Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 85: Henry James, An English New Year (#105)

Henry James, "An English New Year" (1879/1905) from Henry James: Collected Travel Writings: Great Britain and America:

The 1870s was not a good time, economically--except for Henry James. That's the message I take away both from the LoA notes on this piece and from the piece itself. It's a short piece--shorter with the illustrations--the reports a few glimpses from England: business is terrible, but at least there's public support and private charity; London is smoggy; I went to a workhouse to give gifts to children and they did not impress me.

Now, in the best of situations, it's easy to make fun of Henry James as this aloof, effete aesthete--the kind of guy who would make Niles Crane look like a rugged individualist engaged in the world. "An English New Year" is not the best of situations. James slides effortlessly from "things are tough for working people" to "we read about their problems over morning tea." Sure, these articles help prime the pump of charity. Alternatively, "For recovery of one's nervous balance the only course was flight--flight to the country..."

But even here, in the country, James's delicate nerves are troubled by poverty when he goes to see poor children. He wants them to be as romantic as Dickensian paupers, but they turn out to be dull and potentially idiotic. The only poetry of the scene is the benevolent rich woman.

I can't really tell if James is being sarcastic in this piece, since the self-portrait he paints is of someone who care less about humans than about some abstract sense of beauty. My sense is that he's in earnest; and that this sort of aesthetic interest trumped human interest in most of his life. The comparison to Dickens is extra-grating: how could James make himself look like a worse, more decadent, less humane person? By comparing him to an author who experienced poverty and did work to alleviate suffering.

For those trivia lovers out there who know that James and Wells were friends at one point, until they had a big crack-up, this is an interesting piece which raises a question about their friendship: not "why did they ever break-up as friend?" but "how where these two ever friends to begin with?"

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