"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

July 27, 2013

The Stories of Henry James (1): "The Untried Years," 1864-1874 (Book Review)

Henry James's short fiction has - with some exceptions - often been overshadowed by his novels, but the 112 short stories he wrote are in fact an astonishing achievement. Here we look at the early stories written from 1864 to 1874.

Henry James was born into a fabulously wealthy and (what is rare) also very cultured and intellectual family in New York. His parents took the family on extended trips in Europe, leading an almost nomadic life. Henry James studied with tutors in Geneva, Paris, Bologna, Bonn and London; and he also briefly studied law at Harvard University, but preferred literature, and ended up spending his time at university reading interesting books in the library. But also after the brief stint at Harvard he remained in Cambridge as his family moved there in 1864. His first story was published - anonymously - when he was 21 years of age ("A Tragedy of Error," 1864) and in the next few years he became a contributor to The Nation and the Atlantic Monthly. In 1865 the first story ("The Story of a Year") was published under his own name.

In 1969 and 1870 James traveled alone in Europe, going as far as Switzerland and Italy, and meeting many famous artists as William Morris, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Ruskin, George Eliot, and many others. He payed his way by publishing essays and stories inspired by his travels. Henry James especially loved Italy and Italian art, although he never settled there. At home, he had found a friend and patron in William Dean Howells. James's first novel (Watch and Ward) was in 1871 serialized in the Atlantic Monthly, of which Howells was the editor.

Bored with life in the U.S., James again left for Europe in 1872. He stayed for two years, again supporting himself by writing for outstanding American magazines. In 1874, he again spent a year in America, before finally settling down in Europe from 1875 on..

The 26 stories written from 1864 to 1874 encompass a wide range of subjects, settings, and techniques. Although starting with short stories of less than 10,000 words, this form soon proved too constricting for James, and we soon see him writing "long short stories," in fact novellas, of between 15,000 and 20,000 words. Several themes that appear in this early period (with the exception of the Civil War) would be typical for the whole oeuvre of Henry James:

- stories with a Civil War setting: "The story of a Year", "Poor Richard," etc.)
- supernatural and fantastic motifs: "The Romance of Certain Old Clothes," "De Grey: A Romance" and "The Last of the Valerii"
- James International theme, the cultural clash between Europe and America: "A Passionate Pilgrim," "Madame de Mauves"
- the ambivalent fascination of strong, independent (and usually American) women
- the "fear of marriage" motif ("Eugene Pickering") and the "renunciating" male ("Madame de Mauves")
- a fascination with art and artists: "A Landscape Painter," "Travelling Companions," "The Sweetheart of M Briseux" and "The Madonna of the Future"

Here are the stories with links to where to find them on the internet:

A Tragedy of Error [1864]
First published in The Continental Monthly of February 1864
The first story ever published by James. Typical juvenilia, but not devoid of freshness. A woman has taken a lover during her husband's absence. Then the husband suddenly returns by ship. The wife makes a pact with a brutal boatsman to drown the husband when he is being rowed ashore. Unfortunately, she had not counted on her lover also visiting the ship to greet her husband...
Text available at: Wikisource

The Story of a Year [1865]
First published in The Atlantic Monthly of March 1865
A story set in the time of the Civil War, but showing the "reverse of the picture," i.e. no heroism, for James hated war. Just before going off to the battlefield, Jack Ford becomes engaged to Lizzie Crowe. His mother (who is at the same time Lizzie's guardian) disapproves, she considers Lizzie as too shallow. In Jack's absence Lizzie conceives a liking for non-combatant Bruce, whom she meets at a party. His mother, full of hatred for Lizzie, breaks the news of Lizzie's defection in a letter to Jack. After that, Jack is severely wounded in action and brought home, at the door of death. It was the news from his mother that wounded him, more sure than a bullet, and the fact that Lizzie doesn't want him anymore as a man, now finishes him off. Lizzie pities him, but doesn't want him. In his last hours Jack feels a transcending love for Lizzie, and in this condition he resigns her to Bruce.
Text available at: State University of New York, New Paltz

A Landscape Painter [1866]
First published in The Atlantic Monthly of February 1866. First book edition in Stories Revived (3 vols) of 1885.
James’s third-published story. An ironical tale about a rich man who has broken off a relationship when he realized the woman was only after his money. He now pretends to be a poor landscape painter and while spending time on the New England coast, nursing his wounded heart, meets an old sailor’s daughter. He falls in love but after the marriage she is revealed as just "another" gold-digger - she discovered his value thanks to secretly reading his diary (which is at the same time the story we are reading). A very clever story.
Text available at: Project Gutenberg Consortia Center.
Introduction and text at The Ladder.

