Melville House celebrates Henry James novellas
by Ellie Robins
Henry James died on this day in 1916, at the age of 72. He left behind him some of the most cherished novels and characters in the language, and a great unsatisfied curiosity about his life. He was notoriously publicity-shy, and in the year before his death gave only his third ever interview, to the New York Times, about the American Volunteer Motor-Ambulance Corps. Worthy but perhaps not enthralling, you might think. What makes the interview fascinating, though, is knowing that James rewrote it himself in its entirety. The Library of America blog quotes his secretary Theodora Bosanquet:
H. J., finding that it wouldn’t do at all from his point of view, has spent the last four days re-dictating the interview to the young man, who is fortunately a good typist… I think the idea of H.J. interviewing himself for four whole days is quite delightful.
His self-portrait at its most delightful reads:
Henry James does not look his seventy years. He has a finely shaped head, and a face, at once strong and serene, which the painter and sculptor may well have liked to interpret… Mr James has a mobile mouth, a straight nose, a forehead which has thrust back the hair from the top of his commanding head, although it is thick at the sides over the ears, and repeats in its soft gray the color of his kindly eyes. Before taking in these physical facts one receives an impression of benignity and amenity not often conveyed, even by the most distinguished. And, taking advantage of this amiability, I asked if certain words just used should be followed by a dash, and even boldly added: ‘Are you not famous, Mr. James, for the use of dashes?’
‘Dash my fame!’ he impatiently replied. ‘And remember, please, that dogmatizing about punctuation is exactly as foolish as dogmatizing about any other form of communication with the reader.’
The anecdote charmingly enacts some of the recurring questions in James’s fiction: Does art make life? Can anyone resist exerting their own power? And how benign is an aging artist, really?
In celebration of James and the workings of his finely shaped head, we’re offering a discount on two of his novellas published in our award-winning Art of the Novella series, both of which address these themes and more. In the disturbing The Lesson of the Master, a young and gifted writer meets an older author he has long idolised. Falling into the friendship, the young man is fast robbed of his illusions about the life of the artist, and must make a series of increasingly difficult choices about his own path and the reliability of his hero’s advice.
Meanwhile The Coxon Fund is a true tale for our times: James brilliantly satirises the figure of the brilliant artist who is, ever so mysteriously, unable to support himself financially. It’s an edgy comedy about the fine line between making art and freeloading, and it’s never seemed more relevant.
Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.