The Daily Henry James: A Year of Quotes from the Work of the Master

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The Millions Top Ten: December 2016


We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for December.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.


Norwegian by Night
1 month

2.
1.

The Sellout
5 months

3.
3.

The Trespasser
3 months

4.
4.

The Underground Railroad
4 months

5.
5.

Moonglow
2 months

6.
2.

Ninety-Nine Stories of God
6 months

7.
7.

Commonwealth
3 months

8.
8.

Here I Am
4 months

9.


The North Water
1 month

10.


Swing Time
1 month

Richard Russo wasn’t kidding when he wrote in our Year in Reading series that the best novel he’d read this autumn was “a bit of a sleeper, though its fans are oh-so-passionate.” For evidence of said passion, look no further than the top-spot debut for Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian by Night on this month’s list. Billed by Russo as “one of those books that completely transcends its genre,” it focuses on a transplanted New Yorker suddenly on the run in Norway. “If you like those other Scandihoovian thriller writers,” Russo wrote, “this is your book.”
The rest of the December list remains largely unchanged from the one we saw in November, owing perhaps to the long tail of the aforementioned Year in Reading series, which will no doubt start influencing subsequent lists as early as next month. Meanwhile, we welcome two newcomers on the lower half of our list this month, which are likely to rise as the Year in Reading dust settles, and as holiday gift cards are spent.
In ninth position is Ian McGuire’s The North Water, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and named by the New York Times’s editors as one of the Ten Best Books of the Year. The novel is a thriller set on a nineteenth-century Arctic whaling ship with a killer aboard, which sounds to this Top Ten writer like a very distinct flavor of Hell.
Zadie Smith’s Swing Time occupies the tenth spot. Smith’s novel, her fifth, is complicated. As Kaila Philo noted in her review for our site, its protagonist “has no name, no signifiers, no grounding, only to be figured out through her relationships, interactions, and circumstances.” She continues:

Our protagonist here is so nebulous she becomes an idea for the reader to grasp at and attempt to put together, like a puzzle made of stardust, but once the reader finishes the puzzle they’re left with a sparkling cloud reminiscent of nothing.

(Bonus: If you haven’t yet, you should read the text of Smith’s acceptance speech at the 2016 Welt Literature Prize.)
Lastly, Annie Proulx’s Barkskins graduates to our Hall of Fame this month, becoming the 20th title to ascend to those hallowed ranks in the year of 2016. Here’s to a new year!
This month’s near misses included: The NixThe Daily Henry James, and The Gene: An Intimate History. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: November 2016


We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for November.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

The Sellout
4 months

2.
2.

Ninety-Nine Stories of God
5 months

3.
3.

The Trespasser
2 months

4.
6.

The Underground Railroad
3 months

5.


Moonglow
1 month

6.
5.

Barkskins
6 months

7.
10.

Commonwealth
2 months

8.
8.

Here I Am
3 months

9.
7.

Pond
3 months

10.
9.

Innocents and Others
5 months

How fitting it is for Don DeLillo’s Zero K to move on to our Millions Hall of Fame in this, the month of November, the time of no baseball and, thus, no Ks. (I will not apologize for this joke; No I Said No I Won’t No.)
Speaking of baseball, others have pointed out the accuracy of Back to the Future II’s foretelling of our current American predicament — the Cubs winning the World Series; Biff Tannen ascending to a position of unimaginable power — and so in that regard, it’s fitting that an author who got his start around the time that movie came out would grace our latest Top Ten. Michael Chabon, of course, requires no introduction, and least of all from someone who’d build a strained Back to the Future II reference upon the foundation of a corny baseball joke. Nevertheless here we are.
Moonglow, is a welcome addition to this month’s list. In her preview for our site last summer, Tess Malone wrote:

We’ve all had that relative who spills their secrets on their deathbed, yet most of us don’t think to write them down. Chabon was 26 years old, already author of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, when he went to see his grandfather for the last time only to hear the dying man reveal buried family stories. Twenty-six years later and the Pulitzer Prize winner’s eighth novel is inspired by his grandfather’s revelations. A nearly 500-page epic, Moonglow explores the war, sex, and technology of mid-century America in all its glory and folly. It’s simultaneously Chabon’s most imaginative and personal work to date.