A Day of Days [1866]
First published in The Galaxy of June 1866. First book edition in Stories Revived (3 vols) of 1885.
A summer day in New England. A young woman who lives with her scientist brother in the country, receives a visitor who requires letters of reference for a trip to Europe from her brother. While waiting for the brother to return home, she keeps the visitor company and takes a walk with him. He tells her he will leave the next day and remain for five years in Europe. She halfheartedly tempts him to stay, but is not sure of herself and in the end, he departs. A typically open Jamesian text.
Introduction and text at The Ladder.

My Friend Bingham [1867]
First published in The Atlantic Monthly of March 1867
While hunting at the seashore, Bingham has accidentally shot a widow's only child. He is so overcome with sorrow that the mother pities, esteems, then loves him.
Text available at: Atlantic Monthly (scan of original at Cornell University Library)

Poor Richard [1867]
First published in The Atlantic Monthly of June, July and August 1867. First book edition in Stories Revived (3 vols) of 1885.
It is the time of the Civil War. A wealthy young woman, Gertrude, has three suitors, a Captain, a Major and Richard Clare, a local farmer. Richard Clare is deeply conscious of his "insignificance" in the presence of these two military suitors. The Captain, who is the most favored, dies in the war. But the other two are not sufficiently worthy to succeed, and Gertrude prefers to remain single.
Text available at: Atlantic Monthly 1, 2 and 3 (scan of original at Cornell University Library)
Introduction and text at The Ladder.

The Romance of Certain Old Clothes [1868]
First published in The Atlantic Monthly of February 1868. First book edition in A passionate pilgrim and other tales of 1875.
A historical tale with a Gothic twist. In mid-eighteenth century New England, two sisters are in rivalry for the hand of an Englishman. The younger sister wins him but dies in childbirth. The older sister takes her place. On her deathbed, the younger sister had asked the husband to preserve her trousseau for her baby, a daughter. The older sister, now wife of the widower and stepmother to the child, is curious to see the contents of the chest which is kept in the attic. She secretly opens it and is later found dead, with inexplicable marks of fingers on her throat. Although this story is an early example of the theme of the supernatural in James' work, it is not very typical because of the historical setting.
Text available at: Atlantic Monthly (scan of original at Cornell University Library) Project Gutenberg Consortia Center.
Introduction and text at The Ladder.

A Most Extraordinary Case [1868]
First published in The Atlantic Monthly of April 1868. First book edition in Stories Revived (3 vols) of 1885.
A Civil War veteran, Mason, survives the conflict without injuries, but is stricken by illness at the end. The nature of the disorder is not disclosed. An affectionate aunt takes Mason into her home to care for him. There Mason meets a beautiful niece with whom he falls in love, however without divulging his feelings. But when he hears that his own doctor has successfully wooed the niece, he has a relapse and dies.  "This is the most extraordinary case I ever heard of," concludes the doctor. "The man was getting steadily well." Like in "The Story of a Year," it is the fact that a woman can not respond to the wounded man's love that in the end makes him fade away.
Text available at: Atlantic Monthly (scan of original at Cornell University Library)
Introduction and text at The Ladder.

The Story of a Masterpiece [1868]
First published in The Galaxy of January and February 1868
Baxter, a young artist has been commissioned by her future rich husband, Mr Lenox, to paint the portrait of Marian Everett. As he has been himself has been engaged to her, with some love still lingering, his portrait succeeds all too well. After the marriage, Mr Lenox cuts the portrait to pieces.
No online text available.

