An Interview on the War with Henry James

By Preston Lockwood

[The New York Times/Current History, April, 1915]

One of the compensations of the war, which we ought to take advantage of, is the chance given the general public to approach on the personal side some of the distinguished men who have not hitherto lived much in the glare of the footlights. Henry James has probably done this as little as any one; he has enjoyed for upward of forty years a reputation not confined to his own country, has published a long succession of novels, tales, and critical papers, and yet has apparently so delighted in reticence as well as in expression that he has passed his seventieth year without having responsibly "talked" for publication or figured for it otherwise than pen in hand.

Shortly after the outbreak of the war Mr. James found himself, to his professed great surprise, Chairman of the American Volunteer Motor Ambulance Corps, now at work in France, and today, at the end of three months of bringing himself to the point, has granted me, as a representative of THE NEW YORK TIMES, an interview. What this departure from the habit of a lifetime means to him he expressed at the outset:

"I can't put," Mr. James said, speaking with much consideration and asking that his punctuation as well as his words should be noted, "my devotion and sympathy for the cause of our corps more strongly than in permitting it thus to overcome my dread of the assault of the interviewer, whom I have deprecated, all these years, with all the force of my preference for saying myself and without superfluous aid, without interference in the guise of encouragement and cheer, anything I may think worth my saying. Nothing is worth my saying that I cannot help myself out with better, I hold, than even the most suggestive young gentleman with a notebook can help me. It may be fatuous of me, but, believing myself possessed of some means of expression, I feel as if I were sadly giving it away when, with the use of it urgent, I don't gratefully employ it, but appeal instead to the art of somebody else."

It was impossible to be that "somebody else," or, in other words, the person privileged to talk with Mr. James, to sit in presence of his fine courtesy and earnestness, without understanding the sacrifice he was making, and making only because he had finally consented to believe that it would help the noble work of relief which a group of young Americans, mostly graduates of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, are carrying on along their stretch of the fighting line in Northern France.

Mr. James frankly desired his remarks to bear only on the merits of the American Volunteer Motor Ambulance Corps. It enjoys today the fullest measure of his appreciation and attention; it appeals deeply to his benevolent instincts, and he gives it sympathy and support as one who has long believed, and believes more than ever, in spite of everything, at this international crisis, in the possible development of "closer communities and finer intimacies" between America and Great Britain, between the country of his birth and the country, as he puts it, of his "shameless frequentation."

There are many people who are eloquent about the war, who are authorities on the part played in it by the motor ambulance and who take an interest in the good relations of Great Britain and the United States; but there is nobody who can tell us, as Mr. James can, about style and the structure of sentences, and all that appertains to the aspect and value of words. Now and then in what here follows he speaks familiarly of these things for the first time in his life, not by any means because he jumped at the chance, but because his native kindness, whether consciously or unconsciously, seemed so ready to humor the insisting inquirer.

"It is very difficult," he said, seeking to diminish the tension so often felt by a journalist, even at the moment of a highly appreciated occasion, "to break into graceful license after so long a life of decorum; therefore you must excuse me if my egotism doesn't run very free or my complacency find quite the right turns."

He had received me in the offices of the corps, businesslike rooms, modern for London, low-ceiled and sparely furnished. It was not by any means the sort of setting in which as a reader of Henry James I had expected to run to earth the author of "The Golden Bowl," but the place is, nevertheless, today, in the tension of war time, one of the few approaches to a social resort outside his Chelsea home where he can be counted on. Even that delightful Old World retreat, Lamb House, Rye, now claims little of his time.

The interviewer spoke of the waterside Chelsea and Mr. James's long knowledge of it, but, sitting not overmuch at his ease and laying a friendly hand on the shoulder of his tormentor, he spoke, instead, of motor ambulances, making the point, in the interest of clearness, that the American Ambulance Corps of Neuilly, though an organization with which Richard Norton's corps is in the fullest sympathy, does not come within the scope of his remarks.

