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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…”

Henry James and H.G. Well’s Famous Feud About Writing, the Purpose of Art, and the Usefulness of Literature

“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.

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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.”

Illustrations from the original edition of Wells's Boon
Illustrations from the original edition of Wells’s Boon

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

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.

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Cry, Heart, But Never Break: A Remarkable Illustrated Meditation on Loss and Life

“Who would enjoy the sun if it never rained? Who would yearn for the day if there were no night?”

cryheartbutneverbreak“Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead,” John Updike wrote, “so why … be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?” Half a millennium earlier, Montaigne posed the same question somewhat differently in his magnificent meditation on death and the art of living: “To lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago.”

Yet mortality continues to petrify us — our own, and perhaps even more so that of our loved ones. And if the adult consciousness is so thoroughly unsettled by the notion of death, despite intellectually recognizing it as a necessary and inevitable part of life, how is the child consciousness to settle into comprehension and comfort?

Now comes a fine addition to the most intelligent and imaginative children’s books about making sense of death — the crowning jewel of them all, even, and not only because it bears what might be the most beautiful children’s book title ever conceived: Cry, Heart, But Never Break (public library) by beloved Danish children’s book author Glenn Ringtved and illustrator Charlotte Pardi, translated into English by Robert Moulthrop.

Although Ringtved is celebrated for his humorous and mischievous stories, this contemplative tale sprang from the depths of his own experience — when his mother was dying and he struggled to explain what was happening to his young children, she offered some words of comfort: “Cry, Heart, but never break.” It was the grandmother’s way of assuring the children that the profound sadness of loss is to be allowed rather than resisted, then folded into the wholeness of life, which continues to unfold. (I’m reminded of Maria Kalman’s unforgettable words: “When Tibor died, the world came to an end. And the world did not come to an end. That is something you learn.”)

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This warmly wistful story begins outside the “small snug house” where four children live with their beloved grandmother. Not wanting to scare the young ones, Death, who has come for the old lady, has left his scythe by the door. Immediately, in this small and enormously thoughtful gesture, we are met with Death’s unexpected tenderness.

Inside, he sits down at the kitchen table, where only the youngest of the kids, little Leah, dares look straight at him.

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What makes the book particularly touching, thanks to Pardi’s immensely expressive illustration, is just how crestfallen — broken, even — Death himself looks the entire time he is executing his mission, choked up with some indiscernible fusion of resignation and recompense.

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In the quiet, the children could hear their grandmother upstairs, breathing with the same raspy breaths as the figure at the table. They knew Death had come for her and that time was short.

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To stall the inevitable, the children devise a plan — believing that Death only works at night, they decide to keep refilling his coffee cup until dawn comes, at which point he would have to leave without their grandmother. Here, too, one is struck by the ordinariness of Death, for what can be more ordinary — and life-loving, even — than to enjoy a cup of coffee at the kitchen table?

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But Death eventually curls his bony hand over the cup to signal that the time has come. Leah reaches her own tiny hand, taking his in hers, and beseeches him not to take their darling grandmother. Why, she insists, does grandma have to die?

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Some people say Death’s heart is as dead and black as a piece of coal, but that is not true. Beneath his inky cloak, Death’s heart is as red as the most beautiful sunset and beats with a great love of life.

Death is once more overcome with kindness and compassion for the children, so he decides to answer Leah’s question with a story, hoping it would help them understand why dying is natural and necessary.

He tells them of two brothers named Sorrow and Grief, who lived in a somber valley and went about their days “slowly and heavily” because they never looked up, because “they never saw through the shadows on the tops of the hills.”

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Beyond those shadows, Death tells the kids, lived two sisters, Joy and Delight.

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They were bright and sunny and their days were full of happiness. The only shadow was their sense that something was missing. They didn’t know what, but they felt they couldn’t fully enjoy their happiness.

As Death is telling the story, little Leah nods her head, for she can tell what is to come — the two boys meet the two girls and they fall in love, two perfectly balanced couples: Sorrow and Joy, Grief and Delight.

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Death tells the kids:

It is the same with life and death… What would life be worth if there were no death? Who would enjoy the sun if it never rained? Who would yearn for the day if there were no night?

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Something difficult and beautiful has sunk in.

When death finally gets up from the table to head upstairs, the youngest boy is moved to stop him — but his older brother puts a rueful hand on his shoulder and gently discourages him.

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Moments later, the children heard the upstairs window open. Then, in a voice somewhere between a cry and a whisper, Death said, “Fly, Soul. Fly, fly away.”

They hurry upstairs, where their grandmother has died — a moment of great sadness, enveloped in warm peacefulness.

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The curtains were blowing in the gentle morning breeze. Looking at the children, Death said quietly, “Cry, Heart, but never break. Let your tears of grief and sadness help begin new life.”

Then he was gone.

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Ever after, whenever the children opened a window, they would think of their grandmother. And when the breeze caressed their faces, they could feel her touch.

Cry, Heart, But Never Break comes from the courageous Enchanted Lion, who have brought to life such daring and deeply nuanced picture-books as The Tiger Who Would Be King, Little Boy Brown, The Lion and the Bird, and Louis I, King of the Sheep.

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Complement this particular masterpiece with Oliver Jeffers’s The Heart and the Bottle, which explores what we stand to lose when we deny difficult emotions like grief, and Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, a beautiful meditation on loss, illustrated by the great Sir Quentin Blake. For a grownup counterpart in the same spirit, see Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World. For an Eastern perspective, see how a Zen master explained death and the life-force to a child.

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The Ship of Theseus: A Brilliant Ancient Thought Experiment Exploring What Makes You You

“Which you is ‘who’? The person you are today? Five years ago? Who you’ll be in fifty years? And when is ‘am’? This week? Today? This hour? This second? And which aspect of you is ‘I’? Are you your physical body? Your thoughts and feelings? Your actions?”

The Ship of Theseus: A Brilliant Ancient Thought Experiment Exploring What Makes You You

Throughout our lives, we come to inhabit the seven layers of identity, often interpolating between them and constantly changing within each. And yet somehow, despite this ever-shifting seedbed of personhood, we manage to think of ourselves as concrete selves — our selves. Hardly any perplexity of human existence is more fascinating than the continuity of personal identity — the question of what makes you and your childhood self the “same” person, despite a lifetime of change, from your cells to your values. Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert captured this paradox perfectly: “Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished.”

Two millennia before modern psychologists came to tussle with this puzzlement, the great Greek historian and writer Plutarch examined it more lucidly than anyone before or since. In a brilliant thought experiment known as The Ship of Theseus, or Theseus’s paradox, outlined (though not for the first or last time) in his biographical masterwork Plutarch’s Lives (free ebook | public library), Plutarch asks: If the ship on which Theseus sailed has been so heavily repaired and nearly every part replaced, is it still the same ship — and, if not, at what point did it stop being the same ship?

He writes:

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.

In this wonderful animation, the visual educators at TED-Ed — who have previously explored how you know you exist by way of Descartes and the nature of reality by way of Plato — examine the famous thought experiment and how it illuminates the perennial question of who we are:

Which you is “who”? The person you are today? Five years ago? Who you’ll be in fifty years? And when is “am”? This week? Today? This hour? This second? And which aspect of you is “I”? Are you your physical body? Your thoughts and feelings? Your actions?

Complement with Hannah Arendt on being vs. appearing and where our thinking ego resides, then revisit other illuminating TED-Ed animations exploring what depression actually feels like, why some people are left-handed, how melancholy enhances creativity, and why playing music benefits your brain more than any other activity.

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