A Problem [1868]
First published in The Galaxy, June 1868
A young married pair has received the prophecies of two different fortune tellers. The first one says that the young man will marry twice; the second one that the young couple's child, a girl, will die. Jealous about the first prophecy, the wife leaves her husband. Then the child indeed dies and the pair is reunited in sorrow - and they marry for the second time.
No online text available.

De Grey: A Romance [1868]
First published in The Atlantic Monthly, July 1868
A curse rests on the old family of De Grey: every young woman engaged to the heir will die within a month unless the bond is a loveless one. Margaret becomes engaged to Paul de Grey, and although she hears about the family curse, she refuses to break off the engagement. Instead, she curses the curse - with unexpected results...
Text available at: Atlantic Monthly (scan of original at Cornell University Library); Internet Archive

Osborne's Revenge [1868]
First published in The Galaxy, July 1868
Robert Graham kills himself out of love for Henrietta Congreve. His friend Osborne thinking her a flirt wants to take revenge, but after making her acquaintance, realizes that she is a fine person who was on the contrary stalked by his friend.
Text at: State University of New York, New Paltz

A Light Man [1869]
First published in The Galaxy, July 1869. First appearance in book form in the collection Stories by American Authors published in New York by Scribner in 1884.
Ambiguous story with an unreliable narrator. A young man (insincere and idle) returns to America from Europe. His friend who works as live-in secretary for an old Epicure, invites him to stay. The old man takes a liking to him and unintentionally he supplants his friend in the rich man's affection, with consequences for the will. The old will is destroyed, but the old man dies before a new one can be made. Neither of the young man therefore receives any inheritance. It is possible to interpret the rich old man as an elderly homosexual, who pays for the attentions of two much younger man, both competing to be his favorite - but James has buried this subtext deep in the story. James' biographer, Leon Edel, interpretes the story on the other hand as symbolic of the competitive relation James had with his older brother, William.
Text at: Project Gutenberg
Introduction and text at The Ladder.

Gabrielle De Bergerac [1869]
First published in The Atlantic Monthly, July, August and September 1869
The elderly M. de Bergerac owes the unnamed narrator money which he cannot repay. Instead, he offers him a painting, a portrait of his aunt, Gabrielle de Bergerac, who was a beautiful woman. Then he tells the story of that aunt and her two suitors, a rich but debauched count and a poor tutor... It is a romantic, almost Balzacian story, set in pre-Revolutionary France, but James breaks the magic by informing us at the end that the lovers did not live long and happy ever after. 
Text at: State University of New York, New Paltz

Traveling Companions [1870]
First published in The Atlantic Monthly, November and December 1870
A tale of courtship with a setting in Italy and lots of sightseeing in the museums of Milan, Padua and Venice. A young American traveling in Italy meets two persons from his own country, a father and his daughter, Charlotte. He shares a deep interest in art with the daughter. A problem arises when on one of the outings they miss their train and are left alone in Padua - in James' time, the reputation of an unmarried woman would be sullied if she was unchaperoned by a male relative or an older woman. And indeed, rumors are started... but although the narrator nobly offers marriage, Charlotte refuses to be married for such a reason. Later, they marry after all, but for a better reason.
Text at Internet Archive.

A Passionate Pilgrim [1871]
First published in The Atlantic Monthly, March and April 1871. First book edition in A Passionate Pilgrim and Other Tales published by Osgood in Boston 1875. Also included in The New York Edition (1907-09). 
An American claimant to an English estate learns that the Old World Cannot give him a home. Clement Searle, a sensitive American with a great nostalgia for England, has a vague ancestral claim to an English estate. When the owner of the Elizabethan manor house discovers his design, he is driven out, despite the fact that the sister has some soft feelings for him. He has tried to possess something that does not belong to him. He finally starts hallucinating and dies of a fever. There are clear ghostly overtones in the narrative and the ending is sadly ironical. The many traditional English scenes in this story show James' love for his adopted country.
Text at: Wikisource; Project Gutenberg

At Isella [1871]
First published in The Galaxy, August 1871.
The protagonist is hiking in the Alps on the border of Switzerland and Italy. This first part of the tale is little more than a travelogue painting the majesty of the Saint Gothard and Simplon Passes.  In the inn where he stays the night, a handsome Italian marchesina appears. She has run away from her husband and he helps her with money, so that she can get away and join her lover. When the husband arrives at the inn, he is told nobody has seen a marchesina at Isella. When James first went to Italy in 1869, he crossed the Alps in the same way as described here.
Text at: Internet Archive

