Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
James, Henry (1843–1916)
Author:
Dye, Renée
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

American writer of novels, short stories, and literary criticism, Henry James stands among the most important cultural figures of the nineteenth century. Known by the formidable, if affectionate, sobriquet "the Master," James's probing wit, analytical acumen, and unflinching honesty impelled him to dissect those writers he reviewed—including Whitman—with merciless precision. James spent much of his life abroad, cultivating the friendships of such European masters as Gustave Flaubert, Ivan Turgenev, and Guy de Maupassant. He adopted the careful narrative craftsmanship of these authors in his own fiction, which evolved from the readily accessible and popular Daisy Miller (1879) to the extraordinarily complex and dense The Golden Bowl (1904).

When he came to review Whitman's work, James, not surprisingly, betrayed impatience with the poet whose "barbaric yawp" seemed to drown out more subtle and intricate questions of craft. In an 1865 review of Drum-Taps, at the upstart age of twenty-two, James cuttingly pronounced this volume to be "an offense against art" (113) that makes for "melancholy reading" (110). Later, however, the spleen had drained off James's tone. In his 1898 review of Calamus, he wrote with affection and appreciation for the "beauty of the natural" in this "audible New Jersey voice" that relates "many odd and pleasant human harmonies" (260). And in a letter of 1903 James repented of the "gross impudence of youth" that compelled him to perpetrate the "little atrocity" of his 1865 review on Whitman (Selected Letters 348). In her autobiography A Backward Glance (1933), Edith Wharton narrates an evening when James read aloud from Whitman's poetry "in a mood of subdued ecstasy" while they all "sat rapt" (186). During the ensuing discussion, James declared Whitman a "very great genius!" James's shifting assessment of Whitman over the course of forty-five years forms a not inaccurate model for Whitman's larger reception: from invective to acceptance, from grudging admiration to buoyant celebration.

Bibliography

Edel, Leon. Henry James. 5 vols. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1953–1972.

James, Henry. "Henry James on Whitman. 1865." Walt Whitman: The Critical Heritage. Ed. Milton Hindus. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1971. 110–114.

———. "Henry James on Whitman. 1898." Walt Whitman: The Critical Heritage. Ed. Milton Hindus. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1971.259–260.

———. Henry James: Selected Letters. Ed. Leon Edel. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1987.

Wharton, Edith. A Backward Glance. 1933. New York: Scribner's, 1988.

Whitman, Walt. Calamus: A Series of Letters Written during the Years 1868–1880 by Walt Whitman to a Young Friend (Peter Doyle). Ed. Richard Maurice Bucke. London: Putnam, 1898.


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