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Full Online Book HomeEssaysHenry James, Himself
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Henry James, Himself Post by :alexander2 Category :Essays Author :Robert Cortes Holliday Date :October 2011 Read :3453

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Henry James, Himself

We have now to record an extraordinary adventure. Our later education was derived in some considerable measure from the writings of Mr. Henry James. This to explain our emotion. We had never expected to behold himself, the illustrious expatriate who had so far enlightened an unkempt mind. But the night before we had been talking of him. Indeed, it is impossible for us to fail to perceive here something of the supernatural.

But hold! "William Edwards," says a newspaper notice, "who used to drive a post stage between New York and Albany, died on Saturday at his home. He was born in Albany," and so and so, "and many were the stories he had to tell of incidents connected with the famous men who were his passengers." Even so. We were ourselves a clerk. That is, for a number of years we waited on customers in a celebrated book shop. This is one of the stories we have to tell of the personages who were, so to say, our passengers. Or perhaps we are more in the nature of those unscrupulous English footmen to high society, of whom we have heard, who "sell out" their observation and information to the society press.

Anyhow, we are of a loquacious, gossipy turn; and we were booksellers, so to speak, to crowned heads. We have recently heard, too, of another precedent to our garrulous performance, the publication in Rome of the memoirs of an old waiter, who carefully set down the relative liberality of prominent persons whom he served. After having served Cardinals Rampolla and Merry del Val, this excellent memoirist entered opposite their names, "Both no good." With this we drop the defensive.

We noticed Mr. Wharton sitting down, legs crossed, smoking a cigar. Awaiting, we presumed, his wife. A not unpicturesque figure, tall, rather dashing in effect, ruddy visage, dragoon moustache, and habited in a light, smartly-cut sack suit of rather arresting checks, conspicuous grey spats; a gentleman manifesting no interest whatever in his surroundings.

Mr. Brownell, the critic, entered through the front door and moved to the elevator.

There stepped from the elevator car a somewhat portly little man who joined Mr. Wharton. He wore a rather queer looking, very big derby hat, oddly flat on top. His shoulders were hooped up somewhat like the figure of Joseph Choate. A rather funny, square, box-like body on little legs. An English look to his clothes. Under his arm an odd-looking club of a walking-stick. Mr. Brownell turned quickly to this rather amusing though not undistinguished figure, and said, "Mr. James--Brownell." The quaint gentleman took off his big hat, discovering to our intent curiosity a polished bald dome, and began instantly to talk, very earnestly, steadily, in a moderately pitched voice, gesticulating with an even rhythmic beat with his right hand, raised close to his face.

Joined presently by Mrs. Wharton, the party, bidding Mr. Brownell adieu, took a somewhat humorous departure (we felt) from the shop; Mr. James, with some suddenness, preceding out the door. Moving nimbly up the Avenue, he was overhauled by Mrs. Wharton under full sail, who attached herself to his arm. Her husband by an energetic forward play around the end achieved her other wing. In this formation, sticks flashing, skirt whipping, with a somewhat spirited mien, the august spectacle receded from our rapt view, to be at length obliterated as a unit by the general human scene.

We saw Mr. James after this a number of times. Accompanied again by Mrs. Wharton, and later in the charge (such was the effect) of another lady, who, we understood, drives regularly to her social chariot literary lions. In something like six years' observation of the human being in a book shop, we have never seen any person so thoroughly in a book store, a magazine, that is, of books, as Mr. James. One can be, you know--it is most common, indeed--in a book store and at the same time not be in a book store--any more than if one were in a hotel lobby. Mr. James "snooked" around the shop. He ran his nose over the tables, and inch by inch (he must be very shortsighted) along the walls, stood on tiptoe and pulled down volumes from high places, rummaged in dark corners, was apparently oblivious of the presence of anything but the books. He was not the slightest in a hurry. He would have been, we felt, content and quite happy, like a child with blocks, to play this way by himself all day.

