October 29th, 2005

Henry James missed his calling

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.

16 Responses to “Henry James missed his calling”

  1. Ymarsakar Says:

    Having the best and brightest of your generation being killed, tends to make one lose one’s faith in humanity, patriotism, nationalism, peace through superior firepower, and all that good stuff.

    Then having the Americans swoop in and declare victory, that must have been the icing on the cake for them.

    Only explanation for how a Great Empire like Britain, who’d shoot Indians out of cannons in retaliation for rebellion (or some such) can’t even confront the Germans whom they beat in the last war.

    Only explanation for how the French, who supposedly had patriotism and vive le France glory in abundance, would accede to a puppet government and a collaborationist one at that, controlled by their infernal enemies the Germans.

    Let’s also not forget the weird French, German, Russian alliance in 2002. Bismarck might have been quite suprised at what finally united two of Germany’s worst enemies into their best friends. Talk about real politek, blood and iron.

  2. neo-neocon Says:

    To 1:30 anonymous: Actually, Nafisi mentioned some suspicions around James’s Civil War activity or lack thereof. I didn’t include that part of her quote because it seemed somewhat tangential to the matter at hand, and this post was already getting overlong (a problem I have sometimes!).

    I think you are correct that this is definitely a possibility. But, having read Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, there were also elements of WWI that made it particularly horrifying to those alive at the time, and made them lose faith in the entire concept of progress and even civilization. I think that at least a good deal of James’s reaction was based on that.

    Maybe it’s time to add his diaries or a biography to my lengthy reading list. Can’t seem to get around to reading more than a tiny fraction of the interesting books around.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    All above doubtless legitimate in terms of research and personal expression; however, a further and perhaps even more interesting speculation as to HJ’s emotional motives for his utter dismay at WWI centers around exploration of his response to the American Civil War, his lack of participation in which is fraught with unknowns. Though not a participant, HJ witnessed this war first-hand in many respects — as most Americans did — and the horrors of it, interncine as they were, could not have been less apalling than those of WWI. One wonders if his own failing health at the time of outbreaking hostilities in 1914 had something to do with his dramatic response to the war’s circumstances. He was generally, I glean from my readings, in a quite depressed state during these years. I’m not gainsaying the first poster’s conclusions by my comments but as usual with circumstances surrounding The Master’s writing and activities there is a great deal more than meets the eye or intellect of those who have written about him or those of us who simply (simply?)love his work.

  4. mizpants Says:

    As usual, a thoughtful and original rumination, Neoneo. Even so, I have to admit that the idea of a Jamesian blog strikes me as potentially hilarious, perfect for satire. It would be beyond me, but would anyone else care to try it? Iowahawk, maybe?

  5. David Thomson Says:

    One must never confuse Wilhelm II with Adolph Hitler. America should not have fought in WWI—but had to engage our ideologically driven enemies during WWII, Korea, and Viet Nam. The Imperial German Army was not a direct threat to the values of Western Civilization. Many Jews in Poland, for instance, were thrilled that it had taken over the governance of that region. The Germans were only mildly anti-Semitic and far more benevolent than the Polish Catholics of that era. Jews openly served in the Kaiser’s military and their rights were respected. The disgraceful Dreyfus affair, in case anyone forgot, occurred in France.

  6. Paul Says:

    War lovers generally don’t have to fight them. They can set back like Monday morning quarterbacks and second guess everything. Some warhawks hide behind patriotism. I think Remarque’s words have a great deal of creedence even today. War is hell!

  7. Anonymous Says:

    Yes, neo-neocon, there is a Conservative Movement and it has a sense of humor. http://www.neoconjob.blogspot.com has some srticles you might enjoy. It could certainly use some therapy.

  8. David Thomson Says:

    Henry James likely took too seriously the lying propagandists of the British government. Slandering the Germans was their specialty. There are wars that must be fought—and there are ones that should be avoided. WWI was among the latter. The United States was foolish for entering this conflict. Germany was something of an aggressor, but England and France also pushed the envelope. They were not simply victims. Some sort of truce would have eventually been worked out. Unfortunately, our involvement unwittingly helped bring about the existence of both Nazi Germany and Communist Russia.

    America’s citizens overreacted to the infamous Zimmerman telegram. Yes, the Germans stupidly did try to persuade the Mexicans to invade our country. Nonetheless, common sense dictated that this was a foolish hope. The Mexican government had about as much chance of successfully invading the United States as I do defeating Shaq O’Neal on a basketball court! We should have swallowed a chill pill and not allowed our emotions to get the better of us.

  9. The Popinjay Says:

    That would be a lot of fun to have a great mind like his blogging. Orwell too. Unfortunately these days, we’re stuck with the likes of Phillip Roth and Jane Smiley.

  10. Sigmund, Carl and Alfred Says:

    Your remark that “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” is a fascinating one- one can deduce that James ‘activism’ is an extension of reality- that is, he understood what he was seeing, rather than an expression of a strictly political agenda.

    That war is immoral is a given. The moment the first innocent dies in a war, the waging of war becomes immoral. That does not mean that there aren’t just wars, or that a just war cannot, or should not be prosecuted. Notwithstanding the politcal rhetoric expended in te justification of behaviors that are immoral, the line has to be drawn. Moral equivalence is not bestowed because we can walk on two legs. There is much more to it than that.

    I think that is the reality that James wanted to express.

