February-March 2008 Message from Dan
Greetings Readers, Friends, and Other Visitors:
“There are no genres, there are only talents.”
-- Jean-François Revel, Le Voleur Dans La Maison Vide
The year 2007 ended relatively well for me in
terms of things literary-ish and writing-careerish. True,
I ended the year locked in mortal combat with my large novel DROOD – extending my deadline at least a month
to February 1, 2008, and rolling around on the ground with
this difficult book, biting and gouging and kneeing,
with DROOD and me doing our mutual best to kill each
other and me essentially insisting that it will be born and it will be brilliant or I will strangle the #%^&*@* with my own bare hands.
Nothing new there.
But right at the end of the year, I started hearing from
my agent and from my editor at Little, Brown about The
Terror, which had come out in hardcover in January, 2007,
and was released in trade paperback in early December. The
paperback went to its third printing very quickly. Good news
More interesting was word from USA Today that The
Terror was on their Top 10 of 2007 List. Well, great!
Then word came from Book Sense that The Terror was
12 on their annual list of top books sold through independent
booksellers. Hey, wonderful!
Then Entertainment Weekly put The Terror in their Top 10 List. Goodo!
And Stephen King evidently included The Terror in his recommendation of his favorite 10 scary books of 2007 in that same issue of Entertainment Weekly. Thanks, Steve!
And Amazon.com listed The Terror as # 1 book of its Top 10 Books – Hurray! – in Sci Fi and Horror.
SF/Horror. Well . . . shitarooney.
This isn’t snobbery. I write and love SF and horror. My lone, solitary Hugo Award (for Hyperion) is one of my most prized possessions. My treasured little ceramic haunted houses given as awards from the Horror Writers of America look down at me as I write this and my two World Fantasy Award “Howies” (limited edition busts of H.P. Lovecraft by the wonderful cartoonist Gahan Wilson) also smile down on me in their Easter-Island way. I love them all and the genres that generated them. But The Terror, while definitely containing elements of the fantastic and horrorific, was definitely not SF and was four-out-five-parts historical novel to one part horror or fantasy. That same day I heard about the amazon.com SF/Horror list, I walked into a Borders bookstore and saw The Terror racked on the wall under the Literature heading and thought – OK, well – and then I noticed that the store had just shifted its shelving system and hadn’t yet gotten around to relabeling the sections. The Terror was in Horror and not even one copy was set in among General Fiction. Jean Auel and her The Mammary Hunters was shelved under Literature, but The Terror, with all its careful historical research and . . . .
Yes, Virginia, we writers are a petty and pathetic lot.
All right, so after the minor tantrum, I paused to think about why this sort of thing matters to us writers. I paused to reflect on why I’m quite proud to have Hyperion, Ilium, Olympos, Worlds Enough & Time and some of my other books shelved in the SF section and perfectly satisfied to see Carrion Comfort, Children of the Night, Summer of Night, etc. in the Horror section, but why it upsets me to see some of my novels – The Crook Factory, for instance (which is about Hemingway playing spy in Cuba in 1942) or Phases of Gravity or The Terror misshelved so that general readers will never find them.
As far as bookstore computers and clerks are concerned, I’ve known for many years, once you’re an SF or Horror writer, you’re always an SF or Horror writer.
Why did this bother me? A store hiding one’s books from readers who would enjoy them always annoys a writer, but why this old irritation at being classified, dismissed to genre, and generally kept out of the Literature section?
Is it all ego? Is it a sense of inferiority? Petty jealousy?
Pondering this while covertly moving a few copies of The Terror over into the Literature shelves to sit next to such literary giants as Danielle Steele, I recalled, not for the first time (and almost certainly not for the last), something that George R.R. Martin had said to me in the summer of 1981, before I had published but when I was the first-ever (and last) unpublished writer to attend the week-long Milford Writers’ Workshop for pros.
Some of the real writers there (Connie Willis was there, at the beginning of her career, and Edward Bryant, and George R. R. Martin who’d made his bones in SF and then only recently shifted to horror that was just becoming popular again in the early ‘80’s) were talking about that whole “we don’t get no respect” way of thinking that some people in genre fell prey to. (Not me, of course – at that point, as an unpublished writer, I would have sold my grandmother to the Arabs just to be published in any genre.)
“I think that fiction reached the parting of the ways back with Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson,” George Martin was saying that summer day in 1981. “Before that, there weren’t any real genres. But now you’re either a descendent of James . . . a serious writer . . . or a descendent of Stevenson, a mere genre writer.”
That stuck with me. In later years, I did a little research into whether Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson knew each other and, if they did, what they thought of each other and of the other’s work. And since one of the genres I inhabit is science fiction, preferably known as SF rather than the execrable “sci-fi” label branded into our forehead by non-SF readers, for the purposes of this essay, I’ll toss H.G. Wells into the pot to represent SF while Robert Louis Stevenson can represent adventure and imaginative fiction of all sorts, including horror fiction.
