's and early 80's were bathed lent another kind of double-sidedness to his critical performances. Thus, when James in late 1875 rented rooms for a year in the rue de Luxembourg (now the rue Cambon) in Paris, the principal literary project he undertook was a novel, wherein a delightfully innocent, warily fresh American, Christopher Newman, becomes involved with a great French family, whose behavior is marked, as James later described it in his New York Edition preface to The American, by “the arrogance and cruelty . . . of which great people have historically been capable.” Some of James's days in his rue de Luxembourg rooms, however, were also given over to writing a piece for Galaxy, a popular American magazine, on the novelists of the recently collapsed Second Empire, in which conflicted feelings of admiration for the French and profound reservations about them were again in evidence.

“If all that is needful to make us like a certain order of things is to see it vividly and picturesquely portrayed,” James wrote, “we should long since have been won over to an aesthetic tendresse for the empire. The empire has had its novelists by the dozen; emulation, competition, and the extraordinary favor which this branch of literature has come to enjoy, have rendered them incomparably skillful and audacious.” For entertainment of a high flavor, he told his American readers, we need only choose at hazard among a “formidable host” that included Octave Feuillet, Ernest Feydeau, Edmond About, Gustave Droz, Erckmann-Chatrian, the younger Dumas, the Swiss-born Victor Cherbuliez, and the brothers Goncourt. The most powerful of all these talented writers, though, as well as the most representative of the realistic, descriptive school deriving from Balzac, was Flaubert. Madame Bovary, said James, was a “masterpiece”; in its pages, realism had said “its last word.”

But he began to register his disapproval of Flaubert and company by cautiously observing that while “others” will continue to think of Madame Bovary as a great performance, to “many people” it “will always be a hard book to read and an impossible one to enjoy. They will complain of the abuse of description, of the want of spontaneity, of the hideousness of the subject, of the dryness, and coldness, and cynicism of the tone.” But not until he turned to the case of the brothers Goncourt did James really speak his mind. While some writers are intensely French, he said, the MM. de Goncourt are essentially Parisian. “Their culture, their imagination, their inspiration, are all Parisian; a culture sensibly limited, but very exquisite of its kind; an imagination in the highest degree ingenious and, as the French say, raffiné—fed upon many dishes.” As novelists, the brothers had decided that they could manifest themselves most completely in work of the most consummately modern type and had consequently gone into realism, of a particularly disagreeable kind. “There is something ineffably odd,” James acidly observed, “in seeing these elegant erudites bring their highly complex and artificial method to bear upon the crudities and maladies of life, and pick out choice morsels of available misery upon their gold pen-points.”

One of their books was Soeur Philomène, the story of a sister of charity in a hospital who falls in love with one of the house surgeons. Unfortunately, the surgeon is soon called on to perform an operation upon a woman of the town whom he has once loved and who has been stabbed by a subsequent lover. When the operation proves fatal to the patient, the surgeon drowns his remorse in absinthe and becomes an incurable drunkard. Finally, in self-loathing, he deliberately infects himself, during a dissection, with some poisonous matter, and dies in horrible tortures. As a piece of writing and visual observation, Soeur Philomène was masterful, in James's opinion. Nevertheless, the novel was the work of dilettantes. The MM. de Goncourt were raffinés who wrote for raffinés. “But they are worth our attention,” said the temporary resident of the rue de Luxembourg in a paragraph that was full of feeling,

because they are highly characteristic of contemporary French culture. They are even more characteristic than some stronger writers; for they are not men of genius; they are the product of the atmosphere that surrounds them; their great talent is in great part the result of sympathy, and contact, and emulation. They represent the analysis of sensation raised to its highest power, and that is apparently the most original thing that the younger French imaginative literature has achieved. But from them as from Gustave Flaubert the attentive reader receives an indefinable impression of perverted ingenuity and wasted power. The sense of the picturesque has somehow killed the spiritual sense; the moral side of the work is dry and thin. I can hardly explain it, but such a book as Soeur Philomène, with all its perfection of manner, gives me an impression of something I can find no other name for than cruelty.


An achievement in art or in letters always grew more interesting, the historically conscious James believed, as soon as we perceived its connections to something outside itself; indeed, as a reviewer he was eventually persuaded that the study of connections was the function of intelligent criticism. (From the New Critics of the 1950's to the deconstructionists of today, professors of literature who don't believe in setting texts in contexts have always loved teaching James, but it is hard to imagine that he himself would have much cared for their kind of attention.) The several volumes of the “remarkable genius who wears in literature the name of Pierri Loti,” which James examined in a Fortnightly Review piece in 1888, offered him a good opportunity to state his beliefs explicitly. It was a comparatively unrewarding exercise for the critic, said James, to judge even books as independent of a school or fashion as Le Mariage de Loti, Mon Frère Yves, and Pêcheur d'Islande all by themselves. Each, to be sure, was an interesting illustration of the author's talent and character. “But they become still more interesting,” James averred, “as we note their coincidences and relations with other works, for then they begin to illustrate other talents and other characters.” As the plot thickened in the critic's mind, as the spectacle expanded, the genius of an individual stood revealed as the “living manifestation . . . of a nation or of a conspicuous group.”

