The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter

  Henry James refers to all these early impressions as an “infection,” as a sip of “poison,” as a “twist”—perhaps of some psychological thumbscrew—but the twinges and pangs were all exciting, joyful, mysterious, thrilling, sensations he enjoyed and sought eagerly, half their force at least consisting of his imaginative projection of his own future in the most brilliant possible of great worlds. He saw his parents and his aunt perpetually homesick for something infinitely lovable and splendid they had known, and he longed to know it too. “Homesickness was a luxury I remember craving from the tenderest age,” he confessed, because he had at once perhaps too many homes and therefore no home at all. If his parents did not feel at home anywhere, he could not possibly, either. He did not know what to be homesick for, unless it were England, which he had seen but could not remember.

  This was, then, vicarious, a mere sharing at second-hand; he needed something of his own. When it came, it was rather dismaying; but it was an important episode and confirmed in him the deep feeling that England had something formidable in its desirability, something to be lived up to: in contrast to France as he discovered later, where one “got life,” as he expressed it; or Germany, where the very trees of the great solemn forests murmured in his charmed ear of their mystical “culture.” What happened was this: the celebrated Mr. Thackeray, fresh from England, seated as an honored much-at-ease guest in the James library, committed an act which somehow explains everything that is wrong with his novels.

  “Come here, little boy,” he said to Henry, “and show me your extraordinary jacket.” With privileged bad manners he placed his hand on the child’s shoulder and asked him if his garments were the uniform of his “age and class,” adding with brilliant humor that if he should wear it in England he would be addressed as “Buttons.” No matter what Mr. Thackeray thought he was saying—very likely he was not thinking at all—he conveyed to the overwhelmed admirer of England that the English, as so authoritatively represented by Mr. Thackeray, thought Americans “queer.” It was a disabling blow, recalled in every circumstance fifty years later, with a photograph, of all things, to illustrate and prove its immediate effect.

  Henry was wearing that jacket, buttoned to the chin with a small white collar, on the hot dusty summer day when his companionable father, who never went anywhere without one or the other of his two elder sons, brought him up from Staten Island, where the family were summering, to New York, and as a gay surprise for everybody, took him to Mr. Brady’s for their photograph together. A heavy surprise indeed for Henry, who forever remembered the weather, the smells and sights of the wharf, the blowzy summer lassitude of the streets, and his own dismay that by his father’s merry whim he was to be immortalized by Mr. Brady in his native costume which would appear so absurd in England. Mr. Brady that day made one of the most expressive child pictures I know. The small straight figure has a good deal of grace and dignity in its unworthy (as he feared) clothes; the long hands are holding with what composure they can to things they know; his father’s shoulder, his large and, according to the fashion plates of the day, stylish straw hat. All the life of the child is in the eyes, rueful, disturbed, contemplative, with enormous intelligence and perception, much older than the face, much deeper and graver than his father’s. His father and mother bore a certain family resemblance to each other, such as closely interbred peoples of any nation are apt to develop; Henry resembled them both, but his father more neatly, and judging by later photographs, the resemblance became almost identical, except for the expression of the eyes—the unmistakable look of one who was to live intuitively and naturally a long life in “the air of the passions of the intelligence.”

  In Mr. Brady’s daguerreotype, he is still a child, a stranger everywhere, and he is unutterably conscious of the bright untimeliness of the whole thing, the lack of proper ceremony, ignored as ever by the father; the slack, unflattering pose. His father is benevolent and cheerful and self-possessed and altogether pleased for them both. He had won his right to gaiety of heart in his love; after many a victorious engagement with the powers of darkness, he had Swedenborg and all his angels round about, bearing him up, which his son was never to have; and he had not been lately ridiculed by Mr. Thackeray, at least not to his face. Really it was not just the jacket that troubled him—that idle remark upon it was only one of the smallest of the innumerable flashes which lighted for him, blindingly, whole territories of mystery in which a long lifetime could not suffice to make him feel at home. “I lose myself in wonder,” he wrote in his later years, “at the loose ways, the strange process of waste, through which nature and fortune may deal on occasion with those whose faculty for application is all and only in their imagination and sensibility.”

  By then he must have known that in his special case, nothing at all had been wasted. He was in fact a most glorious example in proof of his father’s favorite theories of the uses and virtues of waste as education, and at the end felt he had “mastered the particular history of just that waste.” His father was not considered a good Swedenborgian by those followers of Swedenborg who had, against his expressed principles, organized themselves into a church. Mr. James could not be organized in the faintest degree by anyone or anything. His daughter Alice wrote of him years later: “. . . Father, the delicious infant, couldn’t submit even to the thralldom of his own whim.” That smothering air of his childhood family life had given him a permanent longing for freedom and fresh air; the atmosphere he generated crackled with oxygen; his children lived in such a state of mental and emotional stimulation that no society ever again could overstimulate them. Life, as he saw it—was nobly resolved to see it, and to teach his beloved young ones to see it—was so much a matter of living happily and freely by spiritual, ethical, and intellectual values, based soundly on sensuous richness, and inexhaustible faith in the goodness of God; a firm belief in the divinity in human nature, God’s self in it; a boundlessly energetic aspiration toward the higher life, the purest humanities, the most spontaneous expression of feeling and thought.

