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Hemingway: The Obsession with Henry James, 1924-1954 Neal B. Houston Stephen F. Austin State University Ernest Hemingway squirmed as his second wife, Pauline, read aloud in 1927 from Henry James' novel The Awkward Age (Baker 243). Hemingway wondered why James bailed his characters out of their frequent inactivity by inserting a drawing room scene; and, as he was to do frequently during the next thirty years, he freely criticized the quality of James' works, "and knowing nothing about James it seems to me to be the shit." Too, he was quick to criticize the male protagonists ofJames, ". . . and the men all without any exception talk and think like fairies except a couple of caricatures of brutal outsiders" (Hemingway, Letters 266).1 Carlos Baker observes that Hemingway, the "brutal outsider" himself, was at this time publishing Men Without Women, whose sales had reached 15,000 in the first three months after publication (Baker 243). But now Hemingway, the outsider, clearly in literary ascendance, was becoming acquainted with James' works; his artistic and personal recognition of James in future years was, for the most part, to take the form of a peculiar enmity. He was often to refer to James in highly derisive terms — almost to the end of his own life.2 Hemingway's lèse majesté towards him takes the form of a sporadic obsession that reveals more about Hemingway's maturity than James' imagined frailties. Young Hemingway vilified James for his choice of themes and characters, but more importantly, he viciously maligned him for the traumatic but obscure accident that had occurred in his youth. Leon Edel has summarized the known facts of the injury as gathered from James' writings and other sources. The "obscure hurt" was reported by James to have happened at the "same dark hour" of the onset of the Civil War, in other words, May 1861 (Edel, Years 176-77). But actually the causative factor, the fire at West Stables in Newport, occurred on the night of October 28, 1861 (177). James relates that he had jammed himself into "an acute angle between two fences" trying to make "a rusty, quasi-extemporised old engine work" in order to help put out the stable fire. Injured in this attempt, James later provided only incomplete details and stated that the disaster was "intimate, odious, horrid, [a] catastrophe, obscure, and most entirely personal" (175). Readers, critics, and other writers have often interpreted the result ofthe accident as castration, but Edel says the existing evidence 33 34Rocky Mountain Review might, instead, point to a back injury "obscure but clearly painful" (183). Edel states that after the accident James led a physically active life, perhaps with accompanying pain, but participated in horseback riding, fencing, weight-lifting, walking, and traveling; and he also enjoyed a full literary and social life. Edel forcefully states, "There was nothing of the eunuch about him either in appearance or action. Henry James himself, we suspect, would not have used the word eunuch as freely, as he did on occasions, to describe bad and unproductive writers, had he been one himself" (183). In short, the rumors of castration of Henry James were only rumors, and in the final analysis no one can say with absolute exactness what was the true nature of his injury. But Hemingway was to seize these rumors and apparently fashion in his mind for many years the belief that Henry James was somewhat less than a true man, and thus something less than a major writer. Apparently, Hemingway's first acquaintance with the life ofJames was founded on the reading of Van Wyck Brooks' The Pilgrimage of Henry James, in which he took exception to a statement of the author that a writer suffers when he becomes an expatriate and is removed from "his plain primary heritage" (158). Crawford and Morton believe that Hemingway clearly demonstrated, through the high quality of his expatriate novels, that Brooks' viewpoint was a false one; they note that Hemingway made his own rebuttal in The Transatlantic Review in reference to the fact that The Dial prize had been awarded to Van Wyck Brooks for The Pilgrimage (106). Hemingway stated in 1924 that "... I have always...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-2833
Print ISSN
1948-2825
Pages
pp. 33-46
Launched on MUSE
2016-01-06
Open Access
No
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