Notes on Life and Letters HTML version

2. Henry James--An Appreciation—1905
The critical faculty hesitates before the magnitude of Mr. Henry James's work.
His books stand on my shelves in a place whose accessibility proclaims the habit
of frequent communion. But not all his books. There is no collected edition to
date, such as some of "our masters" have been provided with; no neat rows of
volumes in buckram or half calf, putting forth a hasty claim to completeness, and
conveying to my mind a hint of finality, of a surrender to fate of that field in which
all these victories have been won. Nothing of the sort has been done for Mr.
Henry James's victories in England.
In a world such as ours, so painful with all sorts of wonders, one would not
exhaust oneself in barren marvelling over mere bindings, had not the fact, or
rather the absence of the material fact, prominent in the case of other men
whose writing counts, (for good or evil)--had it not been, I say, expressive of a
direct truth spiritual and intellectual; an accident of--I suppose--the publishing
business acquiring a symbolic meaning from its negative nature. Because,
emphatically, in the body of Mr. Henry James's work there is no suggestion of
finality, nowhere a hint of surrender, or even of probability of surrender, to his
own victorious achievement in that field where he is a master. Happily, he will
never be able to claim completeness; and, were he to confess to it in a moment
of self-ignorance, he would not be believed by the very minds for whom such a
confession naturally would be meant. It is impossible to think of Mr. Henry James
becoming "complete" otherwise than by the brutality of our common fate whose
finality is meaningless--in the sense of its logic being of a material order, the logic
of a falling stone.
I do not know into what brand of ink Mr. Henry James dips his pen; indeed, I
heard that of late he had been dictating; but I know that his mind is steeped in the
waters flowing from the fountain of intellectual youth. The thing--a privilege--a
miracle--what you will--is not quite hidden from the meanest of us who run as we
read. To those who have the grace to stay their feet it is manifest. After some
twenty years of attentive acquaintance with Mr. Henry James's work, it grows into
absolute conviction which, all personal feeling apart, brings a sense of happiness
into one's artistic existence. If gratitude, as someone defined it, is a lively sense
of favours to come, it becomes very easy to be grateful to the author of The
Ambassadors--to name the latest of his works. The favours are sure to come; the
spring of that benevolence will never run dry. The stream of inspiration flows
brimful in a predetermined direction, unaffected by the periods of drought,
untroubled in its clearness by the storms of the land of letters, without languor or
violence in its force, never running back upon itself, opening new visions at every
turn of its course through that richly inhabited country its fertility has created for
our delectation, for our judgment, for our exploring. It is, in fact, a magic spring.
With this phrase the metaphor of the perennial spring, of the inextinguishable
youth, of running waters, as applied to Mr. Henry James's inspiration, may be
dropped. In its volume and force the body of his work may be compared rather to
a majestic river. All creative art is magic, is evocation of the unseen in forms