Did Henry James know these men? What did they think of one another? Perhaps more importantly, what did they think of the kind of writing the other man did?
Henry James met Robert Louis Stevenson first, in 1879, shortly after publication of James’s very popular and influential Daisy Miller. At that time Stevenson’s Treasure Island was still four years in the future, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Kidnapped seven years in the future.
It was not an especially auspicious beginning to a relationship.
Friends of Stevenson say that he came away from the brief encounter with a rather low impression of Henry James. On his part, James wrote to a friend about Robert Louis Stevenson -- “ . . . a pleasant fellow, but a shirt-collarless bohemian and a great deal (in an inoffensive way) of a poseur.”
Their lack of mutual admiration might have blossomed into open contempt – very few men were as unlike in personality as the bohemian, consumptive, restless, city-hating, adventurous Stevenson and the very class-conscious, precise, rotund, healthy, urban, and sometimes effeminate James – if, in 1884, Henry James hadn’t seen fit to respond to an essay called “Fiction as One of the Fine Arts” written by a now- all-but-forgotten Victorian “bestselling” novelist Walter Besant.
Besant argued that writing should be classed with the other fine arts, and that all novels should possess “a conscious moral purpose.” He also strongly advised all writers to write only about what they knew, and stressed that writers from the lower classes should avoid having their characters wander into high society or other places of which the author knew little and in which neither the writer nor his characters were welcome.
Henry James rejected almost all of Besant’s theorems and responded in the pages of Longman’s Magazine with his definitive essay, “The Art of Fiction,” a work which, if not exactly the manifesto of all 20th and 21st Century “serious writers,” has at least become the pater familias against which all modern fiction must rebel.
James argued in his essay that all fiction flows from experience but is not bound by experience:
“Experience is never limited, and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider-web of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of the consciousness, catching every air-borne particle in its tissue. It is the very atmosphere of the mind; and when the mind is imaginative – much more when it happens to be the mind of a genius – it takes to itself the faintest hints of life, it converts the very pulses of the air into revelations.”
A reader of this essay was Robert Louis Stevenson, then convalescing in Bournemouth. The author of Treasure Island did not disagree with Henry James’s statement quoted above, but James had gone on to say that while the novel could never be life, it must nevertheless produce “the illusion of life.” James had gone so far as to say that the most splendid and admirable quality of the novel, as a form, was its “ . . . large, free character of an immense and exquisite correspondence with life.”
James had used the recently-published Treasure Island to expand upon this point. While praising the quality of writing and the brilliance of imagery in Stevenson’s tale, James showed why it had violated the boundaries of realistic fiction –
“I have been a child,” James wrote, “but I have never been on the quest for buried treasure.”
Stevenson fired back his response to James in an essay titled “A Humble Remonstrance.”
“If Mr. James has never been on a quest for buried treasure,” he wrote, “it can be demonstrated that he has never been a child.”
R.L.S. went on to refute the thrust of James’s argument about art emulating life. The secret of art, he said, is that it does not atempt to “compete with life.” Life, said Stevenson, “ . . . is monstrous, infinite, illogical, abrupt, and poignant,” whereas a work of art “must be neat, finite, self-contained, rational, flowing, and emasculate.”
That final word, ‘emasculate,’ has – I’m afraid – been all too accurate in describing so much of “serious literary fiction” in the second half of the 20th Century and the short beginning to our new century. It has become almost a given that to be treated seriously, a work of contemporary fiction must be small in scale, absent adventure or large ideas, deliberately modest in scope, and somewhat femininely introspective in tone. John Updike has spoken of the necessity of “becoming small enough and inky enough” to appear in The New Yorker.
“Nothing can be more deplorable,” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson in his “humble remonstrance” to Henry James, “than to forego all issues of living in a parlour with a regulated temperature.”
But it was in precisely such a parlour with a regulated temperature in Bournemouth that Stevenson was trying to recuperate from his most recent serious bout with what we now know was almost certainly tuberculosis. Not far from him there in Bournemouth, Henry James’s sister Alice was also convalescing. Alice had recently come over from the States to convalesce in England rather than in America; she was a woman who had dedicated her young life to being an invalid and to dying slowly, although nothing physical had yet been found to be wrong with her (when a cancerous lump in her breast was discovered some years later, Alice actually rejoiced at finally having a physical diagnosis that matched her preferred lifestyle of dying).
But as Henry James’s best (or at the very least, most thorough) biographer, Leon Edel, wrote of that year of 1884 –
“Thus had been stated in public, during this year, three distinct views of the novel; Besant’s had been that of the efficient and good-natured hack, the ‘maker’ of popular fiction; James had argued for the novel as a work of art which re-creates reality; and Stevenson, from his own formula, spoke for make-believe.”