  Despair was for the elder James a word of contempt. He declared “that never for a moment had he known a skeptical state.” Yet, “having learned the nature of evil, and admitted its power, he turned towards the sun of goodness.” He believed that “true worship is always spontaneous, the offspring of delight, not duty.” Thus his son Henry: “The case was really of his feeling so vast a rightness close at hand or lurking immediately behind actual arrangements that a single turn of the inward wheel, one real response to the pressure of the spiritual spring, would bridge the chasms, straighten the distortions, rectify the relations, and in a word redeem and vivify the whole mass.” With all his considerable powers of devotion translated into immediate action, the father demonstrated his faith in the family circle; the children responded to the love, but were mystified and respectful before the theory: they perceived it was something very subtle, as were most of “father’s ideas.” But they also knew early that their father did not live in a fool’s paradise. “It was of course the old story that we had only to be with more intelligence and faith—an immense deal more, certainly, in order to work off, in the happiest manner, the manysided ugliness of life; which was a process that might go on, blessedly, in the quietest of all quiet ways. That wouldn’t be blood and fire and tears, or would be none of these things stupidly precipitated; it would simply take place by enjoyed communication and contact, enjoyed concussion or convulsion even—since pangs and agitations, the very agitations of perception itself, are the highest privilege of the soul, and there is always, thank goodness, a saving sharpness of play or complexity of consequence in the intelligence completely alive.”

  Blood and fire and tears each in his own time and way each of them suffered, sooner or later. Alice, whose life was a mysterious long willful dying, tragic and ironic, once asked her father’s permission to kill herself. He gave it, and she understood his love in it, and refrained: he wrote to Henry that he did not much fear any further thoug
hts of suicide on her part. William took the search for truth as hard as his father had, but by way of philosophy, not religion; the brave psychologist and philosopher was very sick in his soul for many years. Henry was maimed for life in an accident, as his father had been before him, but he of them all never broke, never gave way, sought for truth not in philosophy nor in religion, but in art, and found his own; showed just what the others had learned and taught, and spoke for them better than they could for themselves, thus very simply and grandly fulfilling his destiny as artist; for it was destiny and he knew it and never resisted a moment, but went with it as unskeptically as his father had gone with religion.

  The James family, as we have seen, were materially in quite comfortable circumstances. True the fine fortune had misted away somewhat, but they had enough. If people are superior to begin with, as they were, the freedom of money is an added freedom of grace and the power of choice in many desirable ways. This accounts somewhat then for the extraordinary ability, ease of manners, and artless, innocent unselfconsciousness of the whole family in which Henry James was brought up, which he has analyzed so acutely, though with such hovering tenderness. It was merely a fact that they could afford to be beyond material considerations because in that way they were well provided. Their personal virtues, no matter on what grounds, were real, their kindness and frankness were unfeigned. “The cousinship,” he wrote, “all unalarmed and unsuspecting and unembarrassed, lived by pure serenity, sociability, and loquacity.” Then with the edge of severity his own sense of truth drew finally upon any subject, he added: “The special shade of its identity was thus that it was not conscious—really not conscious of anything in the world; or was conscious of so few possibilities at least, and these so immediate, and so a matter of course, that it came to the same thing.” There he summed up a whole society, limited in number but of acute importance in its place; and having summed up, he cannot help returning to the exceptions, those he loved and remembered best.

  There were enough intellectual interests and consciousness of every kind in his father’s house to furnish forth the whole connection, and it was the center. Education, all unregulated, to be drawn in with the breath, and absorbed like food, proceeded at top speed day and night. Though William, of all the children, seemed to be the only one who managed to acquire a real, formal university training of the kind recognized by academicians, Henry got his, in spite of the dozen schools in three countries, in his own time and his own way; in the streets, in theaters (how early grew in him that long, unrequited passion for the theater!), at picture galleries, at parties, on boats, in hotels, beaches, at family reunions; by listening, by gazing, dawdling, gaping, wondering, and soaking in impressions and sensations at every pore, through every hair. Though at moments he longed to be an orphan when he saw the exciting life of change and improvisation led by his cheerful orphaned cousins, “so little sunk in the short range,” it is clear that his own life, from minute to minute, was as much as he could endure; he had the only family he could have done with at all, and the only education he was capable of receiving. His intuitions were very keen and pure from the beginning, and foreknowledge of his ineducability in any practical sense caused him very rightly to kick and shriek as they hauled him however fondly to his first day of school. There he found, as he was to find in every situation for years and years, elder brother William, the vivid, the hardy, the quick-learning, the outlooking one, seated already: accustomed, master of his environment, lord of his playfellows. For so Henry saw him; William was a tremendous part of his education. William was beyond either envy or imitation: the younger brother could only follow and adore at the right distance.

