Monday, November 4, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 195: Henry James, The Tree of Knowledge (#171)

Henry James, "The Tree of Knowledge" (1900) from Henry James: Complete Stories 1898–1910:

One of the benefits of reading the LoA's Story of the Week is how wide a net they cast--from James's early stories to his late stories. That may sound sarcastic, but I mean it seriously: in today's literature classes, you're more likely to read late James, which gives you an idea of what he became--but in leaving out early James we forget where he started. So after last week's example of James trying to be pleasantly commercial, we have this later story--which is, on its surface, all about the dangers of aesthetic misjudgments in the marketplace.

I'm also glad to have this piece to read since the LoA page reminds us that James didn't always invent whole-cloth. A lot of his stories came from kernels passed around in his social set. So What Maisie Knew--the story of a child who is caught between her parents' divorce and remarriages--was seeded by a story of... a child who was caught between her parents' divorce and remarriages. So today's story was inspired by something James heard, the story of a bad sculptor whose aesthetic failures were exposed to the heretofore believing wife... by his son! Oh, what a betrayal. Who knows how this family felt when they read their story in transmuted form when their friend/acquaintance James wrote about it.

In this version of the story: Morgan Mallow is a bad sculptor who doesn't know he's bad and just blames the market for not being ready for his awesomeness. His wife is a devoted believer in his skill. His son Lancelot wants to drop out of school and go to Paris to become a painter. And poor Peter Brench is the schmuck who is good friends with Morgan, but recognizes he's awfulness as a sculptor; but he won't say anything because of his friendship--and because he's in love with Morgan's wife and he doesn't want to hurt her by showing that her adoration is misplaced. And on top of that, Peter is godfather to Lance--and Peter wants to keep him from Paris because Peter is afraid that Lance will realize his dad is an aesthetic flop.

The LoA page notes that this story has some Maupassant-y twist; but the style is all James, all the time. Who else could write such barbed and recursive sentences as
It was one of the secret opinions, such as we all have, of Peter Brench that his main success in life would have consisted in his never having committed himself about the work, as it was called, of his friend Morgan Mallow. This was a subject on which it was, to the best of his belief, impossible with veracity to quote him, and it was nowhere on record that he had, in the connexion, on any occasion and in any embarrassment, either lied or spoken the truth.
The Maupassant-y twist is that (a) the son always knew his father was a failure at art; and (b) the mother always knew her husband was a failure. Which means that Peter's been keeping this secret forever--mostly from himself, I think. That is, I think Peter's thoughts are meant to go like this:

  • Starting point: "I am a beautiful martyr--I could make Mrs. Mallow love me by exposing her husband's foolishness. But I sacrifice my own happiness to hers!"
  • Ending point: "Mrs. Mallow knows her husband is a failure and still loves him, therefore I could never marry her. I'm not a martyr, just a fool."

In other words, Peter was able to enjoy his own distance from his ideal state as an aesthetic pleasure (representing himself as a martyr, a sacrifice to love for love's sake); but he misjudged his real situation, which was simply as what he appeared to be: family friend and no more.

The story emphasizes this through the constant (constant!) refrain of knowing: what Lance will learn in Paris, how ignorance is bliss, what it is Peter knows that Lance doesn't and vice versa. Of course, as in What Maisie Knew and The Ambassadors, the people who are supposed not to know (the kids and love-blind spouses) turn out to know all along; while those who are supposed to be in the know--the sophisticates--get blind-sided by events.

And now, as this is my final James of the original 200 stories, I want to add that modern-day readers generally will not enjoy his multi-clausal and recursive sentences--his hesitations and equivocations. And as the goal today, as in James's day, was to be bought and appreciated--but always bought first--I think he is a bad model to follow for sentence-level structure except for techniques of delay.

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