Henry James (1843-1916) is a major American author. His numerous novels and novellas include What Maisie Knew, The Turn of the Screw, The American, The Portrait of a Lady, and The Ambassadors. His fiction is considered among the best ever written in the English language. Reverently known as The Master, James was a realist who had a great deal more in common with the Romantic movement of the early part of the nineteenth century than he did with the Naturalists who dominated American and European literature during his lifetime.
In a previous essay I contrasted Ayn Rand’s novel We the Living with Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy to demonstrate how Ayn Rand successfully refuted the Naturalist worldview. In this essay, I compare Ayn Rand favorably to Henry James. Both Henry James and Ayn Rand were artists of the highest caliber. Both artists made significant and enduring contributions to American literature, but the academic literary establishment overwhelmingly favors Henry James and ignores Ayn Rand. What are the ideas, then, that Ayn Rand and Henry James contributed to American literature? Why are James’s ideas canonical while Rand’s are not?
Ayn Rand’s command of the English language, her interest in the novel as an art form, her interest in the practical concerns of fiction writing, and her psychological depth are equal to those of Henry James. The difference between the two novelists has little to do with art. The difference, rather, is one of “sense of life”—a term both artists employed in discussing novel writing. A Romantic, Henry James nevertheless had an ironic sense of life. He wrote psychologically nuanced stories of innocent Americans who journeyed in heroic fashion to Europe only to be undone by old world European aristocratic culture. A Romantic also, Ayn Rand had a heroic sense of life. She wrote heroic novels in which innocent Americans defended freedom and individualism against old world aristocracy as well as against contemporary advances of socialism and fascism. Insofar as James’s preference for the old world institutionalized a bias in American literature against the American experience, I suggest that Ayn Rand’s novels are more important than the novels of Henry James in understanding the American experience and the American values that created it.
To begin, I look at Henry James’s collected essays, The Art of the Novel, and Ayn Rand’s collected essays, The Romantic Manifesto, to highlight the similarities in their approach to the novel as an art form. In Part 2, I compare their separate defenses of fiction writing and of the novel in particular. Both Henry James and Ayn Rand wrote treatises on the art of fiction, to similar effect. In Parts 3 through 6, I discuss the consequences of James’s and Rand’s radically different sense of life to the depiction of American culture.
The Art of the Novel and The Romantic Manifesto
Henry James and Ayn Rand both wrote important treatises examining the novel as an art form. In 1909 James published a definitive edition of his works, known as The New York Edition (Charles Scribner). As part of the project, James wrote a critical preface for each individual work. The prefaces explored the artistic goals he had set for himself and specific artistic problems he had to solve while writing each of the works. The posthumous The Art of the Novel (1934) is an anthology of those prefaces. After she published Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand began writing essays on art and literary theory in an effort to encourage others to contribute to her project of translating and reinvigorating the aesthetics of nineteenth-century Romanticism into twentieth- century America. She later collected those essays into The Romantic Manifesto (1969). Both James and Rand took the novel very seriously, and the similarities between Henry James’s views on the novel and those of Ayn Rand are striking.
Both James and Rand considered the novel the literary form with the highest artistic value, and they both thought so for the same reason: scope. In James’s words, the novel “while preserving that form with closeness, [is able] to range through all the differences of the individual relation to its general subject-matter, all the varieties of outlook on life, of disposition to reflect and project, created by conditions that are never the same from man to man (or, so far as that goes, from man to woman). . . .” Similarly, Rand praised the novel’s “inexhaustible potentiality, its almost unlimited freedom (including the freedom from physical limitations of the kind that restrict a stage play)” and, “most importantly, the novel’s unique ability to range freely and to contain everything it needs in itself. . . .” They both agreed that a successful novel must told a story in a unified and coherent fashion. For James, that meant that to write a novel, “to pile brick upon brick for the creation of an interest” the novelist must avoid any “pretext for saying that anything is out of line, scale or perspective.” Moreover, “The thing ‘done,’ artistically, is a fusion, or it has not been done.” For Rand, it meant that novel is “the sum” of its theme, plot, characterization, and style—“the four essential attributes”—and that, “If it is a good novel, it is an indivisible sum.”
The most significant similarities between James and Rand have to do with their views on the novel as an art form, the importance of a novelist’s “sense of life,” and the moral hazards of Naturalism.
To begin, James and Rand agreed that the novel is an art form, and thus the novelist must be an artist. For them, good novelists do not transcribe real-life events in narrative form; they create imaginative fiction that elevates life and sheds light on human nature. Moreover, each of them considered the artist’s chief responsibility to be that of exercising discriminating aesthetic judgment. People like to read novels precisely because they want to immerse themselves in a beautiful and coherent point of view.
Henry James approached the process of aesthetic judgment by way of analogy. He compared it, at one point, to a layer cake: “[R]epresentation is arrived at . . . not by the addition of items . . . but by the art of figuring synthetically, a compactness into which the imagination may cut thick, as into the rich density of wedding-cake.” In other words, in a novel, a reader can experience a character or an event as a whole rather than partially, as is necessary in real life. The novelist can isolate and amplify the salient details to project the essential truth of a person or event. James developed a second analogy between novel writing and painting. He proposed the novelist develop a rigorous set of aesthetic criteria. Those criteria must be rationally attained and applied in order to maintain artistic integrity and avoid the arbitrary or the gratuitous: “The sense of a system saves the painter from the business of the arbitrary stroke, the touch without its reason, but as payment for that service the process insists on being kept impeccably the right one.” In a third analogy James compared novel writing to architecture. It is an analogy that Objectivists can appreciate, for obvious reasons, and because James implied therein a metaphysical component to artistic form and structure:
The dramatist has verily to build, is committed to architecture, to construction at any cost; to driving in deep his vertical supports and laying across and firmly fixing his horizontal, his resting pieces—at the risk of no matter what vibration from the tap of his master-hammer. This makes the active value of his basis immense, [emphasis mine] enabling him, with his flanks protected, to advance undistracted.
