I think he should have been a blogger.
Oh, I don’t mean he shouldn’t have written his novels. I’m referring only to the last year or two of his life, when he became very politically active as a result of WWI.
I had first learned of the fact of James’s strong reaction to WWI a while back. But I was reminded of it by some passages in the book Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi, which I’ve recently finished (and may write a separate post about).
I was struck by the fact that James could be roughly classified as a “changer,” WWI having been the catalyst for his change, much like 9/11 has been for so many people recently. Previously, he’d been relatively apolitical. But after WWI began James, who was living in England, became consumed with the need to turn his energies to the war:
In the last two years of his life, Henry James was radically transformed by his intense involvement in the First World War. For the first time, he became socially and politically active, a man who all his life had done his best to keep aloof from the actual passions of existence. His critics, like H. G. Wells, blamed him for his mandarin attitude towards life, which prevented him from any involvement with the social and political issues of the day. [James] wrote about his experience of World War I that it “almost killed me. I loathed so having lived on and on into anything so hideous and horrible.”
James had lived through the Civil War as a young man, but hadn’t served due to a back ailment. According to Ms. Nafisi, James:
wrote in part [during the Civil War] to compensate for his inability to participate in the war. Now, at the end of his life, he complained about the impotence of words in the face of such inhumanity. In an interview on March 21, 1915, with The New York Times, he said: “The war has used up words; they have weakened, they have deteriorated like motor car tires; they have, like millions of other things, been more overstrained and knocked about and voided of the happy semblance during the last six months than in all the long ages before, and we are now confronted with a depreciation of all our terms, or, otherwise speaking, with a loss of expression through increase of limpness, that may well make us wonder what ghosts will be left to walk.”
Oh, that Jamesian sentence structure!
I think it’s interesting that for James the human suffering, which obviously deeply moved him, led to a deep mourning of the loss of the power of language to convey what was happening. For a man like James this was terribly important; as a writer, words were key to him. Clearly, though, he was undergoing a deep crisis which led to a turning point, because despite that despair about the power of words he began using them in an activist way for the first time in his life:
…this time to write not fiction but war pamphlets, appeals to America to join the war and not to remain indifferent to the suffering and atrocities in Europe. He also wrote poignant letters. In some he expressed his horror at events; in others he consoled friends who had lost a son or a husband in the war.
He fell into a round of activities, visiting wounded Belgian soldiers, and later British soldiers, in hospitals, raising money for Belgian refugees and the wounded and writing war propaganda from the fall of 1914 until December 1915…What inner horror and fascination drove this man, who all his life had shied away from public activity, to become so actively involved in the war effort?
One reason for his involvement was the carnage, the death of so many young men, and the dislocation and destruction. While he mourned the mutilation of existence, he had endless admiration for the simple courage he encountered, both in the many young men who went to war and in those they left behind…He lobbied the U.S. ambassador to Britain and other high American officials and reproached them for their neutrality. And he wrote pamphlets in defense of Britain and her allies.
That’s the point at which it occurred to me that James, had he lived today, might have become a blogger.
I won’t even venture a guess as to whether James would be a hawk or a dove in the present conflict. However, it seems clear that, despite his deep distate for killing, he was a hawk during WWI. But not a bloodthirsty one–au contraire. It seems that he wanted the sacrifice of so many courageous young men and their families to be meaningful and not wasted; he wanted the war to be fought decisively rather than go on and on in a bloody stalemate. I have not been able to find his actual writings about the war online, so I’ve not read them, but my guess is that he reasoned that the entrance of the US into the war would enable the allies to win and therefore would staunch the bleeding.
James suffered a stroke on Dec. 2, 1915, and died three months later. When James had written that the war had “almost killed” him, perhaps he spoke too soon.