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A Conversation with Stephen Spender on Henry James by David Adams Leeming, The University of Connecticut The conversation that foUows took place in the faU of 1987 before and during a graduate seminar on Henry James at the University of Connecticut. It is part of a series of interviews with Spender on major figures in twentiethcentury literature. The questions in the interview focus primarily on two subjects: Spender's attitude towards his early work on James contained in The Destructive Element (1936) and the whole question of the "figure" in James's "carpet." DL: Stephen, in many conversations we have had over the years your interest in Henry James has been evident. Can you teU me something of how that interest began? SS: I think when I was an undergraduate I got interested in Henry James. It had to do with T. S. Eliot and his remark about James being unsuUied by the slightest trace of any idea in his work . What he meant was that James didn't try to put anything across, didn't try to propagate ideas. This attracted Auden and aU of us; so we became interested in Henry James. On the other hand, Bloomsbury disapproved of James, because James had disapproved of Bloomsbury. Apparently James was shocked when Virginia and Vanessa, who were the daughters of his old friend Leslie Stephen, moved from Knightsbridge to a Bohemian and shabby quarter of London near the British Museum—Bloomsbury. Henry James particularly disUked Clive BeU; he caUed him, Virginia Woolf once told me, a "dirty little packet." DL: Do you suppose BeU discovered he was caUed a "dirty Uttle packet?" SS: WeU, probably. As I said, Virginia knew, because it came up when I was trying to cross-question the Woolfs about James when I was writing The Destructive Element. And they said James was a "frozen up old monster" when they knew him. DL: So were you never able to get the Woolfs to speak seriously about his work? SS: I think they thought his work was aU about nothing; at least when I first knew them they told me so. E. M. Forster more or less thought this too, although he later wrote about The Ambassadors with sympathy if I remember rightly. DL: So it was in spite of Bloomsbury that you became a part of the James revival in the 30s. What exactly was your part in the revival? A Conversation with Spender on James 129 SS: The James revival began, I think, in 1934 with the special number oÃ- Hound and Horn on James. This number was edited by Lincoln Kirstein, and I contributed to it. I wrote an article a version of which was included later in a book I did in 1936 caUed The Destructive Element. That is aU I had to do with the revival. DL: What do you see now as the basis for or catalyst for the revival? SS: I think it must have been a renewed interest in the late works, which previous to this had made James unfashionable. People thought they were simply too contorted and obscure. There was the famous phrase of PhiUip GuedeUa: "James the First, James the Second, and the Old Pretender," dividing James's works into three periods. People who had foUowed James's career couldn't take the late novels—the very elaborate style. Also, there was the H. G. WeUs controversy. The fashionable writers then were Wells, Bennett, Galsworthy and so on. They were realistic writers who were writing about a different class of people than that which preoccupied James. (Everything in England always seems to come down to class.) WeUs was writing about shopkeepers who read scientific books and rose in life— that kind of thing—Yuppies of the Victorian era. There was the famous correspondence between James and WeUs. Henry James rather admired H. G. WeUs, and then WeUs suddenly turned on him in the parody caUed Boon. In it there is a character, Boon, who writes a novel which is compared to an elaborately arranged and lighted church on the high altar of which, very reverently, a dead kitten is placed. After reading Boon, James wrote a...


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