The Afterlife of Henry James

Most of Henry James’ afterlife happens elsewhere, in rooms with patterned carpets where ghosts with cavernous eyes hover over dusty tables, aware, even in death, of the chains securing them to their narrow destinies. Most of his afterlife boils free in a blur of flickering pages sent tumbling from some magic mountain; some river snaking through crooked letters, crooked letters; old stories scrimshawed into the lace of brokenhearted brides aflame and brittle. He’s there, too, our Henry, the brother forever younger, reaching for bold William, for the madness of his art again and again and again. Most of his afterlife happens elsewhere, as do the afterlives of more common minds, where a morning (and perhaps mourning) fog billows by his woolen wing-backed chair, curling over his worn, sturdy shoes, stiff cuffs, and suspenders that sustain a weighty dignity. Most of his afterlife is spent lurking near the edges, in the swirl of creamed tea, or shadowing the bust of our great bard, where he is unmoved by the madding and shrieking crowds, but hardly distant, nor obscure. But in odd bright moments that unfold like the final phrases of a catacombic sentence, Henry James’ afterlife does not happen elsewhere; it happens here, in our dining rooms and breakfast nooks, upturning tables and scattering golden flatware across the marble tiles, fork tines ever upward, a minefield of petite rakes; spoons teeter on their gleaming bowls as we lean forward to find our distorted features awash in brackish tides, and James, nervous, muttering apologies as he sweeps away shards of shattered stemware.

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One thought on “The Afterlife of Henry James

  1. What a glorious pensee! My anxiety rose and became anger as the passage unfolded, for I became invested with an ill-begotten charge to protect the Master as one who writes for us. Then the pensee curved in on itself, as if shamed, or suddenly self-conscious (this turn is the price of literature, don’t you think?), and the voice came clear, with no diminution of specificity, nuanced and weighted with the singularities that at first had perplexed. Now the comedy of reading, the “true comedy” of consciousness, is released and James looks back at us, his smile more ambiguous, more kind.

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