Joan Didion led me to Henry James.
"He wrote perfect sentences too, but very indirect, very complicated. Sentences with sinkholes you could drown in them." (Joan Didion on Henry James)
I read this line in 2006, and began a serious study of James' work in 2008.
James is famous for his description of the creative process.
"We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art." (Henry James)
I hadn't read any of his books. I found The Portrait of an Lady a complete bore in high school, and never went back. Joan's work couldn't be more different—yet she was citing him as a major influence. Considering my obsession with commas (and comma splices) I decided to give him another try. I started with The Ambassadors, which put me to sleep one chapter at a time. I moved to The Spoils of Poynton. I couldn't even crack the cover. Wanting to see what Didion saw, I pressed on. Washington Square was the first book I finished, a 24 cent (cover price) Dell edition. I loved the size of the book. With my compromised abdomen, it was one of the few books I could carry.
From there I picked up Leon Edell's five volume biography of the Master, also in pocket editions I could lift without assistance. The more I read the more I thought, this guy is better than Nostrodamus. Following Edell's guide I read Henry. I love his prefaces, about fiction. I love the Bostonians (anyone who's ever been to Berkeley, California must read it). I love The Golden Bowl, especially.
In "the Point of View," a few years after he wrote Daisy Miller, James wrote:
"The country is made for the rising generation; life is arranged for them; they are the destruction of society. People talk of them, consider them, defer to them, bow down to them. They are always present, and whenever they are present there is an end to everything else. They are often very pretty; and physically they are wonderfully looked after; they are scoured and brushed, they wear hygienic clothes, they go every week to the dentists. But the little boys kick your skins and the little girls offer to slap your face.
"There is an immense literature entirely addressed to them, in which the kicking of skins and the slapping of faces is much recommended. As a women of fifty, I protest. I insist on being judged by my peers. It's too late, however, for several millions of little feet are actively engaged in stamping out conversation, and I don't see how they can long fail to keep it under. The future is there, maturity will evidently be at an increasing discount. Longfellow wrote a charming little poem called 'the Children's Hour,' but he out to have called it 'the Children's Century.'"
While I was reading James' predictions of the Children's Centur I was introduced to the world of Janie and Jack. I stood in line with the other woman at the San Francisco Public Library, waiting for the doors to open. They were there with their baskets of kids, teaching them Portuguese, Cantonese and Spanish. The kids ran about screaming while they talked on their mobile phones and I tried to find a book I was in need of. Other children were signing up for their puppetry and Vegan cooking classes while their mother's were organizing play dates. One evening I saw a four year old annihilate a grown Muni driver. He stood in front of her, blocked her way to the door, and then refused to acknowledge her existence. She bent down and said, "hey baby." He stared her down, his mother reassuring, "you don't have to say hello." She her breath stopped and she walked around him.
In the second volume of his biography of James Leon Edell wrote:
"Seventy-five years after this was written, it is possible to say that the nineteenth—and the twentieth—century had indeed belonged and belongs to the American child."
Yet, there are millions of children who do not rule the world. Some of these are orphans (of war, poverty, and addiction) and others are simply not wanted by their parents—not every mother loves, or even wants, her child.
"What was wrong with the English novel, Henry argued, was that there existed a conspiracy, 'a traditional difference between that which people know and that which they agree to admit that they know.'" (Edell, Vol. 3)
There are no monuments to these children—those sold into slavery, those unloved and unwanted, or those forgotten and given up (to history, fate or baptism). Life or Honor: Life As Stranger admits the truth of their lives.
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