Master Eustace [1871]
First published in The Galaxy, August 1871. First book edition in Stories Revived (3 vols) of 1885.
A psychological study of the ruthlessness of a spoiled child. A haughty youth, Eustace, lives with his mother, a widow, and his governess. The mother treats the son almost as a lover, as an heir-apparent. The boy feels in complete possession. But when he goes on a tour of Europe, on his homecoming he finds that his mother has married an old and loyal friend. The boy explodes in anger and violence, treating his mother like an unfaithful wife. The ending of this story is too melodramatic, although there is a nice twist to the scene with a pistol-flourish with which it ends. But the mother dies of heart failure and dispossession is complete.
Introduction and text at The Ladder.

Guest's Confession [1872]
First published in The Atlantic Monthly, October and November 1872
A tale of two brothers, the older a successful businessman with a vengeful character, the younger a sensitive and artistic person. The elder brother is also a hypochondriac and an invalid. The younger brother has been courting a young woman at a summer resort. The elder brother arrives and discovers that the father of the girl, Mr Guest, is a man who has recently swindled him out of a large sum of money. He forces Mr Guest to kneel in public and confess his sins and exacts a written confession. Will the younger brother still be able to win the girl or have his chances been ruined?
Text at: Internet Archive; Project Gutenberg Consortia Center; State University of New York, New Paltz

The Madonna of the Future [1873]
First published in The Atlantic monthly, March 1873. First book edition in A Passionate Pilgrim and Other Tales published by Osgood in Boston 1875. Also included in The New York Edition (1907-09). 
"The Madonna of the Future" is to be Theobald's masterpiece: the Madonna to end all Madonnas, a grand resume of the Madonna tradition in the Italian school. Theobald also has found the right woman to use as his model (who clearly is a prostitute, although that is not mentioned). But instead of painting his masterpiece, for twenty years he just keeps thinking of it, planning it, and paying adoring visits to the future model - who also is getting older... When the narrator remarks casually to Theobald that his model has lost her youth, it is as if he gives the painter a mortal blow. When he dies, all he leaves behind is a chimera. He has lived with an obsession and clung to a sterile past. But James follows the would-be artist in his dream and thereby creates a sympathetic feeling.
Text at: Project Gutenberg; Project Gutenberg Consortia Center

The Sweetheart of M. Briseux [1873]
First published in The Galaxy, June 1873
The "Sweetheart of M. Briseux" is an ironical title, for the original of M. Briseux's famous painting "The Lady in a Yellow Shawl" was only a model to him, and no more, as she - at a much later age - explains to the writer. She had gone to Europe with a friend of her mother, and that friend's son Harold, who had artistic ambitions. She became engaged to Harold but set the condition for the wedding that Harold should first paint her portrait (she had secret falterings about his suitability). She saw the picture, and was dissatisfied with it; a poor painter, M. Briseux, happened to come in and offer to touch it up; Harold angrily refused and broke the engagement. M. Briseux now painted her new portrait "The Lady with the Yellow Shawl" - and that painting became famous. At the opening of the story the writer and the original model are both gazing at this masterpiece in an art gallery.
Text at: Internet Archive

The Last of the Valerii [1874]
First published in The Atlantic monthly, January 1874. First book edition in A Passionate Pilgrim and Other Tales published by Osgood in Boston 1875. 
Woman versus statue. Count Valerio falls in love with a statue of Juno, an archaeological find in the grounds of his ancient villa, and a gulf opens between him and his young American wife. He is in thrall with the old, pagan Roman religion and walks around in a disturbed state, neglecting his wife. Finally, the wife takes the initiative to have the statue buried again. A story more about the psychology of the scion of a centuries old family than about supernatural events, although the Juno statue exerts a mysterious power. It is ironical that, in the beginning of the story, the American wife pushes to excavate the garden of their old villa, while the Italian husband rather would rather leave things alone.
Introduction and text at The Ladder.

