Saturday, October 01, 2016

The Daily Henry James, suitable even for October 1

The calendar has turned to October--which means, in these parts, a reacquaintance with the fine art of the ghost story, broadly defined.

First, however, I must beg an indulgence. This past week, a book arrived on my desk at work that I've been impatiently awaiting for months: The Daily Henry James: A Year of Quotes from the Work of the Master. It's a book I'm incredibly proud to be able to bring back to the world: originally published, privately, in 1911 as The Henry James Yearbook--with James's approval and, to the extent of a brief prefatory note, participation--it sank into obscurity almost immediately. When I stumbled on it in Google Books last winter, I couldn't quite believe what I was seeing. A quick e-mail to James biographer Michael Gorra confirmed my suspicion: this book was essentially unknown, and thus ripe for retrieval.

And it's such a pleasure. I'll confess to being, at this point, not wholly sound on James. The past five years or so have seen me go from someone who has read and enjoyed quite a bit of James to someone who thinks about and reads James a lot, who's visited James's house and read biographies and much of the letters and most of the novels and many of the stories. I'm now to the point where I expect I will eventually read it all, which, given James's decades of productivity, is saying something.

Yet I'm not sure I would have said that James would adapt well to the quote-a-day format. It's not even that his sentences are too long; rather, his thoughts are. How would a serpentine Jamesian thought hold up in isolation? I was wrong. James turns out to work wonderfully in this format. The book, which was assembled as a form of therapy after a breakdown by the adult daughter of a friend of the James family, mixes short and long passages, aphoristic insights and description, short stories and novels, fiction and nonfiction. It draws on an impressive range of James's writings--one of the many pleasures it offers is that even a dedicated James reader will almost certainly encounter lines they've never read before, from obscure stories or essays. And it's such fun to open the book each day and find something new; not for nothing does Michael Gorra, in the foreword he wrote for the University of Chicago Press edition, call the book a "little charmer."

A search on my Twitter feed will turn up a number of entries I've enjoyed and highlighted. For today, I'll give you the entry that opens October. Each month begins with a slightly longer passage, before the entry for the first day of the month; this one, for October, is from "New England: An Autumn Impression," in The American Scene:
It may be an ado about trifles--and half the poetry, roundabout, the poetry in solution in the air, was doubtless but the alertness of the touch of Autumn, the imprisoned painter, the Bohemian with a rusty jacket, who had already broken out with a palette and brush; yet the way the color begins in those days to be dabbed, the way, here and there, for a start, a solitary maple on a woodside flames in single scarlet, recalls nothing so much as the daughter of a noble house dressed for a fancy-ball, with the whole family gathered round to admire her before she goes. One speaks, at the same time of the orchards; but there are properly no orchards when half the countryside shows, the easiest, most familiar sacrifice to Pomona. The apple tree in New England plays the part of the olive in Italy, charges itself with the effect of detail, for the most part otherwise too scantily produces, and, engaged in this charming care, becomes infinitely decorative and delicate. What it must do for the too under-dressed land in may and June is easily supposable; but its office in the early autumn is to scatter coral and gold. The apples are everywhere and every interval, every old clearing, an orchard. You pick them up from under your feet but to bite into them, for fellowship, and throw them away; but as you catch their young brightness in the blue air, where they suggest strings of strange-colored pearls tangled in the knotted boughs, as you notice their manner of swarming for a brief and wasted gayety, they seem to ask to be praised only by the cheerful shepherd and the oaten pipe.
As I've written before, for an American, New England is autumn, source of our ancestral stories and images and dreams of the season, and James conjures beautifully this one aspect of it, which in itself calls to mind both labor and leisure, beauty and utility, history and the everyday.

Here in Chicago, autumn came in a rush this year: summer, having lingered with its heat and sun too long, beating an overnight retreat about ten days ago. Instantly, it seemed, leaves rustled along the edges of the sidewalk in the breeze, and the park was patchworked with color. Jenkins, our still-new dog, turns out to like to chase leaves as the wind draws them from him; his energetic joy in the activity gives me yet another reason to love this turning of the year.

With the arrival of autumn, however, we also get the dark mornings, and the rapid drawing in of evening after work. What better, at either end of the day, than to leaven the loss with some Henry James? The Daily Henry James will be in a bookstore near you within about two weeks. You won't regret bringing it into your library.