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.
In the most recent issue of The Atlantic James Fallows asks a question that’s on a lot of people’s minds these days: “Is America going to hell?” It’s a provocation that has recurred throughout American history, from John Winthrop’s sermon aboard the Arbella in 1630 to Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” speech in 1979. In every case doomsday predictions have proven to be premature; what looked at the time like a descent turned out to be just a dip.
As a rule, it’s a good idea to be skeptical whenever anyone tells you this time is different. It’s hard enough to understand our own time, let alone to measure it against hundreds of years of national history we’ve only ever read about. Chances are that even the most acutely wrought pessimism has been felt before and for much the same reasons.
And yet when Fallows contends that this time is different, it’s hard to dispute him on the facts. The core of the problem, he argues, is not any one particular challenge—debt, health care, energy—or even all of them summed together; it’s that our government has become incapable of organizing the national effort required to meet those challenges.
The culprits Fallows identifies are familiar ones. They include an ADD news media, the permanent campaign, and hyper-partisanship. But mostly he blames the filibuster and special interest groups. The two merit mentioning together because they sow dysfunction by the same method: In both cases well-organized factions are able to get their way at the expense of the common good.
While these conditions were present in America at the start, Fallows worries they’ve grown more entrenched and pernicious over time. The gap between the most and least populous states in the country is considerably larger than it was two hundred years ago which means that small states hold even more outsized influence in the Senate today than they did at the Founding. (Fallows notes that the 41 votes needed to filibuster legislation could conceivably represent as little as 12% of the population; 500,000 folks from Wyoming effectively neutralize 37 million Californians.)
And about special interests, he says they accumulate like plaque, so that the situation today is a lot worse than it’s ever been. The political economist Mancur Olson wrote in his 1982 book The Rise and Decline of Nations that “organization for collective action” takes a long time (agricultural lobbies didn’t coalesce until after World War I; the AARP until 1958) but that once organized, such groups “usually survive until there is a social upheaval or other forms of violence or instability.” And until that day comes, they nickel and dime the country of its wealth, one earmark, subsidy, and loophole at a time.
So there are reasons beyond a general sense of dismay to believe that American greatness may be ebbing.
Regardless of how you come down on Fallows’ argument (and as discussed below, I disagree with him), his essay comprises a nice primer on what might be called “Essential Reading for the End of Life As We Know it in America.” Here is a selection of the most influential titles mentioned in his essay:
The federal government’s first problem is that it’s viewed as inept. This stacks the deck against big legislative initiatives which are vulnerable to the “government takeover” epithet lobbed so effectively against health care reform. Rick Perlstein provides a genealogy for this anti-government attitude in two books critical of modern conservatism—Before the Storm and Nixonland—that show how a postwar “American consensus” shattered into the “American cacophony” that deafens today.
The US has staggering debt-obligations dumped around the world: We owe China $2.5 trillion; Japan $1 trillion; Korea $200 billion. In their 2010 book The End of Influence Berkeley professors J. Bradford DeLong and Stephen Cohen argue that as a consequence, “America is unlikely to remain the cultural hegemon, the overwhelmingly dominant source of cultural memes.”
In Are We Rome? Vanity Fair editor at-large Cullen Murphy draws unsettling parallels between present-day America and the culturally insular, governmentally corrupt final days of the Roman Empire.
Pessimism about the future is nothing new in America. As Sacvan Bercovitch retells it in The American Jeremiad (1978) the Puritans worried that the game was up before they had even stepped off the boat. From Winthrop’s sermon to The Education of Henry Adams, Bercovitch traces the history of what he calls a “national ritual” of lamentation. To that history, Fallows adds George Kennan’s Memoirs, which he tabs as the apotheosis of the tradition in the 20th century.
T. Jackson Lears, the Rutgers historian, is the author of two books that caution against viewing the dissatisfaction of our time as exceptional: In No Place of Grace he examines the antimodern impulse percolating through industrializing America in the late-19th century; and in Rebirth of a Nation, he narrates how amidst the hollowness of the Gilded Age, Americans turned to militarization as a source of meaning. Or as Lears puts it: “The rise of total war between the Civil War and World War I was rooted in longings for release from bourgeois normality into a realm of heroic struggle.”
The single biggest reason our government doesn’t work, argues Jonathan Rauch in Demosclerosis is “creeping special-interest gridlock.” This in line with Olson’s argument from The Rise and Decline of Nations discussed above.
My own view of Fallows’ argument is that it’s either too pessimistic or too optimistic depending on how you think about the American electorate, which strangely goes almost unmentioned throughout the essay.
It’s true that aspects of our government are basically set in place: Parliamentary rules will always slow change, the two major parties will always monopolize the ballot, the rich and well-connected will always have an edge over everyone else. But given that, it’s also true that every year we have elections and that those elections matter.
Fallows thinks about government like a broken down car, such that no matter how skilled the driver or where he wants to go, he’s not going to get there. During the eight years of the Bush presidency we would have been better off had that been true. But instead we got Iraq and trillion dollar deficits. It feels odd to point to the election and reelection of George W. Bush as proof that our democracy remains vital, but the extreme calamity of his presidency indicates better than anything else in recent memory that for better or worse, who we choose to lead our country has consequences.
The real question, then, is can we choose the right leaders and hold them accountable once in office? There are reasons to be pessimistic here, too. In 2004, Fallows notes, 153 state or federal positions were up for election in California and not one switched parties, even as the status quo was driving the state into the sea. So there’s reason to doubt whether voters are capable of promoting their own interests at the ballot box.
But there’s also reason for optimism. It’s clear to me at least that we chose the right candidate for president in 2008. And while Obama’s efforts to reform health care have been derailed, maybe for good, the fact that we came within one fluke special election of addressing the biggest problem facing the country says to me that all hope is not lost.
If it really were true that our future depended on special interests giving up the fight, or senators ceasing to act like senators, I’d agree with Fallows’ bleak view. But so long as we have the opportunity every November to reset our course, I can’t believe we won’t eventually, and maybe even in spite of ourselves, end up moving in the right direction.