I think it’s fair to say that today, 114 years later, those three distinct magnetic poles still divide the world of novels and novelists.
But there was no antagonism created in James or Stevenson because of their lively debate in Longman’s. James wrote to Stevenson of his enjoyment “of everything you write. It’s a luxury, in this immoral age, to encounter some one who does write – who is really acquainted with that lovely art.” James said of his own arguments in “The Art of Fiction” essay that they had been primarily a plea for the liberty for novelists and that they represented only half of what he had to say on the matter.
“Some day I shall try and express the remainder . . . The native gaiety of all that you write is delightful to me.” All the more so, James added in the letter, since he was aware of how ill Stevenson was.
Robert Louis Stevenson replied that his own literary efforts were modest when set besides Henry James’s, and he spoke of “the despair with which a writer like myself considers (say) the park scene in ‘Lady Barberina.’ Every touch surprises me by its instantaneous precision.”
As far as their disagreements went, Stevenson wrote – “Each man among us prefers his own aim, and I prefer mine; but when we come to speak of performance, I recognise myself, compared with you, to be a lout and a slouch of the first water.”
Stevenson added that because he was ill, he especially liked visitors, and invited James to come to Bournemouth where he would put him up and offer him “a fair bottle of claret.”
And thus began the real friendship between Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson.
There is no doubt that Henry James deeply loved his sister Alice, but you’ll pardon my insensitivity and crassness (and honesty) if I point out that Alice James was an irritatingly tiresome nutcase. Visiting her frequently, which Henry James did – both in London when she was practicing dying there and in Bournemooth when Alice and her caregiver rented a cottage there – must have been the familial equivalent of going in for root canal work every week.
Please note that I say all of the above in full awareness that Alice James is much-beloved by modern-era academics, especially the feminist scholars studying the history and politics of all five genders. To give Alice her due, she was lively for a professional invalid – always wanting to hear the latest gossip from her brothers William and Henry, always interested in the theatrical world, and always writing up all this gossip into heaps of letters, diary entries, and little essays whose volume was staggering even for that era of Victorian epistolary overkill. And most interesting to modern academics and PhD hopefuls, of course, is the fact of Alice James’s long, demanding, and obsessive love affair with her hired caregiver, Katharine Loring. (These Alice James’ scholars leave muddy footprints all over the chest and prominent belly of irrelevant Henry James in their eagerness to get to Alice and her lesbian tendencies.)
Given the age and era, the odds are overwhelming that those tendencies were never acted upon physically and were almost certainly sublimated, even to the demanding and jealous Alice James’s own mind, but odds are also great that today’s undergraduates won’t get that impression. Never have academics ignored the context and realities of other eras as they do today, so Alice is now a fixed star in the firmament of lesbian studies (although poor Alice would have probably keeled over and succeeded much earlier in her long ambition of dying if she had been able to hear any of this literally unthinkable gossip about herself.)
At any rate, we know that Henry James’s visits to Alice’s bedside (or couchside) in Bournemouth were always tiring and frequently disspiriting to him, but by 1885 he was ameliorating the melancholy by becoming a regular caller at nearby Skerryvore, where Robert Louis Stevenson kept a special armchair reserved for James. RLS was thirty-five at the time, seven years younger than HJ, and James was not the only friend of Stevenson’s to note that the consumptive had all the restlessness, enthusiasm, and love of make-believe of a boy.
Alice James spent years playing at dying; Robert Louis Stevenson was dying, but had shown and would continue to show an amazing capacity, time after time, of pulling himself back from the brink of death. And for someone so ill, Stevenson was amazingly prolific – writing through his coughing fits, fevers, and weaknesses (he professed to feel little pain).
Stevenson and his wife lived in a bright, ivory-covered, yellow-brick two-story structure (with a blue slate roof) that hung almost on the lip of Alum Chine, or gulley. They’d named the place Skerryvore after a famous lighthouse built by RLS’s ancestor. Here James and Stevenson would meet and talk in the blue room, their reflections keeping pace in a large Venetian mirror that James had given the couple. Stevenson would sit rolling cigarettes at one end of the table and he tended to make a picturesque image in the mirror with his long blond mustaches and dressed in bohemian velvet jackets, perhaps with a maroon shawl thrown over his shoulders like a Mexican poncho.
Stevenson liked to make up laudatory verses dedicated to James, and the older writer suffered the honor with good grace. Many of these poems celebrated their friendship.
Now with an outlandish grace,
To the sparkling fire I face
In the blue room at Skerryvore;
Where I wait until the door
Open, and the Prince of Men
Henry James, shall come again.
James admired Stevenson’s writing, but – as was always true of his response to fellow writers’ work – he was honest about it, both to others and to the writer. James could have been speaking about science fiction or other future genres when he pointed out that heroines were almost totally absent from Robert Louis Stevenson’s fiction. “The idea of making believe,” wrote James, “appeals to him much more than the idea of making love.”
