The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

VI. The Short Story

§ 9. Henry James

With Henry James the period of transition came to an end. From 1865, when he published his first story, until 1875, the date of Roderick Hudson, he devoted himself to short fiction, contributing fourteen stories to the Atlantic alone, and he brought to his work not only the best art America had evolved, but the best of England and France as well. He was a scientist, an observer, a tabulator, as cool and accurate as even his brother William James, the psychologist. Unlike O’Brien and the others, he threw away completely the machinery of the mid-century tale—not without regret it would appear from his Romance of Certain Old Clothes and other early tales—and sought only the uncoloured truth. The art of Poe, especially the French adaptations of that art, he retained, but he rejected all the rest of Poe’s outfit. That he understood the full possibilities of the supernatural as short story material we know from his grim tale The Turn of the Screw, but the field was little to his taste. He was a naturalist rather than a super-naturalist, and his sensitive and fastidious soul could not endure the harsh and the horrible. In his second story, My Friend Bingham (1866), he wrote: “I am of a deep aversion to stories of a painful nature … the literature of horrors needs no extension.” He rejected allegory and mystery and vague impressionism as unscientific. He condemned the tradition that “a serious story of manners shall close with the factitious happiness of a fairy tale.” He was a scientist; his second paper in the Atlantic is a defence of George Eliot, scientist. To both of them the first requisite of fiction was the truth, the truth told directly, simply, concretely.

An age of science could no longer tolerate the unrelieved black and white of the earlier periods, but demanded shades, traces of white found even in the black. According to James, a short story was the analysis of a situation, the psychological phenomena of a group of men and women at an interesting moment. Given two, three, four different temperaments, bring them into a certain situation, and what would be the action and reaction? The story was a problem to be solved. Little was to be said about the characters: they were to reveal themselves, gradually, slowly as they do in actual life, by long continued dialogue, by little unconscious actions and reactions, by personal peculiarities in dress, manners, movement, revealed by a thousand subtle hints, descriptive touches, insinuations. Under such conditions the movement of the story must be slow: in some of his work there seems to be no story at all, only the analysis of a situation. The method requires space: James has stretched the length of the short story to its extreme. The Aspern Papers, the bare story of which could have been told in three pages, dragged through three magazine instalments. Twenty-eight of the one hundred and three stories in Henry James’s final list are long enough to appear as volumes. Yet one may not doubt they are short stories: they are each of them the presentation of a single situation and they leave each of them a unity of impression.

James was the most consummate artist American literature has produced. He was fastidious by nature and by early training. He had studied his art in France as men study sculpture in Italy, and he had learned the French mastery of form. Nowhere in his writings may we find slovenly work. His opening and closing paragraphs are always models, his dialogue moves naturally and inevitably,—in all the story despite its length nothing too much,—and everywhere a brilliancy new in American fiction. He is seldom spontaneous; always is he the conscious artist; always is he intellectual; always is he working in the clay of actual life, a realist who never forgets his problem to soar into the uncharted and the unscientific realms of the metaphysical and the romantic.

The chief criticism of the short stories of James must concern their spirit rather than their form. The tendency of science has been to repudiate the spiritual. Romance with intuition in place of sense perception found at least the heart. With James the short story became an art form simply, cold and brilliant, a study of the surface of society, manners, endless phenomena jotted down in a note-book, human life from the standpoint of the laboratory and the test tube. Beyond the brilliant art of Henry James, the impressionistic study of situations from the standpoint of scientific truth, the American short story has never advanced. He gave distinctness to the form. Nevertheless, he is not a supreme master: that dominating factor in life that eludes scapel and test-tube he never found, and, neglecting it, he falls inevitably into second place as an interpreter of human life.

That James and others of his school, like T. B. Aldrich, for instance, and H. C. Bunner, could have directed the short story permanently into the channels that it has followed in France, is doubtful. The great success in the middle seventies of the anonymous Saxe Holm’s Stories, with their mid-century sentiment and romantic atmosphere, would imply that America at heart was still what it was in the days of Hawthorne and the annuals. What might have happened had James and Howells and Aldrich had full control it is idle to speculate; what did happen was the sudden appearance of a short story that stampeded America and for two decades set the style in short fiction. Bret Harte’s The Luck of Roaring Camp, whatever one may think of its merits, must be admitted to be the most influential short story ever written in America.