Along with Alphonse Daudet, Guy de Maupassant, and the brothers Goncourt, Loti had carried into the whole business of looking, seeing, hearing, smelling, into all kinds of tactile sensibility, and into analyzing and expressing the results of these acts, a seriousness much greater than that found among any other people. Contemporary literature, James sweepingly declared, contained nothing more beautiful than Loti's evocations in Mon Frère Yves and Pêcheur d'Islande of his windswept and wave-washed Britanny, and his exotic stories of southeast Asia were equally replete with vivid pictures of steamy riverbanks, squalid, fetid crowds and shabby, contorted pagodas, with precious little objects glimmering in the shade of their open fronts. But Loti had spoken best of all, in James's opinion, of “the one thing in the world that, after the human race, has the most intensity and variety of life,” namely, the ocean. With extraordinary felicity, he had conveyed a sense of the awesome power with which all people connected to the sea were forced to contend.


There was an “irresistible illusion” of outward life in Loti. Nevertheless, he and the other novelists who now dominated the literary scene in France had paid so little heed to the deeper, stranger, subtler world of inward life, to the wonderful adventures of the soul, that it could almost be said of them that they had not pictured it at all. If these writers deserved “chastisement for their collective sin against proportion (since sin it shall be held),” James said, his powerfully judgmental choice of words making him sound very American, he did not know “how a more terrible one could have been invented,” for the humiliating fact was that whenever they laid hands upon the spirit of man they simply ceased to seem expert. Once again, James came back to the example of Flaubert. There was such a difference between his superiority as a painter of aspects and sensation, and his lapses and limitations, his general insignificance, as a painter of ideas and moral states! “If you feel the talent that abides in his style very much (and some people feel it immensely as a sort of binding glory), you are bribed in a measure to overlook the inequality; but there comes a moment when the bribe, large as it is, is ineffectual. His imagination is so fine that we take some time to become conscious that almost none of it is moral or even human.”

Himself the product of a Bible-reading culture which believed that making moral judgments was the responsibility of every individual, James was never able to exorcise his doubts about a culture which left the reading of Holy Scripture and the formation of moral judgments to a priesthood. Deference to morality, be it false or true, was “an essential perfume” in literature, he cried. For all his so-called cynicism we find it in Thackeray, James insisted, and we find it, “potently,” in George Eliot and Turgenev. George Sand, however, was the only French novelist on his list of writers who was “haunted by a moral ideal.”

The prevailing amorality of the French novel was especially distressing to him when it came to assessing Balzac. For “the most fundamental and general sign of the novel,” in James's estimation, was that it was “everywhere an effort at representation.” Measured by that standard, the author of the Comédie Humaine stood signally apart; unquestionably, he was “the first and foremost member of his craft.” And yet, “he had no natural sense of morality.” The “southern slope of the mind, as we may call it, was very barren in Balzac.”

Somehow to get around this obstacle in the path of his appreciation was a task of the first importance to James, and he did so by arguing that Balzac “sanctifies his defects” by his merits. Balzac's unsurpassed grasp of worldly questions, that is to say, enabled James to forgive him for his lack of concern for moral questions, and thus to feel free to surrender to his fascination with the Comédie Humaine and his utter awe of the energy it had taken to produce it. “This huge, distributed, divided and sub-divided picture of the life of France in [the author's] time,” James exclaimed in one of the flights of imagery which make all five of his essays on Balzac unforgettable, this “picture bristling with imagination and information, with fancies and facts and figures, a world of special and general insight, a rank tropical forest of detail and specification, but with the strong breath of genius forever circulating through it and shaking the treetops to a mighty murmur, got itself hung before us in the space of twenty years.”

How had Balzac managed to do it? How could any man possibly have accumulated so much experience on which to draw if he was always fencing himself in against experience in order to preserve himself for converting it into history? “Out of what mines, by what innumerable tortuous channels, in what endless winding procession of laden chariots and tugging teams and marching elephants, did the immense consignments for his work reach him?” These questions about Balzac fairly mesmerized James, and when he said that he approached them through “the low portal of envy” he pointed to their bearings on his own career.


As his prefaces to the New York Edition amply prove, James worked enormously hard at the art of fiction. In a prodigious outpouring of novels and stories, he rendered shades of meaning and feeling with unprecedented delicacy. Nevertheless, he was not speaking insincerely when he said in “The Lesson of Balzac” that “the series of dusky passages in which, with a more or less childlike ingenuity, we [writers] can romp to and fro” are “mainly short and dark,” and that “we soon come to the end of them—dead walls, without resonance, in the presence of which the candle goes out and the game stops, and we have only to retrace our steps.” Balzac's work, by contrast, was distinguished by “the extraordinary number and length of [its] radiating and ramifying corridors.” Even though he had “finally lost himself” in them, they nevertheless constituted a veritable labyrinth.

Balzac, to be sure, had been historically blessed, James emphasized. He had lived during a half century—1799-1850—when social conditions had been marked by color and contrast, whereas “fatal fusions and uniformities” had been “inflicted” on later generations of writers. “The running together of all the differences of form and tone, the ruinous liquefying wash of the great industrial brush over the old conditions . . ., doubtless still have left the painter of manners much to do, but have ground him down to the sad fact that his ideals of differentiation, those inherent oppositions from type to type, in which drama most naturally resides, have well-nigh perished.” The luck of his lifespan, however, could only partially account for Balzac's titanic achievement. The Comédie Humaine was finally tied to the level of intensity with which Balzac had lived—and which is recorded for us, said James, “on every page of his work.”

As for his own achievement, James's prefaces to the New York Edition make plain his moral intentions at the same time that they show him hauntingly aware of how dependent for success those intentions were upon the intensity of his responses to the world around him. As he wrote in the preface to The Portrait of a Lady, “There is, I think, no more nutritive or suggestive truth in this connection than that of the perfect dependence of the ‘moral’ sense of a work of art on the amount of felt life concerned in producing it.”

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.