"I find myself Chairman of our Corps Committee for no great reason that I can discover save my being the oldest American resident here interested in its work; at the same time that if I render a scrap of help by putting on record my joy even in the rather ineffectual connection so far as 'doing' anything is concerned, I needn't say how welcome you are to my testimony. What I mainly seem to grasp, I should say, is that in regard to testifying at all unlimitedly by the aid of the newspapers, I have to reckon with a certain awkwardness in our position. Here comes up, you see, the question of our reconciling a rather indispensable degree of reserve as to the detail of our activity with the general American demand for publicity at any price. There are ways in which the close presence of war challenges the whole claim for publicity; and I need hardly say that this general claim has been challenged, practically, by the present horrific complexity of things at the front, as neither the Allies themselves nor watching neutrals have ever seen it challenged before. The American public is, of course, little used to not being able to hear, and hear as an absolute, right, about anything that the press may suggest that it ought to hear about; so that nothing may be said ever to happen anywhere that it doesn't count on having reported to it, hot and hot, as the phrase is, several times a day. We were the first American ambulance corps in the field, and we have a record of more than four months' continuous service with one of the French armies, but the rigor of the objection to our taking the world into our intimate confidence is not only shown by our still unbroken inability to report in lively installments, but receives also a sidelight from the fact that numerous like private corps maintained by donations on this side of the sea are working at the front without the least commemoration of their deeds that is, without a word of journalistic notice.

"I hope that by the time these possibly too futile remarks of mine come to such light as may await them Mr. Norton's report of our general case may have been published, and nothing would give the committee greater pleasure than that some such controlled statement on our behalf, best proceeding from the scene of action itself, should occasionally appear. The ideal would, of course, be that exactly the right man, at exactly the right moment, should report exactly the right facts, in exactly the right manner, and when that happy consummation becomes possible we shall doubtless revel in funds."

Mr. James had expressed himself with such deliberation and hesitation that I was reminded of what I had heard of all the verbal alterations made by him in novels and tales long since published; to the point, we are perhaps incorrectly told of replacing a "she answered" by a "she indefinitely responded."

I should, indeed, mention that on my venturing to put to Mr. James a question or two about his theory of such changes he replied that no theory could be stated, at any rate in the off-hand manner that I seemed to invite, without childish injustice to the various considerations by which a writer is moved. These determinant reasons differ with the context and the relations of parts to parts and to the total sense in a way of which no a priori account can be given.

"I dare say I strike you," he went on, "as rather bewilderedly weighing my words; but I may perhaps explain my so doing very much as I the other day heard a more interesting fact explained. A distinguished English naval expert happened to say to me that the comparative non-production of airships in this country indicated, in addition to other causes, a possible limitation of the British genius in that direction, and then on my asking him why that class of craft shouldn't be within the compass of the greatest makers of sea-ships, replied, after brief reflection: ''Because the airship is essentially a bad ship, and we English can't make a bad ship well enough.' Can you pardon," Mr. James asked, "my making an application of this to the question of one's amenability or plasticity to the interview? The airship of the interview is for me a bad ship, and I can't make a bad ship well enough."

Catching Mr. James's words as they came was not very difficult; but there was that in the manner of his speech that cannot be put on paper, the delicate difference between the word recalled and the word allowed to stand, the earnestness of the massive face and alert eye, tempered by the genial "comment of the body," as R. L. Stevenson has it.

Henry James does not look his seventy years. He has a finely shaped head, and a face, at once strong and serene, which the painter and the sculptor may well have liked to interpret. Indeed, in fine appreciation they have so wrought. Derwent Wood's admirable bust, purchased from last year's Royal Academy, shown by the Chantrey Fund, will be permanently placed in the Tate Gallery, and those who fortunately know Sargent's fine portrait, to be exhibited in the Sargent Room at the San Francisco Exhibition, will recall its having been slashed into last year by the militant suffragettes, though now happily restored to such effect that no trace of the outrage remains.

