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More on Homer and Henry James

No, I don’t believe the two gents knew each other, though both were masterful story tellers. (They lived 3,000 years apart.)

In my last entry I broached the subject of finding a story, citing Daniel Mendelsohn’s essay about his troubles moving from a narrative of events to a genuine story. I mentioned his teaching of Homer’s Odyssey, and I brought up Henry James, who wrote many novels and critical essays collected under the title The Art of Fiction. 

In his essay Mendelsohn mentions good advice from a mentor, which was actually contained in and demonstrated by the Odyssey. Homer does not stick to a straightforward chronology at every point, but darts back into the past (flashback) and anticipates the future (flashforward). This in fact, then, was what Mendelsohn did with his bloated and listless manuscript of some 600 pages: made the class he taught on the Odyssey the central narrative and tucked into it temporal dislocations on caring for his dying father and taking a cruise that retraced Odysseus’s voyage.

The story emerged out of the bushels of facts. It was a kind of metastory, in fact, a story about being lost and finding one’s way. Just as Odysseus voyaged for years to return home from the Trojan War, so Mendelsohn scrambled to find a home in the heart of his materials.

You might find something of the same struggle going on in Henry James’s fiction, though he covers his tracks pretty well. I’m thinking here of the care he lavishes on his female characters, especially the protagonists, in novels like The Portrait of a Lady, where Isabel Archer moves from America to Europe and is seduced into a loveless marriage by a man interested only in her money.

I’ve suggested that James’s interest in female characters is characteristic of his large moral imagination. But it’s also founded, I think, on self-interest.

It’s long been know that James, who never married, had homoerotic proclivities. He was so refined, so domesticated, in fact, that he could have passed, without too much trouble, as a woman. Mark Twain famously, or infamously, called him “Henrietta James.” T. S. Eliot, more accurately and charitably, opined that James “had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it,” no ideology or stereotype disturb it. When he created characters, he went deep, plunged into hearts and minds, and emerged with characters that enlarge our appreciation of life’s moral puzzles and quandaries.

Portrait of a Lady cover
Penguin’s rendition of James’s Isabel Archer of The Portrait of a Lady (1881).

One of the central leitmotifs of James’s fiction is renunciation. The characters only want what they cannot have, though their desires are not the outsize or outrageous stuff of popular fiction. Isabel Archer wants only a happy marriage … and then happiness for her husband’s illegitimate daughter, Pansy. When she discovers the incorrigible evil in her husband, there is no going back. She renounces herself, or her own chance at happiness, in order to serve others, especially the younger, more innocent self, the daughter.

An article by Colm Tóibín details how “Henry James’s Family Tried to Keep Him in the Closet.” Yes, he had written many “ardent” letters to young men, stuff that would scandalize eminent and obscure Victorians alike. James’s heirs squelched these letters, but the same impulses shown in the letters appear also in the fiction, though in disguised form: his admiration for the fine minds and individual moralities of many female characters, the capacities of men like Lambert Strether, the title character of The Ambassadors, to learn and grow. (Strether is sent to fetch home to New England a wayward son, with a French mistress, but he comes to see that it’s puritan New England and the New World which is corrupt, not the Old World.)

James could not express his ardent desires directly, but he found in writing, both private letters and public letters (that is, literature), a way to announce and renounce who he was and who, under different circumstances, he might have been.

For fiction writers, facts are one thing, finally. But the story, the overarching idea and meaning behind all facts and events, is something else entirely, something grander and more enduring.

 

By Greg Zeck

Greg Zeck taught college English in Michigan, Iowa, and Minnesota. He also had a career in freelance business writing and communications. He's retired now in Fayetteville, Arkansas, with his wife Jennifer, where he continues to read, write, bike, hike, and garden.

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