I think of this as the Donald Duck Universe aspect to our SF and adventure genres up to recent years – a world in which there are no important women, no families to speak of (certainly none of the restrictions that women and parents and families set upon us in real life), and where all the boys are nephews to the older men who take them on exciting adventures.
“Though he takes such an interest in childish life, he takes no interest in the fireside,” wrote James. “To his view the normal child is the child who absents himself from the family-circle.”
That same year, from Bournemouth, James wrote his old friend and American editor William Dean Howells –
“My only social resource is Robert Louis Stevenson, who is more or less dying here and who (in case that event should take place) gave me the other day a message of a friendly – very friendly – character to give to you when I should next see you. I shall wait till then – it is too long for a short letter. He is an interesting, charming creature, but I fear at the end of his tether; though indeed less apparently near death than he has been at other times.”
James and Stevenson did what writers holding each other in mutual esteem have done since the days of scrolls: they sent each other their new books and read each other with real enjoyment.
In 1886, at Skerryvore, Stevenson gave James a copy of Kidnapped, inscribing it – “And I wish I had a better work to give as good a man.”
That copy, still preserved in James’s library, is filled with scrawled notes and marginalia – something common to all of the books that Henry James owned and took seriously.
It shouldn’t be assumed at this point that Henry James was a li’trary artiste who enjoyed reading trashy adventure novels on the side.
Despite our rigid view of him today, James was no prude. Although careful to abide by the conventions of his day, it was Henry James in these last years of the Victorian era who concluded that “the carnal side of man appears the most characteristic if you look at it a great deal; and you look at it a great deal if you do not look at the other, at the side by which he reacts against his weaknesses, his defeats.”
But while Henry James might advocate extending the boundaries by which literature dealt with sexuality – and indeed, he did so in his later rewritings of his earlier stories and novels for the so-called New York Edition of his collected works – he abhorred the casual use of violence in fiction. James abhorred violence in general, but it was his artistic sense that felt violated when authors glossed over reality – including the real-life effect of violence on real-life humans – in favor of generating base responses in readers.
“Did not Mr. Rider Haggard make even his African carnage pleasant?” James sarcastically wrote to Stevenson in 1886. H. Rider Haggard was a bestselling author at the time, and James had just finished reading King Solomon’s Mines and had made it halfway through She before he bailed out. The fact that She had sold more than 40,000 copies moved him, he told Stevenson, “to holy indignation.”
James felt that “it isn’t nice that anything so vulgarly brutal should be the thing that succeeds most with the English of today.” He was, he said, struck primarily with the “beastly bloodiness of Haggard’s books.”
“Such perpetual killing and such perpetual ugliness! It is worth while to write a tale of fantastic adventure, with a funnyman etc. and pitched all in the slangiest key, to kill 20,000 men, as in Solomon , in order to help your heroes on! In She, the Narrator himself shoots through the back (I think) his faithful servant Mohammed, to prevent his being boiled alive, and describes how he leaped into the air “like a buck,” on receiving the shot. They seem to me works in which our race and our age make a very vile figure – and they have unexpectedly depressed me.”
One has to pause here. If the works of H. Rider Haggard actively depressed Henry James then, what would he make of today’s incessant tsunami of every sort of conveivable act of violence, torture, and brutal depravity washing out of our movie screens and widescreen TVs and rap songs and bestselling novels twenty-four hours a day?
But my point was simply that Henry James’s admiration for the boyish make-believe of Robert Louis Stevenson’s books and stories did not extend to the hack purveyors of sensationalist fiction even in his day.
Meanwhile, the two writers’ careers were taking odd turns. Henry James was widely seen and recognized as “the Master,” but he was having a hard time making money from his mastery of prose. In 1886, when his novel The Bostonians was being serialised in Century Magazine, James’s editor, Richard Watson Gilder, wrote him to say that “we have never published anything that appeared so little to interest our readers.”
By 1888, James was at the point where he told a friend that his novels had “reduced the desire, and the demand, for my production to zero.”
He decided to make money by writing plays – an attempt that was to bring him the deepest and most terrible humiliation of his life – and by reviewing books. One of the first books he reviewed for Century Magazine in 1888 was Kidnapped:
“ . . . [it] is in fact a signal proof of what the novel can do at its best, and what nothing else can do so well. In the presence of this sort of success we perceive its immense value. It (the novel) is capable of a rare transparency – it can illustrate human affairs in cases so delicate and complicated that any other vehicle would be clumsy.”
Indeed, Robert Louis Stevenson had been on a roll. In 1885, the year after his debate with James in the pages of Longman’s Magazine, Stevenson had written The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, completing it in three days after “an especially vivid dream.” He immediately showed it to his wife, who responded by saying that it was “lacking allegory” and therefore a failure. Stevenson promptly burned the manuscript.
