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Henry James and Graham Greene by J. A. Ward, Rice University In Graham Greene's collected essays the dominant figure is Henry James. Not only is James the subject of five essays; he is also the novelist who receives Greene's highest tribute: "He is as solitary in the history of the novel as Shakespeare in the history of poetry."1 And the terms of the tribute are nearly unique when viewed in the context of all the critical praise that James has received : The technical qualities of Henry James's novels have been so often and so satisfactorily explored [the first essay begins] . . . that perhaps I may be forgiven for ignoring James as the fully conscious craftsman in order to try to track the instinctive, the poetic writer back to the source of his fantasies. In all writers there occurs a moment of crystallization when the dominant theme is plainly expressed, when the private universe becomes visible even to the least sensitive reader. ... I think we may take the sentence in the scenario of The Ivory Tower, in which James speaks of 'the black and merciless things that are behind great possessions' as an expression of the ruling fantasy which drove him to write: a sense of evil religious in intensity. (LC, p. 21) The observation, which lies behind all of Greene's appraisals of James, clearly raises problems. "Religious" and "evil" are among the loosest and most relative of concepts, especially since James, unlike Greene, had no interest in formal doctrine and only the vaguest sense of the supernatural (for instance in his ghost stories, wherein supernatural occurrences derive their validity from literary convention, not from observed experience). But recurrent comments in the essays on James make it impossible to define "religious" loosely, suggesting simply a conflict between good and evil or a concern for morals and ethics. Emphatically the Henry James honored by Graham Greene is a novelist of the supernatural order: quite simply, "James believed in the supernatural"; "the struggle between the beautiful and the treacherous is lent . . . the importance of the supernatural" (LC, pp. 30, 36). Thus Greene associates James with Mauriac, and—consistent with his view that "with the death of James the religious sense was lost to the English novel" (LC, p. 69)—regrets the exclusively secular dimension of the 1. Graham Greene, The Lost Childhood and Other Essays (New York: Viking Press, 1951), p. 30. Subsequently cited parenthetically in the text as LC. 10 works of Forster and Virginia Woolf. In several of his essays Greene notes the curious affinity of James and Joseph Conrad—of James whose characters are ladies and gentlemen at home only in the capitals of Europe and of Conrad whose characters are sailors and adventurers roving about in the most remote and primitive parts of the world. "It was a strange fate which brought these two to settle within a few miles of each other and produce from material gained at such odd extremes of life two of the great English novels of the last fifty years : The Spoils of Poynton and Victory" (LC, p. 99). The relation of Conrad to James parallels the relation of Greene to James, even to the extent that Conrad and Greene are, in their own ambiguous ways, Catholic. Conrad's own essay on James, "The Historian of Fine Consciences," has much in common with Greene's essay "Henry James: The Private Universe," for it focuses on James's unique (for the Anglo-American novel) talent for making human intelligence a moral and spiritual faculty. Greene finds the Conrad-James relation an "amusing" one, for the apparent differences are strikingly insignificant. Lord Jim's Patusan is only geographically remote from Merton Densher's London and Venice (in James's The Wings of the Dove), as indeed is Scobie's west Africa (in Greene's The Heart of the Matter). One inevitably fears that Greene is perhaps contriving a James in his own image—as a religious novelist, as "a Puritan with a nose for the Pit," as a believer in "supernatural evil, but not in supernatural good" (LC, p. 49, 38). At the very least, in the emphasis Greene gives to James...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 10-23
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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