Madame de Mauves [1874]
First published in The Galaxy, February and March 1874. First book edition in A Passionate Pilgrim and Other Tales published by Osgood in Boston 1875. Also included in The New York Edition (1907-09).  
James's first sustained look at a transatlantic marriage, and an account of an American woman's recoil of her French husband's moral universe. A young American with artistic aspirations, is introduced to Madame de Mauves, a prim young American (with a fortune) married to a debauched French count and living outside of Paris, in St. Germain. She is deeply hurt by her husband's infidelities (but also determined to endure them) and confides in her countryman; During the long walks they take, he falls in love with her but decides to renunciate his feelings as he wants to devote his life to art but above all because he feels she would be too strong for him. Madame de Mauves, by the way, never contemplates leaving her husband or being untrue to her marriage - while the husband would like to see her commit a faux pas as that would make his own mental burden easier. After the young American has left France, he later learns that the husband has committed suicide, unable the bear the strength of his wife.
Text at: Project Gutenberg; Wikisource

Adina [1874]
First published in Scribner's Monthly, May and June 1874
The American Scrope, a cynical classical scholar, has bullied the young Italian Angelo Beato ("Blessed Angel") in selling him for a ridiculously low price a priceless topaz intaglio he has found. Angelo stalks him and his fiancee Adina, bent on some sort of satisfaction. Adina (a rather wayward woman who is easily swayed) develops tender feelings for the handsome Angelo, although she only catches brief glimpses of him, and finally breaks her engagement and elopes with him. "She is better than the topaz," says Angelo. Scrope throws the unlucky gem into the muddy Tiber.
Text at: Internet Archive

Professor Fargo [1874]
First published in The Galaxy, August 1874
A commercial traveler, the narrator, has to spend some days in a boring small provincial town. There he meets three performers: Professor Fargo, a charlatan who pretends to be a medium, Colonel Gilford, an accomplished but unpractical and impecunious mathematician, and the latter's deaf and dumb daughter, who is a genius with figures but also an enigma. Later the narrator encounters the three in New York, where their performance is a failure. It is now time for the Professor and the Colonel to part, but as he leaves, Professor Fargo carries off the girl, who goes with him readily. This calls the switch of allegiance in "Adina" to mind - here, too, brought about by sheer animal magnetism.
Text at: Internet Archive

Eugene Pickering [1874]
First published in The Atlantic monthly of October and November 1874. First book edition in A Passionate Pilgrim and Other Tales published by Osgood in Boston 1875.
Eugene Pickering is an unworldy young American who has been kept on a short lease by his father - the father has even arranged his engagement to a girl he does not know. He is not only literally naive in the ways of the world, due to his long seclusion, but also symbolically "shortsighted." When his father dies, he wants to finally experience the world and tours around Europe. In Homburg he falls in love with a beautiful woman, Madame Blumenthal, who is not wholly respectable... When Eugene finally opens a letter he received a month ago from his fiancee's father, he learns she has resisted the forced engagement and set him free. This changes Eugene's mind about her and he now decides to return to the U.S. and try to win her hand.
Text at: Project Gutenberg

The best stories among the above are in my view:
  • Madame de Mauves - for the fine psychology of Madame the Mauves and the American writes who is the narrator - both feel attracted to the other but also see the impossibility of becoming closer.
  • The Madonna of the Future  - for showing how easy it is to waste a whole life in just dreams.
  • The Last of the Valerii - for the Pagan Roman atmosphere and the influence an ancient statue has on modern lives.
  • Osborne's Revenge - for showing that we should not judge others on hearsay, but only after properly getting to know them.
  • Eugene Pickering - for showing us life's irony.


If you prefer to read the stories in book form, the recommended edition is that of the Complete Stories of Henry James, in five volumes, in The Library of America. Collections of stories are also available, for example in two volumes in Everyman's Library, or in Penguin Classics.

Essential websites about Henry James are: The Ladder, a Henry James Website written and edited by Adrian Dover; and The Henry James Scholar's Guide to Websites by Richard D. Hathaway.

The definitive biography on James has been written by Leon Edel, The Life of Henry James, in five volumes (1955-1972). There is also a shortened version: Henry James, A Life (1985) - which still runs to above 700 pages.