Happening, by our close proximity, to turn to us the first time in the shop that he required attention, upon each succeeding visit he sought out us to attend to his wishes. The position of retail salesman "on the floor" is one completely exposed to every human attitude and humour. Against arrogance, against contempt of himself as a shop person, a species of "counter-jumper," against irascibility, against bigoted ignorance, against an indissoluble assumption, perhaps logical, that he is of inferior mentality, this factotum has no defence. His very business is to meet all with amenity. It is his daily portion, included in the material with which he works.

It (he finds) injures him not, essentially; it ceases to particularly affect him, beyond his inward appraisement of the character before him. Toward him one acts simply in accordance with the instincts of one's nature. His status counsels no constraint, invites no display, has no property of stimulation. Thus the view of a famous man's character from the position of retail clerk is valuable. Mr. James's manner with Mr. Brownell would hardly be the same as toward us. But it was, exactly. There was present in his mind at the moment, was quite apparent, absolutely no consciousness of any distance of mind, or position, between him and us. He sought conversation (any suggestion of so equalising a thing as conversation with a clerk is not uncommonly repressed by the important as preposterous). In his own talk with us, he seemed to us to be a man consciously striving with the material of words and sentences to express his thought as well as he could.

He was very earnest. He looked up at us constantly (we are a little tall) with fixed concentration of gaze, and moved his hand to and fro as though seeking to balance his ideas. He asked questions with deference. Among other things, he desired very much to know what per cent. of the novels on the fiction table was the product of writers in England. "I live in England myself," he said, very simply, "and I am curious to know this." He expressed a little impatience at the measureless flood of mediocre fiction, making a fluttering gesture conveying a sense of impotence to give it attention. He barely glanced at the pile of his own book, and did not mention it. He did not seem at first (though we believe later he changed this opinion) to think highly of Arnold Bennett (this was at the first bloom of Mr. Bennett's vogue here), nor to have read him. "Oh, yes, yes; he is an English journalist," in a tone as though, merely a journalist. Clear artist in fibre. When he took his departure he bade us "Good day," and lifted his hat.

Succeeding visits caused us to suspect that Mr. James's ideas of the machinery of business are somewhat naive. He seemed to regard us as, so to say, the whole works. It entered our head that maybe Mr. James thought we received and answered all manner of correspondence, editorial as well as that connected with the retail business, opened up in the morning, read, accepted, and rejected manuscript, nailed up boxes for shipment, swept out the shop, and were acquainted perfectly with all confidential matters of the House. "I wrote you" (us), "you know," he said. And he referred by the way, apparently upon the assumption that the matter had been laid before us, to business of which we could not possibly have cognizance. And then he desired to send some books. Fumbling in his breast pocket, he produced a letter, from which he read aloud a list of his own works apparently requested of him. Carefully replacing his letter, he said: "I should like to send these books to my sister-in-law." With that he started out.

Now, it was not a difficult problem to assume that this could be no other than Mrs. William James, still, it is customary for purchasers to state the name of the person to whom goods are to go, and many people are sceptical that the salesman has it down right even then. "Your sister-in-law, Mr. James, is------?" we suggested. "Oh, yes, of course--of course; Mrs. William James; of course--of course," Mr. James said. Now, certainly, he supposed (it was evident) he had got finally settled a difficult and complicated piece of business. Mrs. William James's regular address we might reasonably infer. Still it might be that she was at the moment somewhere else, on a visit. It were better to have Mr. James give his order in the regular way. "And the address?" we mentioned. "Oh, yes--oh, yes; of course--of course," Mr. James said apologetically. Then, pausing a moment to see if there was anything more in this bewildering labyrinth of details to such a complex transaction, he departed, taking, as he drew away, his hat, as Mrs. Nickleby says, "completely off."

Instead of ascending directly to that regal domain which is unaware of our existence, Mr. James, with the inclination of a bow, approached us one day and inquired, in a manner as though the decision rested largely with us, whether he "could see" the head of the firm. The lady who was his escort swept past him. "Oh, I am sure he will see him," she declared; "this" (with impressive awe) "is Mr. James." Had we said, No, right off the bat, so to say, like that, we believe (unchampioned) Mr. James would have gently withdrawn.


(The end)
Robert Cortes Holliday's essay: Henry James, Himself

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