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"There's Surely a Story In It": James's Notebooks and the Working Artist by Martha Banta, University of California, Los Angeles What Henry James looked for and did not find in his review of Nathaniel Hawthorne's notebooks we may look for and find in James's own notebooks. Comparisons between the two men are odious if we care about absolute justice, which is what James did not render to his predecessor. Such comparisons, however , are beautifully useful, as James might put it, if used as the occasion to read James reading Hawthorne. "There's surely a story in it," James confided to his notebooks while pondering the possibilities of this "germ" or that. There was surely a story for James the critic in the Hawthorne situation. There is another story for us when we place one kind of artist's notebook, written in response to American life in the 1840s, over against another kind kept by a writer at the far end of the century soon after deciding to leave America behind. In 1878 James turned his eye upon Hawthorne's career in order to prepare the little book he had been asked to write for the Man of Letters series. James was somewhat baffled by what he found, and he was not a man who took easily to being baffled. One of the uncertainties Hawthorne's case introduced was the seeming disjunction between the genius Hawthorne demonstrated in his published work and the emptiness voiding the notebooks that James believed he detected when reading them upon their publication between 1868 and 1872. Indeed, James had already expressed his dissatisfaction in the 1872 review he wrote for The Nation; in assessing Hawthorne's French and Italian Notebooks, James judged them as totally wanting in the type of responses to Europe he had been enjoying.1 As we know, the biographical data James used for his critique was drawn almost entirely from A Study of Hawthorne published in 1876 by George Parsons Lathrop, Hawthorne's son-in-law. It is usually overlooked that James in large part grounds his portrait of Hawthorne's America and the status of the American artist prior to the Civil War in his reading of the Hawthorne notebooks.2 No one I know has ever done a detailed analysis of James's evaluation of those notebooks; nor—more to the point of what I wish to emphasize here—has anyone attempted thoroughly to examine James's own notebooks, either in and of themselves, or as a way to uncover certain shifts in the attitudes held toward the work of writing taking place during the single generation that separates Hawthorne from James.3 We are all familiar with the passage from James's Hawthorne where he lists the objects on the landscape the United States does not possess. This litany 154 The Henry James Review of absent things reads in part, "a country without a sovereign, without a court . . . without an Oxford or a Cambridge, without cathedrals or ivied churches, without latticed cottages or village ale-houses .. . without an Epson or an Ascot, an Eton, or a Rugby" (HA 42). It is not, however, commonly recognized that this passage (1) follows hot upon the heels of James's having asked to what purpose "the minute and often trivial" chronicles contained within Hawthorne's notebooks were written down in the first place—so filled with "blankness" are they, so "cold and empty" a record of a "crude and simple society" (HA 40-41); and (2) that it lists items James himself would generally do without when composing his own European tales.4 Also register the fact that James entered this passage into his own notebooks on February 21, 1879, while completing his Hawthorne volume; he inserted it as an idea for a story in which one of the characters would remark, "Oh yes, the United States, a country without. . ." (NB 14). That is, an observation James the critic works into his appraisal of the odd conditions out of which Hawthorne created works of genius is the same notion pounced upon by James the tale-teller. What a fictive character says about the country's lacks becomes...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 153-164
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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