Mr. James has a mobile mouth, a straight nose, a forehead which has thrust back the hair from the top of his commanding head, although it is thick at the sides over the ears, and repeats in its soft gray the color of his kindly eyes. Before taking in these physical facts one receives an impression of benignity and amenity not often conveyed, even by the most distinguished. And, taking advantage of this amiability, I asked if certain words just used should be followed by a dash, and even boldly added: "Are you not famous, Mr. James, for the use of dashes?"

"Dash my fame!" he impatiently replied. "And remember, please, that dogmatizing about punctuation is exactly as foolish as dogmatizing about any other form of communication with the reader. All such forms depend on the kind of thing one is doing and the kind of effect one intends to produce. Dashes, it seems almost platitudinous to say, have their particular representative virtue, their quickening force, and, to put it roughly, strike both the familiar and the emphatic note, when those are the notes required, with a felicity beyond either the comma or the semicolon; though indeed a fine sense for the semicolon, like any sort of sense at all for the pluperfect tense and the subjunctive mood, on which the whole perspective in a sentence may depend, seems anything but common. Does nobody ever notice the calculated use by French writers of a short series of suggestive points in the current of their prose? I confess to a certain shame for my not employing frankly that shade of indication, a finer shade still than the dash. * * * But what on earth are we talking about? And the Chairman of the Corps Committee pulled himself up in deprecation of our frivolity, which I recognized by acknowledging that we might indeed hear more about the work done and doing at the front by Richard Norton and his energetic and devoted co-workers. Then I plunged recklessly to draw my victim.

"May not a large part of the spirit which animates these young men be a healthy love of adventure?" I asked.

The question seemed to open up such depths that Mr. James considered a moment and began:

"I, of course, don't personally know many of our active associates, who naturally waste very little time in London. But, since you ask me, I prefer to think of them as moved, first and foremost, not by the idea of the fun or the sport they may have, or of the good thing they may make of the job for themselves, but by that of the altogether exceptional chance opened to them of acting blessedly and savingly for others, though indeed if we come to that there is no such sport in the world as so acting when anything in the nature of risk or exposure is attached. The horrors, the miseries, the monstrosities they are in presence of are so great surely as not to leave much of any other attitude over when intelligent sympathy has done its best.

"Personally I feel so strongly on everything that the war has brought into question for the Anglo-Saxon peoples that humorous detachment or any other thinness or tepidity of mind on the subject affects me as vulgar impiety, not to say as rank blasphemy; our whole race tension became for me a sublimely conscious thing from the moment Germany flung at us all her explanation of her pounce upon Belgium for massacre and ravage in the form of the most insolent, 'Because I choose to, damn you all!' recorded in history.

"The pretension to smashing world rule by a single people, in virtue of a monopoly of every title, every gift and every right, ought perhaps to confound us more by its grotesqueness than to alarm us by its energy; but never do cherished possessions, whether of the hand or of the spirit, become so dear to us as when overshadowed by vociferous aggression. How can one help seeing that such aggression, if hideously successful in Europe, would, with as little loss of time as possible, proceed to apply itself to the American side of the world, and how can one, therefore, not feel that the Allies are fighting to the death for the soul and the purpose and the future that are in us, for the defense of every ideal that has most guided our growth and that most assures our unity?

"Of course, since you ask me, my many years of exhibited attachment to the conditions of French and of English life, with whatever fond play of reflection and reaction may have been involved in it, make it inevitable that these countries should peculiarly appeal to me at the hour of their peril, their need and their heroism, and I am glad to declare that, though I had supposed I knew what that attachment was, I find I have any number of things more to learn about it. English life, wound up to the heroic pitch, is at present most immediately before me, and I can scarcely tell you what a privilege I feel it to share the inspiration and see further revealed the character of this decent and dauntless people.