  11. neo-neocon Says:

    david: Fussell’s book is one of my favorites.

  12. camojack Says:

    Anachronistic…

  13. The Bunnies Says:

    To some, the US suffers from “Vietnam syndrome.” To me, Europe still hasn’t recovered from WWI. This struck me when I read Remarque’s “All Quiet…”

    In David’s quote, Remarque correctly derides his leaders’ use of the term “patriotism,” feeling mislead because he expected to be some sort of hero if he followed them. He and those like him were correct to feel betrayed.

    Nevertheless, sometimes it is a good thing to love your country. Sometimes death on a battlefield actually is for a noble cause. Unfortunately, no matter the side in WWI, you pretty much died for outdated military theories and colonialism.

    Now too many Europeans assume that every war is just like that one. This shows just how destructive abusing the noble human desire for heroism and iedals can be.

    Hatred of WWI and the fear of repeating it led directly to WWII. Europeans learned well that they shouldn’t blindly follow their leaders into war. Let’s hope someday they’ll also learn that some things are still worth fighting for.

  14. David Says:

    His statement that “The war has used up words” reminded me of several passages in Erich Maria Remarque’s neglected novel “The Road Back”, which deals with German soldiers returning home after their defeat in 1918. Here’s one, spoken by a character who went from high school to the war, in which he served as a Lieutenant:

    “They stuffed the word Patriotism with all the twaddle of their fine phrases, with their desire for glory, their will to power, their false romanticism, their stupidity, their greed of business, and then paraded it before us as a shining ideal! And we thought they were sounding a bugle summoning us to a new, a more strenuous, a larger life….The youth of the world rose up in every land believing that it was fighting for freedom! And in every land they were duped and misused…a generation of hope, of faith, of will,s trength, ability, so hypnotised that they have shot down one another, though over the whole world they all had the same purpose!”

    This book would be worthwhile reading for anyone who want to understand the deep and long-lasting impact of WWI.

    Another indispensable resource for understanding the impact of World War I on western culture, and specifically on language and literary forms, is Paul Fussell’s “The Great War and Modern Memory.”

  15. Ymarsakar Says:

    Too bad their sacrifice were wasted, and due partially to American help (something he wanted) in the end.

    He wanted our help, he got it, Pershing pushed the Germans back. Then the Euros started talking about “how it was their war” and how they would end it their way.

    Right. Their way. The European way is to start up another war a couple of decades after the current one ended. That is their way. And it always has been.

    I don’t think James would have liked the 21st century. With the absence of patriotism in Europe, the expeditionary nature of American power, and the sheer ruthlessness present in a Terror War.

    I share his sentiments, I am disgusted by the early 20th century. So many stupid people of all stripes and colors, not one of them worth American help in the end.

    Perhaps his sentiments would have differend in the last part.

    Pershing pushed the Germans back because he proposed active mobile assaults. The British/ Germans/ French at the time had tired of such assaults, they had lost their will, that was why it was a stalemate.

    America did not, and whichever side we helped, won because of that will. The Europeans were tired of that war, they had thought it was another Short and Victorious border war like they had seen for the last century or so. It wasn’t.

    It is like an infant and juvenile squabbling contest. The British blamed the Germans for militarizing their stuff in WWI, and so the Germans blame the British for the Treaty of Versailles, economic inflation, and etc in WWII. On, and on, and on.

    It’s about as much fun as dealing with a bunch of Islamic Fanatics that can’t keep their hands off civilians and moderation.

    Good thing we no longer have to, though Eastern Europe does. Good riddance I say.

    In 1917, following America’s declaration of war on Germany, President Woodrow Wilson named Pershing to command of the American Expeditionary Forces, a post which he retained until 1918. Pershing was responsible for the organization, training, and supply of an inexperienced force that eventually grew from 27,000 men to over two million soldiers. In this way, Pershing is credited with the creation of the “National Army”, a combined draft and professional Army force that was called upon to fight the First World War.

    Pershing was appointed a Major General in the National Army and his force deployed to Europe. Upon arriving in France, Pershing fought continual political campaigns to keep the AEF from being split up to augment British and French forces. During this time, George C. Marshall served as one of Pershing’s assistants and Douglas MacArthur was one of his Division Commanders.
    [...]
    While in Europe, Pershing openly scorned the slow trench warfare of the previous three years on the Western Front, believing that to fight over a small area of no-man’s land was very costly and senseless. Under his command, the American Expeditionary Force developed advanced mobile warfare, relying on direct assaults on enemy positions as well as close-quarter shelling of targets.

    From wiki.

    Have no doubts. America ended WWI, and Europe began WWII, and we ended it again. Only because of American intervention in the world stage, did we finally end the European cauldron of stupidity in the Cold War.

    I still have my doubts about WWI. Europe, especially the English and the French, did not deserve the help of a great American as Pershing.

    But they got it, and the rest is history. As sad as that history is.

  16. bob Says:

    Yes, James was shocked by the carnage, but I don’t think he was a hawk. Anything to stop the carnage brought on by the stalemate that was the war at the time. If the U.S. could enter the war and break that stalemate, James reasoned, the carnage would end sooner. He wasn’t being so much political, as reasonable. It’s a leason today’s left and the right could learn from.

    We should also not forget the foolishness of the the generals, British, French, German, et al, who sent their infantry into the machine guns. Verdun, the Somme, they were great tragedies.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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