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"SO ATROCIOUS A WORLD": Selections from the Unpublished Letters of Henry James / Fred Kaplan When World War I broke out in August 1914, seventy-one-year-old Henry James had been residing in England for almost forty years. As a relatively young man, he had decided that London would be his "permanent headquarters," that English art, culture, and society would be the stage on which he would enact his vocational drama. Amazingly productive, partly because he needed to write to earn a living but also because writing was the act that gave him most pleasure, he was a novelist and short story writer more famous than read. With a series of successes in the late 1870s and into the 1880s, particularly "Daisy Miller," Washington Square, and Portrait of a Lady, he had reached the peak of his readership; by the late 1880s and throughout the 1890s, with the relative failure of The Bostonians, The Princess Casamassima, and The Tragic Muse, the size of his audience and his earnings had noticeably declined. Ironically, his literary reputation among those who made and sustained reputations grew; disciples gathered round; the legend of James as "the master" writer was born. Not even a series of failed attempts in the first half of the 1890s to write for the theatre, in order to make money, undermined his reputation or his dedication to "the art of fiction." When his final theatrical venture, Guy Domville, failed miserably in 1895, he had good reason to be depressed. After some painful struggle, he gradually returned to writing fiction exclusively. During the next five years he wrote a large number of brilliant short stories and returned to the novel, and in the first years of the twentieth century he followed The Spoils of Poynton, The Awkward Age, and the incomparable What Maisie Knew with The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl. After 1904, he wrote short stories and The American Scene, an account of his 1904-1905 visit to the United States; he exhausted himself between 1905 and 1909 revising much of his earlier work for the New York Edition of his novels and stories; he tinkered with ideas for novels and a number of novels he had begun earlier; and he began work on a projected threevolume autobiography, the first volume of which he published in 1913. But his career as a writer of fiction was essentially over. The vocational drama had its personal counterpart. James's emotional and physical health had taken a battering over the years. By 1914, the worst was over, but the worst had been bad indeed. Having never married, he had given heavy weight to friendships and to family relationships. Always lonely, he had sustained his life through his art and through a combination Fred Kaplan The Missouri Review ยท 247 of the friendships into which he had been born and those that he had voluntarily embraced. In middle age, he had fallen in love, and between 1895 and 1910 he had had a series of emotionally intimate, physically platonic relationships with men, most of them noticeably younger than himself, and he had sustained his continuing intimate friendship with Howard Sturgis, the "dearest Howard" of these letters. With age and illness, the friendships that survived now became mostly epistolary. Over these years death also removed the family that had provided the other ballast for his emotional life. His parents had died in the early 1880s. So too had his brother Garth. In 1895, his long-suffering brilliant sister Alice, who spent the last seven years of her life in England, had finally brought to a satisfactory climax her debilitating ordeal. Between 1906 and 1909, while working on the New York Edition, Henry himself had suffered a series of heart episodes that were diagnosed alternatively as minor heart attacks or as nervous palpitations or as both or as neither. Dreadfully frightened, he feared both imminent death and survival into an ugly, useless old age. In January 1910, he had a nervous breakdown from which he never recovered entirely. Three months later, his brother William, Henry's oldest friend and correspondent, himself seriously ill with a progressively deteriorating damaged heart, came to England...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 147-168
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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