"However, I am indeed as far as you may suppose from assuming that what you speak to me of as the 'political' bias is the only ground on which the work of our corps for the Allies should appeal to the American public. Political, I confess, has become for me in all this a loose and question-begging term, but if we must resign ourselves to it as explaining some people's indifference, let us use a much better one for inviting their confidence. It will do beautifully well if givers and workers and helpers are moved by intelligent human pity, and they are with us abundantly enough if they feel themselves simply roused by, and respond to, the most awful exhibition of physical and moral anguish the world has ever faced, and which it is the strange fate of our actual generations to see unrolled before them. We welcome any lapse of logic that may connect inward vagueness with outward zeal, if it be the zeal of subscribers, presenters or drivers of cars, or both at once, stretcher-bearers, lifters, healers, consolers, handy Anglo-French interpreters, (these extremely precious,) smoothers of the way; in short, after whatever fashion. We ask of nobody any waste of moral or of theoretic energy, nor any conviction of any sort, but that the job is inspiring and the honest, educated man a match for it.

"If I seem to cast doubt on any very driving intelligence of the great issue as a source of sympathy with us, I think this is because I have been struck, whenever I have returned to my native land, by the indifference of Americans at large to the concerns and preoccupations of Europe. This indifference has again and again seemed to me quite beyond measure or description, though it may be in a degree suggested by the absence throughout the many-paged American newspaper of the least mention of a European circumstance unless some not-to-be-blinked war or revolution, or earthquake or other cataclysm has happened to apply the lash to curiosity. The most comprehensive journalistic formula that I have found myself, under that observation, reading into the general case is the principle that the first duty of the truly appealing sheet in a given community is to teach every individual reached by it every man, woman and child to count on appearing there, in their habit as they live, if they will only wait for their turn.

"However," he continued, "my point is simply my plea for patience with our enterprise even at the times when we can't send home sensational figures. 'They also serve who only stand and wait,' and the essence of our utility, as of that of any ambulance corps, is just to be there, on any and every contingency, including the blessed contingency of a temporary drop in the supply of the wounded turned out and taken on since such comparative intermissions occur. Ask our friends, I beg you, to rid themselves of the image of our working on schedule time or on guarantee of a maximum delivery; we are dependent on the humors of battle, on incalculable rushes and lapses, on violent outbreaks of energy which rage and pass and are expressly designed to bewilder. It is not for the poor wounded to oblige us by making us showy, but for us to let them count on our open arms and open lap as troubled children count on those of their mother. It is now to be said, moreover, that our opportunity of service threatens inordinately to grow; such things may any day begin to occur at the front as will make what we have up to now been able to do mere child's play, though some of our help has been rendered when casualties were occurring at the rate, say, of 5,000 in twenty minutes, which ought, on the whole, to satisfy us. In face of such enormous facts of destruction—"

Here Mr. James broke off as if these facts were, in their horror, too many and too much for him. But after another moment he explained his pause.

"One finds it in the midst of all this as hard to apply one's words as to endure one's thoughts. The war has used up words; they have weakened, they have deteriorated like motor car tires; they have, like millions of other things, been more overstrained and knocked about and voided of the happy semblance during the last six months than in all the long ages before, and we are now confronted with a depreciation of all our terms, or, otherwise speaking, with a loss of expression through increase of limpness, that may well make us wonder what ghosts will be left to walk."

This sounded rather desperate, yet the incorrigible interviewer, conscious of the wane of his only chance, ventured to glance at the possibility of a word or two on the subject of Mr. James's present literary intentions. But the kindly hand here again was raised, and the mild voice became impatient.

"Pardon my not touching on any such irrelevance. All I want is to invite the public, as unblushingly as possible, to take all the interest in us it can; which may be helped by knowing that our bankers are Messrs. Brown Brothers & Co., 59 Wall Street, New York City, and that checks should be made payable to the American Volunteer Motor Ambulance Corps."

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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