A few weeks ago, Chabon expanded on this balancing act between novel and memoir in an interview for our site:

[Some people have claimed] that memoirs are more appropriate to the time we live in, but also superior to fiction. Listening to that kind of talk and seeing situations like the James Frey incident…The thing that made everyone upset was the fact that he had lied, you know? That he passed this thing off as true when it was a work of fiction was wrong. What pissed me off as a novelist was that he wrote it as a novel and nobody wanted to publish it. Then he relabeled it as a memoir and suddenly everybody wants to publish it and everyone wants to read it.

That offends me because I’m a novelist and writing novels is what I do. I take that personally on some levels. It also offends me because it’s bullshit. Memoirs are bullshit to some degree. I don’t mean memoirists are liars; some might be, most are not. I know memoirists try to be scrupulous and try not to deviate from what they remember. It’s the last few words of my sentence where the bullshit comes in. Of course what you remember is a lie or a distortion. It’s inaccurate, there’s conflation, there’s elision. There are gaps, there maybe things that you’ve deliberately forgotten and then forgotten that you’ve forgotten so that you sincerely think they didn’t happen.
Elsewhere on the list, a few titles jostled around, but nothing dropped out altogether. Stay tuned for next month’s list, which will likely be influenced by our ongoing Year in Reading series.

This month’s near misses included: The Daily Henry JamesThe NestHeroes of the Frontier, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, and The Girls. See Also: Last month’s list.

Henry James for Every Day of the Year

Reprinted with permission from The Daily Henry James: A Year of Work of the Master. Published by the University of Chicago Press.

The little charmer published this month as The Daily Henry James first appeared as The Henry James Yearbook in 1911, bound in a deep burgundy cloth and with a typeface that matched that of the great New York Edition of James’s works, an edition that had finished its run only two years before. It offers a quotation for each day of the year, many of them apposite to the season though none of them obvious, taken from the full range of James’s production, the criticism and travel writing as well as the novels and tales.

The book was put out by the Gorham Press, a Boston publisher that, as a Harvard website delicately puts it, produced its things “at their authors’ expense.” We’d probably call it a vanity press, but in James’s day such books were usually described as having been privately printed, a category that included not only the work of his own father but even such classics as The Education of Henry Adams. Not that the Henry James Yearbook stayed private. H.L. Mencken noticed it in The Smart Set, reviewing it alongside Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes, and in 1912 the English firm of J.M. Dent brought out a trade edition, using sheets imported from Boston.

And then the book more or less vanished. A few older works of criticism list it in their bibliographies, and a small press in Pennsylvania reissued it in 1970. But no scholar has ever paid it much attention, and for decades it survived in the only way that forgotten books do survive: undisturbed in the stacks. Or at least a few of them did, a very few. Today the world’s libraries contain scarcely more than 100 copies, all told, and it might seem little more than a collector’s item, a curiosity. Yet there are a number of reasons to look closely at this little book, and aside from the enduring power — the wit, the beauty, the play — of James’s own prose, the best of them is the identity of its editor.

Evelyn Garnaut Smalley (1869–1938) was born to American parents in London. Her mother, Phoebe Smalley, was the adopted daughter of the abolitionist Wendell Phillips. Her father, George W. Smalley, had spent his 20s practicing law in Boston, but at the start of the Civil War he took a post on Horace Greeley’s New York Daily Tribune and in 1862 made his reputation with a battlefield report from Antietam. Afterward he became the paper’s London correspondent, and in the 1870s the newly expatriated Henry James was a regular guest at the family’s table. Smalley was 10 years the novelist’s senior; he helped him find a club and a publisher, and James was always grateful. At their house he first met Robert Browning, and learned more about the inside of British politics than he probably cared to. The Smalleys knew everybody, and James joked in a letter to his brother William that they were so worldly as to “dine out three times a day.”