  So was his mother his education. Her children so possessed her they did not like her even to praise them or be proud of them because that seemed to imply that she was separate from them. After her death, the younger Henry wrote of her out of depths hardly to be stirred again in him, “she was our life, she was the house, she was the keystone of the arch”—suddenly his language took on symbols of the oldest poetry. Her husband, who found he could not live without her, wrote in effect to a friend that very early in their marriage she had awakened his torpid heart, and helped him to become a man.

  The father desired many things for the childen, but two things first: spiritual decency, as Henry James says it, and “a sensuous education.” If Henry remembered his share in the civilizing atmosphere of Mr. Jenks’s school as “merely contemplative,” totally detached from any fact of learning, at home things were more positive. Their father taught them a horror of piggishness, and of conscious virtue; guarded them, by precept and example, from that vulgarity he described as “flagrant morality”; and quite preached, if his boundless and changing conversation could be called that, against success in its tangible popular meaning. “We were to convert and convert, success—in the sense that was in the general air—or no success; and simply everything that happened to us, every contact, every impression and every experience we should know, were to form our soluble stuff; with only ourselves to thank should we remain unaware, by the time our perceptions were decently developed, of the substance finally projected and most desirable. That substance might be just consummately Virtue, as a social grace and value. . . the moral of all of which was that we need never fear not to be good enough if only we were social enough. . . .”

  Again he told them that the truth—the one truth as distinguished from the multiple fact—“was never ugly and dreadful, and (we) might therefore depend upon it for due abundance, even of meat and drink and raiment, even of wisdom and wit and honor.”

  No child ever “took in” his father’s precepts more exactly and more literally than did Henry James, nor worked them more subtly and profoundly to his own needs. He was at last, looking back, “struck. . . with the rare fashion after which, in any small victim of life, the inward perversity may work. It works by converting to its uses things vain and unintended, to the great discomposure of their prepared opposites, which it by the same stroke so often reduces to naught; with the result indeed that one may most of all see it—so at least have I quite exclusively seen it, the little life out for its chance—as proceeding by the inveterate process of conversion.”

  The little life out for its chance was oh how deeply intent on the chance it chose to take; and all this affected and helped to form a most important phase of his interests: money, exactly, and success, both of which he desired most deeply, but with the saving justifying clause that he was able only to imagine working for and earning them honestly—and though money was only just that, once earned, his notion of success was really his father’s, and on nothing less than the highest ground did it deserve that name. In the meantime, as children, they were never to be preoccupied with money. But how to live? “The effect of his attitude, so little thought out as shrewd or vulgarly providential, but. . . so socially and affectionately founded, could only be to make life interesting to us at worst, in default of making it extraordinarily paying.” His father wanted all sorts of things for them without quite knowing what they needed, but Henry the younger began peering through, and around the corners of, the doctrine. “With subtle indirectness,” the children, perhaps most of all Henry, got the idea that the inward and higher life, well rounded, must somehow be lived in good company, with good manners and surroundings fitting to virtue and sociability, good, you might say, attracting good on all planes: of course. But one of the goods, a main good, without which the others might wear a little thin, was material ease. Henry James understood and anatomized thoroughly and acutely the sinister role of money in society, the force of its corrosive powers on the individual; the main concern of nearly all his chief characters is that life shall be, one way or another, and by whatever means, a paying affair. . . and the theme is the consequences of their choice of means, and their notion of what shall pay them.

  This worldly knowledge, then, was the end-product of that unworldly education which began with the inward life, the early inculcated love o
f virtue for its own sake, a belief in human affections and natural goodness, a childhood of extraordinary freedom and privilege, passed in a small warm world of fostering love. This world for him was never a landscape with figures, but a succession of rather small groups of persons intensely near to him, for whom the landscape was a setting, the houses they lived in the appropriate background. The whole scene of his childhood existed in his memory in terms of the lives lived in it, with his own growing mind working away at it, storing it, transmuting it, reclaiming it. Through his extreme sense of the appearance of things, manners, dress, social customs, the lightest gesture, he could convey mysterious but deep impressions of individual character. In crises of personal events, he could still note the look of tree-shaded streets, family gardens, the flash of a grandmother’s scissors cutting grapes or flowers, fan-shaped lights, pink marble steps; the taste of peaches, baked apples, custards, ice creams, melons, food indeed by the bushel and the barrel; the colors and shapes of garments, the headdresses of ladies, their voices, the way they lifted their hands. If these were all, they would have been next to nothing, but the breathing lives are somewhere in them.

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