- Henry James’s Bowing Acquaintance with Germany
Henry James knew German well enough to pick for some of his minor characters names such as Silberstadt-Schreckenstein, which makes a terrifying sound, Dr. Staub, which deflates the heavy militarist thinking of its owner, or Tischbein, which is in comparison almost a compliment in the way it connotes unimaginative practicality (or anecdotal Victorian eroticism). Henry James and Germany is an old story addressed sporadically over the past four decades in diverse forms and contexts: in a book of 1979 by Evelyn A. Hovanec and in Casey Abell’s posting to James F-L on Henry James’s German Essays, dated November 27, 1998. Are we ready for a new chapter twenty to forty years later? What new insights could it bring about James and Germany? The books reviewed in this essay do not answer these questions in a direct way, but in their ostensible or implied reliance on German cultural habits of the past (and today) they do expose James’s relation to Germany. [End Page 302]
Henry James figures prominently and yet he is not the only “actor” in Mhairi Pooler’s study of Anglophone autobiography in the first half of the twentieth century. Her cast of characters is both diverse and representative. None of the other three artists discussed by Pooler achieved quite the measure of James’s literary success, but he does not lose anything by rubbing shoulders with authors who deservedly or not are less well-known today: Edmund Gosse (1849–1928), Siegfried Sassoon (1886–1967), and Dorothy Richardson (1873–1957). The critic, literary historian, and translator Gosse, the major novelist James, the poet Sassoon, and the author and journalist Richardson were, as Pooler argues, personally and intellectually interconnected—they knew one another, or at least one another’s writing. Pooler sees in this group two generations of authors exposed to the major social and ideological upheavals of their time and, in their turn, also significant contributors to modernist experimentation precisely through their autobiographical writing. Both the cast of characters and the historical background give the study a commendable epic dimension.
The autobiographical mode exemplified in the works of the four authors is one of the common denominators in Pooler’s study. She remarks that tradition and innovation are not chronology-bound (6, 11) and the later authors may appear more nostalgic than the generation of their literary fathers. In fact, and this is the central idea in the book, all four authors unearth and make use in their autobiographies of the German Romantic tradition of the Künstlerroman, i.e., a story of artistic apprenticeship, which has often been viewed as a subgenre of the Bildungsroman. Both genres have, in the German tradition, a few other cousins as well, including the Erziehungsroman and the Entwicklungsroman, which can give an analytical mind an excuse for endless hair-splitting. The study of this family tree is a research field in itself. What seems to be interesting to Pooler, however, is the fluidity of content that the form of the Künstlerroman seeks to channel. She rightly points out that a life story may coincide with an artistic manifesto and an aesthetic treatise (3). Despite its provenance in M. H. Abrams’s and Adeline Tintner’s studies, on which Mhairi Pooler builds (17–19), the concept of “creative autobiography” does not really appeal to me. Can autobiography be anything else than “creative”?
It transpires that “creative autobiography” is performed by literary artists (who are well-known or at least worth knowing) but sadly excludes unexpected creativity in people of other professions who may be writing memoirs (a prime example being Benjamin Franklin) and ghost writers, who may also deserve haunting. Despite exposing on the book cover Sassoon’s sketch entitled “Prettifying the Past,” which spells out the genre of “memoirs” in capital letters, in her book Pooler does not theorize the distinction between autobiography and memoir. She is far more interested in the...