Their daughter doesn’t figure in James’s early letters, but at the turn of the century he told William Dean Howells that he was “very fond” of her, and in old age he wrote to Howells again of his concern for what seemed to be a difficult life. Evelyn Smalley never married and in middle age still lived with her parents; around 1909 she had some form of breakdown and was for a time institutionalized. “It has been communicated to me,” James wrote, “that her infinitely tragic case is one for which no recovery can be hoped.” Still, he had heard that her ongoing work on the Yearbook seemed therapeutic and wrote that he was eager ‘to do what I can’”; the brief prefaces that both he and Howells wrote for this volume should be seen in that light.

But she did recover. I’ve found two photographs of her, and the first of them, from 1915, shows her on an ocean liner, standing next to her friend, the actress Ellen Terry. The second was taken in 1923 at Les Invalides in Paris. She’s wearing a flowing headdress that makes her look like a kind of lay nun and receiving the Legion of Honor Croix de Guerre from General Henri Gouraud. Evelyn Smalley arrived in France in 1917 with a group from the YMCA whose mission was to provide small comforts for the troops at the very front of the Allied lines. She was stationed at Bouy, to the southeast of Reims. In July 1918 her “hut” came under heavy bombardment, but she refused an order to evacuate and remained at her post until the end of the war; sources in both French and English describe her as appearing in the smoke of battle with a jug of cocoa for any soldier who needed something warm. She died in Pau in 1938.

Smalley’s life was in a way very Jamesian, and the book she made pays homage to the figure she had known for the whole of it. This volume stands as a material witness both to the reading practices of her era and to James’s presence in his time. Most of us have a few bits of poetry in our heads, but almost nobody now keeps a once commonplace book, a private anthology of the lines and sentences and paragraphs that have meant the most to us. In earlier ages, however, devoted readers often produced such albums, most of them handwritten and strictly private, though a few did find the fierce legibility of type. This one is a special case since its excerpts all come from the same writer, but it has a precedent in Alexander Main’s Wise, Witty, and Tender Sayings of George Eliot, first published in 1872. Main’s volume sold steadily until the end of the century, and Evelyn Smalley might have thought that this book would have a similar success. But James was never as popular as George Eliot, and in 1911 his fortunes were at their commercial nadir.

Still, his name did stand as a cultural marker, one that even here connotes a fine-grained sense of taste and distinction. (Another such marker was an apartment building called the Henry James, of around the same date, which stood in New York on ground now owned by Columbia University.) And such literary ephemera are more widespread than one might think. Royal Doulton once made figurines of Dickens’s characters; in Germany you can buy something called a “Goethe barometer”; and wall calendars often feature quotations, usually of an “inspirational” nature, from this book or that. Yet the fact that James’s own ephemera takes the shape of a bound and paradoxically permanent volume suggests that he speaks to a different audience and that Evelyn Smalley aims to fulfill a different set of expectations.

Her choice of passages has its idiosyncrasies. She quotes rather heavily from James’s essays on the American poet James Russell Lowell, an intimate family friend, and she’s especially drawn to The Princess Casamassima, James’s fullest account of London life. But those excerpts make me want to reread that novel, and indeed the passages she chooses often work to bring a whole book before me, to remind me in a sentence of its essential situation. They are so evocative, in fact, that I’ve tried in reading month by month to defamiliarize them instead, to forget what I already know and to read these little pieces of prose as though they were indeed freestanding. That effort has made two things clear. One is James’s epigrammatic force. The other, which can be easy to miss when caught by the flow of a narrative, is the extraordinary precision of his descriptive prose, his sheer ability to make you see. I have loved revisiting these passages.

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