Henry James on the ‘Fatal Cheapness’ of the Historical Novel

Reviewing Colm Tóibín‘s The Master, a ‘novelistic portrait’ of Henry James, Daniel Mendelsohn writes:

”The Master” is not, of course, a novel about just any man, but rather a novel about a figure from the past about whom we know an extraordinarily great deal, through both his own and others’ memoirs, books and letters. As Toibin well knows, ventriloquizing the past is a dangerous affair for a novelist who wants to be taken seriously: just to remind you, he has an indignant Henry tell his supercilious and critical brother (who has suggested he write a novel about the Puritans) that he views ”the historical novel as tainted by a fatal cheapness.” (‘The Passion of Henry James’, New York Times, June 20, 2004)

Tóibín‘s line is originally James’; he really did hold such views about the historical novel, so it is particularly appropriate that the subject of Tóibín‘s historical novel be James.

In Rachel Cohen‘s A Chance Meeting, we learn–in the chapter describing the encounters between Henry James, Annie Adams Fields and Sarah Orne Jewett–that Jewett had sent to, and received praise from, James her collection of short stories The Queens Twin and other Stories. Emboldened by his description of some of the stories there as ‘perfection’, she sent him a copy of her work in progress, The Tory Lover:

Set in Maine and in England during the Revolutionary War, the novel was meant to reclaim a certain historical sense for her town in much the way that she and her sister, Mary, worked to restore their old house and those of their neighbors in a newly preservationist time. [A Chance Meeting, pp. 88]

James’ reaction was sharp and critical, even as he made sure to couch his remarks in the consoling form of being made ‘as a fellow craftsman & a woman of genius & courage’:

The ‘historic’ novel is, for me, condemned, even in cases of labor as delicate as yours, to a fatal cheapness….You may multiply the little facts that can be got from pictures & documents, relics & prints, as much as you like–the real thing is almost impossible to do, & in its absence the whole effect is as nought; I mean the invention, the representation of the old consciousness, the soul, the sense, the horizon, the vision of individuals in whose minds half the things that make ours, that make the modern world were non-existent….Go back to the country of the Pointed Firs, come back to the present palpable intimate that throbs responsive, & that wants, misses, needs you, and God knows, & that suffers woefully in your absence. [A Chance Meeting, pp. 88]

What makes this criticism of James simultaneously perspicuous and limiting is his concentration on the ‘invention, the  representation of the old consciousness’. These remarks are perspicuous because James rightly focuses on that which is most inaccessible to the novelist, but they are limiting because the difficulty of that task of imaginative recreation is precisely that which intrigues the novelist and engages and involves him. Even the failures of the novelist in these attempts at inhabiting the ‘soul, the sense’ of another might make for a noble endeavor, one visible and pleasurably palpable to the reader.

7 thoughts on “Henry James on the ‘Fatal Cheapness’ of the Historical Novel

  1. An interesting post, Samir. I do appreciate what James was saying. So often historical novels fail because they focus on the details without creating complex, believable characters that represent the in habitation of the soul. On the other hand, in the hands of a great novelist like Tolstoy, the result is amazing, witness War and Peace. I do think the further back in time an author goes, the higher the risk of failure becomes.

    1. Tom,

      No doubt; I think the same problem applies to the writing of history too, of course, which is what makes that discipline so fascinating. How much of the ‘standard historian’s task is imaginative reconstruction too?

  2. Art is more observation than invention. James’ criticism is that speculative invention is cerebral. His own novels begin in the opposite: the observation of the people and the world around him, things he knew first hand. Art always ends being read or viewed as the product of its era, not as the image of whatever it depicts. The 19th century produced great hybrids by Tolstoy and Marx, but in James’ time the past was fading more quickly that ever before and what he was opposing, as Baudelaire had and as as Eliot pointed out, was the rise of the art of “ideas”.

    The people I argue with about the Middle East, and other things, all defend ideas and read speculative fictions, for work and pleasure, and more than anything they defend their own ideas of themselves. But our actions are observed by others, in this case by Palestinians. In another context those observers could be Jews -see Mendelsohn again, recently:
    nybooks.com/articles/archives/2012/jan/12/strangers-child-exchange/ – or they could be homosexual, black, Asian, or female.

    Cerebral minds may be able to discuss feminism once it appears, once its become an idea, but they won’t invent it, because it wasn’t an invention, it began as the observations of women. The observations of Palestinians have been noticeably absent from the discussion of the Brooklyn College BDS debate, which in any event was described almost entirely as being about academic freedom, and not Palestinian rights. That’s why I kept trying to point out that a Nazi speaker would never have been sponsored by the department and that 10 years ago neither would an activist for sanctions against Israel. The situation of the Palestinians hasn’t changed. America has changed. But this again is observation.

    Great art, mimetic art, is observation and communication, and invention only as its necessary to communicate. But it’s also made with the knowledge that form communicates: there’s no separation of content and form, of disposable box and the goodies inside. Our dress, our behavior and our speech is form, and that form can only be described in form. Literature in a language other than the original is transliterated, not translated. That’s the point of it.

    Mendelsohn is a great critic because he’s a great observer. Here he’s trying to help Peter Singer understand his own grandfather. The piece is gentle, but as an attack on speculative reason, also devastating,

    1. Seth,

      Thanks for that thoughtful comment. Two quick points of agreement (perhaps I will write a post very soon as a proper one):

      1. James is, of course, as contemporary as you can get – he often wrote about the year in which his novel would be be published!

      2. Mendelsohn is indeed very wise. I hope you read his recent essay in the New Yorker about his extended correspondence with Mary Renault?

      1. I don’t have a subscription to the New Yorker, so I haven’t read the piece, but I remember him mentioning her and the letters years ago, in the context of a discussion of the same issues. That’s where I first heard the quote from James. My parents knew it, but I didn’t, and they’d raised me to have the same understanding of language.

        Mendelsohn was a pleasant surprise. He’s a humanist in the original and Renaissance, not Enlightenment, sense. The legacy of the Enlightenment has become anti-humanism.

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