- Germinal James:The Lesson of the Apprentice
The Large Group that Gathered for the James session at the January, 1982, meeting of the Modern Language Association was drawn, in part, by the announcement of Cynthia Ozick's paper "The Lesson of the Master."1 Ozick recalls in this essay her early experience of reading James and recounts how, in her awestruck devotion to the Master, she "became Henry James." As a young woman of twenty-two, she determined to "become a Master" as a writer. She had read "The Lesson of the Master" and had understood James to require of anyone in her position a choice between life and art. The young woman chose art, but the mature Ozick, writing for the MLA, knows that, in following the later James as she then understood him, she lost her youth. Ozick's paper counsels young readers and artists to read the early James, "the faltering, imperfect, dreaming youth," and to lay aside "the Master in his fullness" for another season. This return to the early James is a choice of life, and one who takes Ozick's lesson is able not only to live his or her youth but may also achieve "modest mastery" as a writer. [End Page 233]
It would be an easy matter to chip away at Ozick's essay, asking, first, in which of the early works she does not find James posing difficult or impossible choices of the sort Paul Overt faces in "The Lesson of the Master." One would also like to know if we should return to the early James for the artistry that is special to that time or for a vision of life that predates the late "fall." Such questions, however, will distract us from what is useful about the essay. Ozick does not articulate a clear relation between the early and late James, and she does not specify what is of value uniquely in the early James, but she does give voice to a desire that James's readers should be able to understand. We understand her desire for a time, for a literature, that precedes a differentiation of life and art, experience and consciousness, because it is a Jamesian desire, one that James manifests both in relation to his artistry and thematically.2 In much of the present essay I will show how James meditates on the impossibility of fulfilling this desire even in his earliest work (particularly, Watch and Ward), but I hope ultimately to show how, in his desire for "life," James pushes a step beyond impossibility to achieve not fulfillment but something better: perpetuation. If we are to find the "life" that Ozick seeks in the early James, however, we must first come to understand the naivete and impossibility of our desire.
James's Prefaces reveal, again and again, his desire to return to a time before articulation descended on his stories. He recalls the "life" that preceded his "art," the "germ" that gave rise to the work. But his recollections of the germs of the novels and tales dramatize the novelist refusing the "life" in them even as he hungrily fastened on their artistic possibilities. His art requires the germs, but their "place" outside the work of art is only destructive to the work and must be suppressed. When a woman at a Christmas Eve dinner mentioned to James the incident that provided the germ for "The Spoils of Poynton," she naturally began to elaborate, but James could only see in her elaborations "clumsy Life again at her stupid work," threatening to destroy the germ that was so promising (Art of the Novel 121). James prized "thinness" in the germs, and described them as "stray suggestions," "wandering words," and "vague echoes" (Art of the Novel 119), implying that their value depended on their being suspended from "clumsy Life." They must arise out of life, as in the example of "Poynton," but as germs, they are already, precisely, "out" of life. The pun on "germ" is relevant: as the source for the work it is necessary, but its continuing presence in the work carries the threat of infection. The Prefaces nostalgically reach back to...