Then he turned around and wrote it again, again taking three days, and spent the next several months trying to find a publisher, any publisher, who would handle such a disturbing topic.
He found one. The book was an immediate bestseller. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde made Stevenson’s reputation, turned him into one of the most popular writers of his day, and led to the even larger success of Kidnapped at a time when Henry James’s novels were putting his dwindling readership to sleep.
James, pursuing his own vision of the art of fiction, held no resentment. In another review of RLS’s work that James published in the North American Review, the older writer commented:
“ . . . in the language of art which depends most on direct observation, character, character, is what he has!”
And in writing a review of a book of rhymes for children that Stevenson had done, Henry James gave what is perhaps the ultimate accolade to any writer of imaginative fiction based upon the sanctity of make-believe – “A child might have written it if a child could see childhood from the outside.”
We’ll return to the friendship of Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson for its final chapters and its happy-sad ending in December of 1894, but I’d like to jump over that for now to look at the later relationship between Henry James and the Father of Science Fiction, Herbert George Wells.
As far as I can tell, Henry James and H.G. Wells first crossed paths on the evening of January 5, 1895. For Henry James – and for reasons that had absolutely nothing to do with Wells – it was perhaps the worst and most humiliating night of his life.
I’ll try to explain why it was such a terrible night for Henry James before going on with H.G. Wells and his relationship with the Master.
As I mentioned earlier, James had despaired of ever making real money with his novels and stories and had set aside five years of his life to trying to “break through” with a hit play. The first couple of years, despite real disappointments, were exciting for this master of written prose. In his letters to friends and other writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson (who had migrated by then to the South Seas), James declared how thrilled he was to work in this new medium – rather like a novelist today shifting to screenwriting – and how writing for the theater could do things that no novel could. As far as he was concerned in 1893 and 1894, he would be a playwright from that time on. There would be no turning back.
Then on Saturday, Jan. 5, 1895, the play that he had been working on and rewriting and refining and rehearsing for so long, Guy Domville, premiered in London.
The opening had quite a positive buzz around it and the early portents looked good. The famous impressario-actor George Alexander had agreed to put on Guy Domville largely because the play would allow him (Alexander) a wide range of personalities and emotions: romantic in the first act, disillusioned in the second act, and a visionary and martyr in the third act. And with each shift in personality, he could wear several different costumes. Alexander was extremely vain about the figure he cut on stage – especially about his legs – and many of his most devoted fans were women who came to the theater expressly to see his manly figure and legs in elaborate costumes.
The other actors chosen ranged from competent to iffy. James had desperately wanted the actress Elizabeth Robbins – very professional, very popular, very much a new friend of the novelist’s – to play the lead female role in Guy Domville, but in an odd series of mixups worthy of a modern National Perspirer article, Robbins “relinquished” the role to a much younger and not yet mature actress.
Still, a George Alexander production of a Henry James play attracted the cream of artistic and literary London to the opening night. Many of James’s famous friends were there that night – inlcuding the artists Lord Leighton, Burne-Jones, George du Maurier (the artist-illustrator recently made famous and rich by his bestselling novel Trilby that had been turned into one of the top hit plays of the century) and John Singer Sargent. The literary side was represented by equally well-known names.
But for some reason still not adequately understood, this opening night also attracted ruffians – literally street thugs. It has never been explained as to who bought their tickets and why they were there. Some suggest that George Alexander had offended money lenders or other gangsters and the street toughs and commoners were sent to ridicule the popinjay actor (he did receive serious threats before the play went on that night, including a funeral bouquet of flowers.)
At any rate, it was a strange mixture for an opening-night audience.
And it was a difficult play. Some of the dialogue was exquisite, but the dramatic arc was curious – amateur and obscure one might say – and Henry James’s sense of dialogue had not yet quite mastered the demands of theater. Oscar Wilde recently had opened several hit plays -- trivial things – but modern audiences can attend them today and appreciate the dialogue cracking back and forth like Indiana Jones’s whip. In James’s rather obtuse play, characters kept wandering in and out – he was very poor with exits and entrances and Alexander was constantly changing clothes like a modern runway mannequin – and when people spoke, they tended to plant themselves and launch long payloads of almost human talk at one another. There was none of the mixture of perfect poetry, street slang, and pure power that Shakespeare had taught playwrights that it was possible to create.
Most of all though, the play just had really bad luck.
Anyone who loves live theater has seen such disasters. I’m reminded of a hugely expensive London musical production of Gone With the Wind some years ago where the hoop skirts overwhelmed the stage and where, during the scene where Rhett drives Scarlett out of a burning Atlanta, the horse pulling the carriage paused to take an endless dump.