Ayn Rand too considered the novel an artistic rather than a journalistic endeavor. She thought that a good novel gave the reader an opportunity to immerse herself imaginatively in life elevated to what it should be. Like James, she thought that a novel would please a reader insofar as it presented a consistent, rational whole. And, of course, for Ayn Rand, aesthetic judgment was fundamentally metaphysical:
An artist does not fake reality—he stylizes it. He selects those aspects of existence which he regards as metaphysically significant—and by isolating and stressing them, by omitting the insignificant and accidental, he presents his view of existence. His concepts are not divorced from the facts of reality—they are concepts which integrate the facts and his metaphysical evaluation of the facts. His selection constitutes his evaluation: everything included in a work of art—from theme to subject to brushstroke or adjective—acquires metaphysical significance by the mere fact of being included, of being important enough to include.
Next, it may come as a surprise to Objectivists that Henry James used the phrase “sense of life” in the Art of the Novel decades before Rand published The Romantic Manifesto and in the same way that she used it—as a fundamental view of existence pressed into service of the creative mind. Both James and Rand emphasized the importance of the novelist’s “sense of life” to the integrity of his work. Here is James’s version:
[O]ne’s “taste,” [is] as our fathers used to say: a blessed comprehensive name for many of the things deepest in us. The “taste” of the poet is, at bottom and as far as the poet in him prevails over everything else, his active sense of life: in accordance with which truth to keep one’s hand on it is to hold the silver clue to the whole labyrinth of his consciousness. [emphasis mine]
Rand too considered “sense of life” one of “the things deepest in us.” In her words, “A sense of life is a pre-conceptual equivalent of metaphysics, an emotional, subconsciously integrated appraisal of man and existence.” Moreover, like Henry James, she considered the novelist’s sense of life the linchpin of artistic achievement: “It is the artist’s sense of life that controls and integrates his work, directing the innumerable choices he has to make, from the choice of subject to the subtlest details of style.”
Finally, in their analysis of the novel, both Henry James and Ayn Rand objected to what they saw as the moral hazard of literary Naturalism. The differences in their assessment of Naturalism were a matter of degree. Like Rand, James considered the Naturalists reductionist and uninteresting. They “seem to have lost the perception of anything in nature but the genital organs,” he remarked. James faulted his contemporary, Émile Zola, for focusing on the “ugly and dirty.” Still, James had a reasonable regard for Zola as a writer, and he was willing to overlook Zola’s faults in favor of his merits, which he considered “rare” but “valuable and extremely solid.” Nevertheless, refinement and sophistication, not brute nature, interested James. He called the Naturalist aesthetic, for example, “cheap and easy,” and he expressed a debt of gratitude to all writers who managed to rise above it:
How can one consent to make a picture of the preponderant futilities and vulgarities and miseries of life without the impulse to exhibit as well from time to time, in its place, some fine example of the reaction, the opposition or the escape? One does, thank heaven, encounter here and there symptoms of immunity from the general infection; one recognizes with rapture, on occasion, signs of protest against the rule of the cheap and easy, and one sees thus that the tradition of a high aesthetic temper needn’t, after all, helplessly and ignobly perish!
Course and unthinking characters caught up in vulgar events were not the appropriate subjects for a novel, since they did little, finally, to engage a reader’s aspirations: “By so much as the affair matters for some individual, by so much do we get the best there is of it, and by so much as it falls within the scope of a duller, a more vulgar and more shallow capacity, do we get a picture dim and meagre.” Low characters matter only insofar as they shed light on the high-minded in their midst: “We care, our curiosity and or sympathy care, comparatively little for what happens to the stupid, the course, and the blind; care for it, and for the effects of it, at the most as helping to precipitate what happens to the more deeply wondering, to the really sentient.”
Ayn Rand published The Romantic Manifesto as a direct attack against Naturalism, and readers who want the complete scope of her condemnation should read the work in full. She went further than James in condemning the consequences of Naturalism in contrast with Romanticism: Romanticism, “recognizes the existence of man’s volition” while Naturalism “denies it.” If human volition did not exist, as the Naturalists claimed, then neither did human value, human aspiration, or human achievement. Life sank to the lowest level:
At first, by the standard that substituted the collective for the objective, the Naturalists consigned the exceptional man to unreality and presented only the men who could be taken as typical of some group or another, high or low. Then, since they saw more misery than prosperity on earth, they began to regard prosperity as unreal and present only misery, poverty, the slums, the lower classes. Then, since they saw more mediocrity than greatness around them, they began to regard greatness as unreal, and to present only the mediocre, the average, the common, the undistinguished. Since they saw more failure than success, they took success to be unreal and presented only suffering. Since they saw more ugliness than beauty, they took beauty to be unreal and presented only ugliness. Since they saw more vice than virtue, they took virtue to be unreal and presented only vice, crime, corruption, perversion, depravity.
That the novel was an art form, that art could elevate life, that the artist’s sense of life produced an integrated view of existence, and that the view of existence represented by Naturalism presented serious moral hazard—these are the premises shared by Henry James and Ayn Rand. Henry James arrived at his premises independently. Whether Ayn Rand read Henry James doesn’t matter. What does matter is that in spite of the remarkable similarities in their views, one is held in high esteem by the literary establishment, and one is ignored.