Sunday, 7 December 2014

“‘Where are our moral foundations?’" Emily Dickinson and Henry James


On Thursday 4th December, the Andrew Hook Centre was delighted to welcome Prof. Philip Horne (University College London) for the sixth seminar in the 2014-15 series. Horne is the world’s authority on Henry James, the author of Henry James and Revision: The New York Edition (1990), the editor of Henry James: A Life in Letters (1999), and the founding General Editor of the Cambridge University Press edition of The Complete Fiction of Henry James, which is to extend over thirty volumes. In his talk today, Horne discussed the exciting evidence he has uncovered that Emily Dickinson and Henry James – two great titans of American literature – might have known, and appreciated, the works of one another.

Horne explained that the field of Dickinson-and-James scholarship was a slender one. Though several critics have contrasted their works, there have been no studies of the relationship between them as writers: there is no entry for Henry James in the Dickinson-encyclopaedia, and the only critic to publish book-length studies of both authors, Sharon Cameron, makes no connection between them. Horne’s own research on the topic has been some ten or more years in the making and beset by unpredicted setbacks, such as the “frustratingly good” 2011 essay by Kathryn Wichelns titled “Emily Dickinson’s Henry James.” Luckily for today’s audience, Horne decided that his own research was unique enough to warrant continued attention, and we thus had the privilege of hearing him finally bring all the pieces of the puzzle together.

Horne began by explaining the backgrounds of both writers, noting their many similarities. Both writers developed highly idiosyncratic, easily recognisable styles which are marked by their obscurity, their ambiguity, and the demands they make of their readers. James himself has been described as a “poet’s novelist,” garnering attention from Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and many others for his texts which have the density normally associated with poetry rather than prose. Biographically, both James and Dickinson were the children of eminent patriarchs, and struggled to negotiate their place in American society. Where Dickinson found exile in her own home, writing that she “[didn’t] like this country at all, and I shant stay here any longer!”, James spent most of his writing career in Europe and wrote about America from afar. Neither married, and both shared an ironic attitude towards the stiffness of the previous generation. 

The scholarly record of any direct connection between the two writers is scant, but – in typical Dickinson-fashion – a small mouthful leaves a lot to chew over. In an 1879 letter from Dickinson to her mentor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, she thanks him for a copy of his book Short Studies of American Authors (1879), commenting on five out of six of the authors in the collection, of which Henry James was one: 

Of Poe, I know too little to think – Hawthorne appals, entices – / Mrs Jackson soars to your estimate lawfully as a Bird, but of Howells and James, one hesitates – Your relentless Music dooms as it redeems.

Dickinson’s reference to James brims with possible readings. Horne considered the various cases put forward by critics, all of whom have confidently proclaimed either that Dickinson “did not care for the […] prolixity of James,” or that she hesitates because she disagrees with her mentor’s position. Remarkably, however, Horne explained that none of these critics looked at Higginson’s essay itself to support their positions. The predominantly negative essay (says Higginson: “It cannot be said that Mr. James has yet succeeded in producing a satisfactory novel”) throws Dickinson’s letter into new light, and suggests that she perhaps admired James more than other critics have allowed. That James himself wrote in an 1880 letter that he was well aware of the “Higginsonian fangs” begins to suggest that Dickinson and James were linked by various degrees, and coming up against the edges of each other’s reading.

The other piece of explicit evidence that Dickinson had read James was in a letter she wrote to Elizabeth Chapin Holland in 1879: “for how little I know of you recently – An awkward loneliness smites me – I fear I must ask with Mr. Wentworth, ‘Where are our moral foundations?’” The Mr. Wentworth to whom Dickinson refers is a character in James’s The Europeans (1878), a novel about a well-ordered New England family, overseen by the patriarch Mr. Wentworth, who had an altogether too stiffly serious attitude towards his life. Mr. Wentworth is hesitant to allow his daughter to marry a man not of his choosing: 

‘Where are our moral grounds?’ demanded Mr. Wentworth, who had always thought Mr. Brand would be just the thing for a younger daughter with a peculiar temperament.

Dickinson’s quotation is slightly different (she writes moral “foundations,” rather than “grounds”) which only adds more to the puzzle, but Horne suggests that she was making it her own, altering it to better fit the rhythms of her sentence and to further inflate the grandiosity of Mr. Wentworth’s phrase. Horne speculated that Dickinson was drawn to James’s line because the ruling patriarch and the constraints on Wentworth’s daughter may well have resonated with Dickinson’s own life. With typical playfulness and irony she adopts the phrase in her letter, and thus records an explicit connection between these two writers. 

The question that all this evidence begs, of course, is to what extent James knew of Dickinson? By looking at issues of the Atlantic Monthly from 1891, in which there were printed both a Dickinson poem and a James serial, Horne is able to speculate that there is a good chance their writing crossed one another’s eyes. This can only be an educated guess, of course, but there was one last piece of evidence, and one last story to tell. In the Atlantic Monthly of January 1892, there was printed a very scathing review of Dickinson’s poetry by Thomas Bailey Aldrich. We can’t know if Henry James read this review, but we know that at least one James did. In her diary, two months before her death, Henry James’s sister Alice writes: “It is reassuring to hear the English pronouncement that Emily Dickinson is fifth-rate, they have such a capacity for missing quality.” Alice goes on to quote four lines from Dickinson, writing: “what tome of philosophy […] expresses the highest point of view of the aspiring soul more completely” than these. In a letter to his brother William after Alice’s death, James writes admiringly of her diaries. He writes with words which could apply just as perfectly to the work of Dickinson which was contained, in some small part, within: “I have been immensely impressed […] It is heroic in its individuality, its independence – its face-to-face with the universe for-&-by herself.” Though James may not have read much Dickinson, we know that at the very least he read the four lines quoted by his sister.

By reconstructing a picture of both Dickinson’s and James’s reading, Horne brings the pieces together to confirm, finally, that these two central figures of American literature were ever at the edges of one another’s words. As we read and appreciate them both now, it is exciting to think that at least in some small way they shared our experience.

By Jamie Redgate

PGR at the University of Glasgow

The Centre’s seminar series continues in the new year with Dr. Michael Collins (University of Kent): “Beautiful, Radiant Things: Emma Goldman and American Anarchist Autobiography.” It will be held on Wednesday 14th January 2015 in Room 208, 2 University Gardens, at 5.15pm. All very welcome!

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