Henry James and H.G. Well’s Famous Feud About Writing, the Purpose of Art, and the Usefulness of Literature
“It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance…”
By Maria Popova
“What art does is to coax us away from the mechanical and towards the miraculous,” Jeanette Winterson wrote in 2006. A century earlier, two of literature’s most revered titans clashed on this question of what art does, and the debris became the soil in which nearly every contemporary debate about the purpose of creative work grows.
Henry James (April 13, 1843–February 28, 1916) and H.G. Wells (September 21, 1866–August 13, 1946) were a generation apart, but had much in common — both championed freedom of speech, had strong political views, and wrote incisive social commentary; both were nominated for the Nobel Prize several times but never won. And yet, despite their commonalities, the two writers collided on the subject at the center of their work — the nature of purpose of art, including literature. Their contrasting views capture a divide that continues to bedevil creative culture today.
The feud began in friendship: When Wells first emerged onto the literary scene, James was intrigued by the young writer’s talent and eventually declared his admiration directly: “You are, for me … the most interesting ‘literary man’ of your generation — in fact, the only interesting one.” But James soon came to lament a paradox in Wells’s writing, which he articulated to a friend as “so much talent with so little art, so much life with (so to speak) so little living.” For James, who had once described the “divine preoccupation” of art as an “intimate restlessness of projection and perception,” aliveness was always the true measure of art — something Joseph Conrad would later capture in his beautiful tribute to him. Wells, trained as a biologist and best-known for his science fiction masterworks, considered himself above all a journalist — he measured writing by its usefulness in the service of truth.
This irreconcilable contrast of sensibilities came to a head the year before James’s death, when he was 72 and Wells 49.
In 1915, exactly twenty years after Wells made a name for himself and popularized the concept of time travel with The Time Machine, he published a satirical novel titled Boon, parodying James’s writing and depicting a paragraph of his as a hippopotamus trying to pick up a pea in a corner — a caricature crowned with the accusation that James “never discovered that a novel isn’t a picture … that life isn’t a studio.”
James was bemused and perhaps somewhat betrayed, given his early support of Wells’s work, but he responded with surprising graciousness given the blindsiding ferocity of the attack. (One of the consolations of old age surely must be a certain capacity for pause between stimulus and response, a willingness to reflect before reacting and to rise above the irascible immediacy of the situation in order to take a bird’s-eye view.)
In a considered and dignified defense, found in Henry James: A Life in Letters (public library), James argues that the artist is ultimately beholden only to his own measure of fullness — “fullness of life and the projection of it, which seems to you [Wells] an emptiness of both.”
But Wells, rather than honoring James’s sympathetic search for, if not common ground then, at least, mutual understanding, dug his heels in stubbornly:
To you literature like painting is an end, to me literature like architecture is a means, it has a use. Your view was, I felt, altogether too prominent in the world of criticism and I assailed it in lines of harsh antagonism. And writing that stuff about you was the first escape I had from the obsession of this war. Boon is just a waste-paper basket. Some of it was written before I left my home at Sandgate (1911), and it was while I was turning over some old papers that I came upon it, found it expressive, and went on with it last December. I had rather be called a journalist than an artist, that is the essence of it, and there was no other antagonist possible than yourself. But since it was printed I have regretted a hundred times that I did not express our profound and incurable contrast with a better grace.
This time, James was moved to outrage. He responded by, first, pointing at the seeming ingratitude of the ordeal by reminding Wells of his steadfast support:
My dear Wells,
I am bound to tell you that I don’t think your letter makes out any sort of case for the bad manners of Boon, as far as your indulgence in them at the expense of your poor old H. J. is concerned — I say “your” simply because he has been yours, in the most liberal, continual, sacrificial, the most admiring and abounding critical way, ever since he began to know your writings: as to which you have had copious testimony.
He then takes on Wells’s condemnation of his “view of life and literature,” still in a compliment sandwich of dissent:
Your comparison of the book to a waste-basket strikes me as the reverse of felicitous, for what one throws into that receptacle is exactly what one doesn’t commit to publicity and make the affirmation of one’s estimate of one’s contemporaries by. I should liken it much rather to the preservative portfolio or drawer in which what is withheld from the basket is savingly laid away.
I have no view of life and literature, I maintain, other than that our form of the latter in especial is admirable exactly by its range and variety, its plasticity and liberality, its fairly living on the sincere and shifting experience of the individual practitioner. That is why I have always so admired your so free and strong application of it, the particular rich receptacle of intelligences and impressions emptied out with an energy of its own, that your genius constitutes… For myself I live, live intensely and am fed by life, and my value, whatever it be, is in my own kind of expression of that.
After a few asides about his general beliefs and their particular differences, James delivers his greatest contestation:
I absolutely dissent from the claim that there are any differences whatever in the amenability to art of forms of literature aesthetically determined, and hold your distinction between a form that is (like) painting and a form that is (like) architecture for wholly null and void. There is no sense in which architecture is aesthetically “for use” that doesn’t leave any other art whatever exactly as much so; and so far from that of literature being irrelevant to the literary report upon life, and to its being made as interesting as possible, I regard it as relevant in a degree that leaves everything else behind. It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance, for our consideration and application of these things, and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process. If I were Boon I should say that any pretence of such a substitute is helpless and hopeless humbug; but I wouldn’t be Boon for the world, and am only yours faithfully,
Henry James: A Life in Letters remains one of the most psychologically insightful collections of correspondence ever made public. (That his brother was the pioneering psychologist William James seems both beside the point and a point.) Complement this particular excerpt with William Faulkner on the purpose of art and Jeanette Winterson on how art creates a sanctified space for the human spirit.