The audience started tittering then and never really recovered. Then, at the end of that second act, after Scarlett has shot the Yankee soldier who’s invaded her home at Tara, the dying soldier didn’t hit his mark when he fell. As the curtain came down, the dead Yankee was looking up at 2 ½ tons of curtain descending right on him. The actor had a choice – either roll to his right, directly into the still-steaming heap of horse manure that had been there through the long second act, or be crushed by the curtain. He chose the horse manure.
When the curtain rose after a 15-minute intermission, the audience was still laughing. Gone With the Wind: the Musical did not survive.
Guy Domville was not quite that bad. There was no actual manure deposited on or thrown at the stage. Not quite.
But George Alexander's dozens of costume changes, always showing off his perfect calves with silk stockings, brought laughter from the crowd (none was intended by James) – especially from the core of street toughs in the cheap seats. And then there was the matronly Mrs. Domville’s hoop skirts – too large to get in the door, too stiff to allow her to sit when sitting was called for. And besides the huge, stage-filling skirt, the same large actress was forced to wear an endlessly towering hat shaped like a muff with a riot of feather plumes coming from it. Every time Mrs. Domville turned her head, someone or the other on stage got a face full of plumes and the hat teetered so wildly that the audience got the titters through the most serious scenes in the play.
Finally, there was the drinking scene. This was supposed to be comical, with Alexander and another actor trying to get each other drunk while both men were surreptitiously pouring their drinks into flower pots around them, each man thinking that he was getting his rival what Henry James had called in the script notes “intellectually drunk” – but by this point in the play, so much had gone wrong, the audience was laughing at the actors rather than with them, that Alexander played the scene (in the words of a brand new theater critic there that night named George Bernard Shaw) “with the sobriety of desperation.”
By the end of the play and at the end of what should have been a rather beautiful peroration, George Alexander overacted his line –“I’m the last, my lord, of the Domvilles!” – and there floated out of the darkness a loud, rough voice from the gallery – “It’s a bloody good thing y’are!”
Henry James saw nothing of this disaster. He’d been so nervous up to the day of the premiere that he’d come up with the “brilliant idea” of going off to an Oscar Wilde play that had just opened rather than see his own. After sitting through the last of Wilde’s play and hearing the enthusiastic applause, he walked back to the St. James’s Theatre where Guy Domville was finishing up and went backstage to see if he would be called onstage.
The play ended. There was enthusiastic applause here as well. Alexander – having sweated through his last costume and totally discombobulated by the audience’s hostility through three acts – went out to take his curtain calls. James’s friends in the audience began to call, “Author, author.”
Alexander, who was supposed to give James the high sign if it was appropriate for the author to come forth, was unnerved. Perhaps, some have speculated, he hated Henry James so much at that moment for putting him through the hours he – Alexander – had just suffered through that he did what he did next on purpose.
At any rate, he walked off, took Henry James by the hand, and led the unsuspecting novelist-turned-playwright onstage.
Right into an ambush.
The toughs and commoners in the audience hit James with jeers, catcalls, hisses, and everything nasty they had short of rotten vegetables.
James’s friends and the “better part of the audience” responded with a standing ovation and louder applause. The two parts of the audiences had declared war. John Singer Sargent actually turned toward the galleries and began hooting them down; it looked as if the famous portrait artist was going to start a major brawl. As James later wrote his brother William –“All the forces of civilization in the house waged a battle of the most gallant, prolonged and sustained applause with the hoots and jeers and catcalls of the roughs, whose roars (like those of a cage of beasts at some infernal zoo) were only exacerbated by the conflict.”
And through this nightmare, one of the shyest and most selfconscious men in literature . . . in England . . . in the world . . . stood there as “his dark beard accentuated the pallor of his face and his high bald dome,” and tried to retain his dignity. Some later wrote of James’s “scornful coolness” as the shouts fell on him, but one of the bit actors standing backstage as James finally came off described the novelist as looking “green with dismay.”
It took James years to get over this night and years to get over the total failure of his dream of becoming a successful and honored playwright.
In the audience that night were two new critics: G.B. Shaw whom I mentioned earlier, now the dramatic critic for the Saturday Review but who had been a drama critic for only five nights, and a wispy little young man “with short legs, long mustaches, and a squeaky voice” named H.G. Wells, who had just been hired as a theater critic by the Pall Mall Gazette despite the fact that he had been to the theater only twice before in his life.
“One wears evening dress?” he’d asked his editor and, upon receiving an affirmative answer, Wells had rushed out to a tailor to get a formal suit made in twenty-four hours. (G. B. Shaw, while equally new as a theater critic, had the confidence to go to the premiere that night wearing a rumpled brown corduroy jacket.)
Shaw and Wells were both young men with literary ambitions and were both socialists, both atheists, both from common backgrounds and both had a great interest in working-class movements and politics, but beyond this point the comparisons dimmed. The cynical, unsentimental Shaw had much less of a scientist’s or engineer's obsession with (or trust in) Fact and Science than Wells did.
