Friday, April 12, 2013

The Tree of Knowledge

Henry James (1843–1916)
From Henry James: Complete Stories 1898–1910

Love Bound (1884), marble by Richard Saltonstall Greenough (1819–1904). Currently at the Post Road Galley.
Throughout Henry James’s notebooks are a great many ideas he jotted down to use in his writing. While staying at the Palazzo Barbaro in Venice in May 1899, he wrote an entry that began: “Note the ‘Gordon Greenough’ story told to me by Mrs. C—the young modern artist-son opening the eyes of his mother (his sculptor-father’s one believer) to the misery and grotesqueness of his Father’s work . . .”

The young man in question, a painter, was the son of the decidedly mediocre American sculptor Richard Saltonstall Greenough, the younger brother of the far more talented Horatio Greenough. The “Mrs. C” who shared this bit of family gossip was the Ariana Randolph Curtis, an American expatriate living in Venice who was related by marriage to the Greenough family. A few months later, James reminds himself to pursue this anecdote (“Don’t forget the little Gordon-Greenough-and-his-mother-and-and-his-father” idea), with an additional note to “write it up” on the Maupassant “system.”

Because James knew the Greenoughs quite well, he was courting ill will by transforming this piece of gossip into a portrait of a family. Nevertheless, the following year he worked the idea into “The Tree of Knowledge,” a dissection of a delusional sculptor’s household, which he included in his story collection The Soft Side and which indeed contains a twist of the type readers would expect to find at the end of a tale by the French writer Guy de Maupassant. (“Paste,” a previous Story of the Week selection by Henry James written during the same period, also shows Maupassant’s unmistakable influence.)

“The Tree of Knowledge” is largely true to the outline of the story James heard from Ariana Curtis. Morgan Mallow is an American sculptor living abroad. Singularly incapable of selling his art, he is fortunate that his wife “brought him, in marriage, a portion that put them at ease.” He is also fortunate that she regards him as “the Master” and admires his art. The couple’s best friend, the bachelor Peter Brench, has always been in love with Mrs. Mallow and is also quite fond of her husband—but he secretly deplores Mallow’s continuously growing “marble family.” When Lance, the couple’s son (and Peter’s godson), announces he wants to drop out of college and move to Paris to become a painter, Mrs. Mallow’s hope—and Peter’s fear—is that the young man will prove to be just as talented as his father.

Notes: The term Wanderjahre (p. 221) refers to an apprenticeship (literally, "wandering years"). Phidias (p. 222) is regarded as one of the greatest of all sculptors of Classical Greece. The expression là-bas (p. 230) means “over there.”

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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 . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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