Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Middle Years

Henry James (1843–1916)
From Henry James: Complete Stories 1892–1898

The Writer's Table: A Precarious Moment (1892), oil on canvas by John Frederick Peto (American painter, 1854–1907). Image courtesy of The Athenaeum.
In 1893 Henry James turned fifty. He was in the middle of a disastrous half-decade attempt to triumph as a playwright, and during the course of the year he published only one new piece of fiction, “The Middle Years.” Although he had already written eleven novels, including Washington Square and Portrait of a Lady, he often doubted his abilities and future chances of success. (His great masterpieces “The Turn of the Screw,” The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl were still in his future.) Early in the year he confided to his friend Robert Louis Stevenson, who was living in Samoa:
. . . I think I envy you too much—your climate, your thrill of life, your magnificent facility. You judge well that I have far too little of this last—though you can’t judge how much more and more difficult I find it every day to write.
In “The Middle Years” the protagonist Dencombe reflects these frustrations about James’s chosen career when he proclaims the most oft-quoted lines from the story, “We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”

In a 1996 article published in New Literary History, the novelist Joyce Carol Oates comments on “this strange, parable-like tale . . . that suggests dream or myth; fiction on the brink of dissolving into abstraction.” Dencombe, a novelist recovering at a health-resort after a debilitating illness, “yearns for a second chance at his art; yet more passionately for an audience.” He finds the ideal audience in Doctor Hugh, a young, zealous admirer who happens to be staying at the same resort and who has managed to get his hands on an advance copy of the author’s new novel. (Gore Vidal, with a touch of admiration, calls this plot device “perfect James wish-fulfillment.”) Oates concludes:
How significant that even the great artist’s redemption can only be by way of his communion with a real, palpable, emotionally engaged audience; a reaching-out to, a touching of this “new generation”—the mysterious “Doctor Hugh”—you.
When James included “The Middle Years” in the 1909 New York Edition of his writings, he admitted in a preface that, at first blush, the idea for the story—about the agonies and disappointments in the life of a writer—might seem better suited for long-form fiction: “the subject treated would perhaps seem one comparatively demanding ‘developments.’” But, he insisted, the story is “an anecdote, an anecdote only,” and he was intent on keeping it short yet dense:
. . . after boilings and reboilings of the contents of my small cauldron, after added pounds of salutary sugar, as numerous as those prescribed in the choicest recipe for the thickest jam, I well remember finding the whole process and act (which, to the exclusion of everything else, dragged itself out for a month) one of the most expensive of its sort in which I had ever engaged.
Notes: The text presented here is the version included in James’s 1895 collection, Terminations. The following are translations of the Latin and French expressions used in the story: vincit omnia, conquers all; Qui dort dine!, he who sleeps forgets his hunger; bergère, shepherdess; intrigante, a scheming woman.

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The April day was soft and bright, and poor Dencombe, happy in the conceit of reasserted strength, stood in the garden of the hotel, comparing, with a deliberation in which however there was still something of languor, the attractions of easy strolls. . . . 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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