Both men wrote competent, professional reviews of Guy Domville, each praising the quality of James’s prose, but both understood that it had been a disaster. Wells put it best when he explained to his readers that the thing was beautifully written but too delicate for acting, “and whether that is the fault of the player or playwright is a very pretty question.” Everything, he said, pointed to “an early deathbed.”
Wells was right about that.
Wells soon left the Pall Mall Gazette and his theater-critic job – I believe it was the only salaried job he was ever to hold – and began his own literary career. And this was the context in which he and Henry James were to cross paths again.
By 1898, James had moved from London to the country – to his picturesque but isolated Lamb House in Rye – but some other writers had sought equally rural homes, including Stephen Crane, Ford Madox Hueffer (soon to be Ford Maddox Ford), and H.G. Wells right up the road at Sandgate on the English coast.
James and Wells saw each socially a few times over the years and they shared a particular interest in poor Stephen Crane (American author of The Red Badge of Courage and one of the finest short stories ever published, “The Open Boat”) who was living with his common-law wife Cora (they’d met in a high class Florida bawdy house and Cora had been the first woman war correspondent, writing dispatches as “Imogene Carter”) in a rented rundown and drafty old manor house – the Brede Place – not far from where both James and Wells lived.
Cora Crane delighted in her upper-class pretensions in the freezing, dilapidated old manor house, and Stephen Crane tried to go along with her fantasies, but between the terrible winters, the cold, drafty house (“whole trees were burned in the fireplaces”), the place and pace of Cora’s dream were killing the invalid writer.
After Crane did die young – killed by Cora’s pretensions and indifference was the silent opinion of both James and Wells – the “Master” and the future “Father of Science Fiction” kept up a cordial (but never intimate) relationship for years with each sending the other his newest book when it was published.
Before he’d met James, Wells had written an anonymous review in which he’d spoken of James’s “ground glass style” and his “frosted genius,” but he also admitted that Henry James’s characters were “living men and women.”
The Master also sent kind words back to Wells over the years, but his private opinion was that this was precisely where Wells – always obsessed with social issues and the Idea behind a tale – fell down: i.e. in populating his fiction with real men and women. When James took other writers seriously (even prettier and younger men whom he was obviously hoping to seduce, at least emotionally) he could never resist sending concise but powerful critiques of their work their way. With no thought of seduction – Wells was not his kind of young man – James had written him: “I rewrite you so much, as I read – which is the highest tribute my damned impertinence can pay an author.”
(James had told a similar truth to the young writer named Howard Overing Sturgis – not to be confused with the handsome younger artist and crippled “little demon,” Jonathan Sturges, for whom James did have an emotional and at least subliminal homoerotic attraction – when he said that he, James, was a bad person to read other people’s novels. After all, said Henry James, he was “a battered producer and ‘technician’” himself and could read only critically, constructively, and – most irritating to the writer-recipients of his critiques – “reconstructively.” In other words, James would always send notes on how another author could rewrite and improve his or her book.
Wells expressed gratification at the Master’s attention at the time, but was – as we’ll see – inwardly seething for years over the criticism. As Wells would later say of their long relationship, it was “a sincere and troubled friendship” with “a sensitive man lost in an immensely abundant brain.”
Henry James, as we’ll also see, was less aware of the “troubled” part of their relationship until, once again, James walked into an ambush.
In 1910, when Henry James’s beloved older brother William James died, the author had been deeply touched by H.G. Wells’s tribute to William, in which the early science-fiction author and social critic said of the author of The Varieties of Religious Experience and first great American psychologist – “That all this great edifice of ripened understanding and clarities and lucidities should be swept out of the world leaves me baffled and helplessy distressed.”
Totally baffled and helplessly distressed himself in the wake of his brother’s death (even as a world-famous author, Henry James had continued to look up to William and always reverted to being a little-boy younger brother in his presence), James commented to his friends, “a really beautiful eloquence – and he [Wells] is not often beautiful.”
James did not mean this last remark as a knock, merely as an aesthetic judgment. He’d often expressed interest in Wells’s Big Ideas, such as that in The Time Machine, which he’d not only praised to friends but even tried to imitate in one of his own short stories.
Thus it was a total surprise to James on July 5, 1915, when he stopped by the Reform Club and was handed a parcel that had lain there for some time, unforwarded, for in it was the bomb armed and triggered by H.G. Wells. The bomb took the form of yet another book sent by Wells to his friend James, this one carrying the title Boon: The Mind of the Race, the Wild Asses of the Devil and The Last Trump. It purported to be “a first selection from the literary remains of George Boon with An Ambiguous Introduction by H.G. Wells.”
Obviously some sort of literary spoof had been intended here. Henry James enjoyed literary spoofs (if they were done well) and he began reading with some interest.
The spoof turned out to be a witty-enough mockery by Wells of other writers, most mentioned by name, with Henry James’s name right at the center of the ridicule. James opened straight to “Chapter the Fourth” which was entitled “Of Art, of Literature, of Mr. Henry James.”
It was a vicious parody. Those who can’t stand Henry James’s prose – or who haven’t yet learned to appreciate it in its many stages – enjoy the parody to this day. In attacking James, Wells repeated earlier attacks he’d made in speeches and essays – very similar to attacks on “serious fiction” we hear today from some dedicated SF writers and readers – in which he, Wells, dismissed the “organic” type of prose that James had always lauded and argued for the “useable” Idea-driven type of fiction that he, Wells, provided.
“In practice James’s selection becomes just omission and nothing more. He omits everything that demands digressive treatment or collateral statement. For example, he omits opinions. In all of his novels you will find no people with defined political opinions, no people with religious opinions, none with clear partisanships or with lusts or whims, none definitely up to any specific impersonal thing. There are no poor people dominated by the imperatives of Saturday night and Monday morning, no dreaming types – and don’t we all more or less live dreaming? And none are ever decently forgetful. All that much of humanity he clears out before he begins his story.”
Those with even a passing knowledge of Henry James’s oeuvre know that the first part of this indictment simply isn’t true. James had written novels in which working class characters had struggled with political rage, even to the point of becoming anarchist terrorists. But it is true that James – unlike Wells – had never had ideas and political opinions, “digressive treatments,” dominate and take over his fictions.
And then there followed a deft (but mean-spirited) parody of James’s writing style and choice of writing subjects, including the following passage that has been used by Henry James’s enemies across the 20th Century and into the 21st –
“The thing his novel is about is always there . . . It is like a church lit but without a congregation to distract you, with every light and line focused on the high altar. And on the altar, very reverently placed, intensely there, is a dead kitten, an egg-shell, a bit of string. . . . Like his “Altar of the Dead,” with nothing to the dead at all . . . For if there couldn’t all be candles and the effect would vanish . . . He splits his infinitives and fills them up with adverbial stuffing. He presses the passing colloquialism into his service. His vast paragraphs sweat and struggle; they could not sweat and elbow and struggle more if God himself was the processional meaning to which they sought to come. And all for tales of nothingness . . . It is a leviathan retrieving pebbles. It is a magnificent but painful hippopotamus resolved at any cost, even at the cost of its dignity, upon picking up a pea which has got into a corner of its den. Most things, it insists, are beyond it, but it can, at any rate, modestly, and with an artistic singleness of mind, pick up that pea.”
James was bewildered. All this had come from the man whom he’d not only considered a friend over the years, but whom he’d worked hard to get elected to the Royal Society of Literature. (Wells, in a statement of his identification with the common working man, had refused the honor.)
Hurting, his sensitive and trusting nature in real pain, James wrote to Wells promptly and rather simply:
“I have more or less mastered your appreciation of H.J., which I have found very curious and interesting, after a fashion – though it has naturally not filled me with a fond elation. It is difficult of course for a writer to put himself fully in the place of another writer who finds him extraordinarily futile and void, and who is moved to publish that to the world – and I think the case isn’t easier when he happens to have enjoyed the other writer enormously, from far back; because there has then grown up the habit of taking some common meeting-ground between them for granted, and the falling away of this is like the collapse of a bridge which made communication possible.”
James went on –
“ . . . the fact that a mind as brilliant as yours can resolve me into such an unmitigated mistake . . . makes me greatly want to fix myself, for as long as my nerves will stand it, with such a pair of eyes . . . I try for possible light to enter into the feelings of a critic for whom the deficiencies do preponderate.”
But James admitted that he could not keep up with such identification with his assailant’s point-of-view and admitted that he had to fall back on his own sense of his “good parts.” James ended the letter by saying that “my poetic and my appeal to experience” rested upon “my measure of fulness – of fulness of life and of the projection of it, which seems to you such an emptiness of both.” The fine thing about the fictional form, James concluded, was that it opened “such widely different windows of attention.”
H.G. Wells’s first response was contrite.
He said that Henry James had written “so kind and frank a letter after my offences that I find it an immense embarrassment to reply to you’ and confessed that he had a natural horror “of dignity, of finish and perfection.”
(I’ve thought about this line a lot over the years – of Wells’s and other lovers of Idea and Plot and Story at the expense of very carefully written human fiction showing their strong abhorrence of dignity, of finish, and of perfection. It’s not as if any writer can achieve perfection (although Shakespeare came close enough at enough times that he drives us absolutely crazy, and occasionally there will be a James Joyce or F. Scott Fitzgerald or Jane Austen or Emily Dickinson who comes close enough in one or two works that it makes us despair), but this “natural horror” of dignity, finish, and at least the goal of perfection that Wells expressed and which so many current writers, in and out of genre, seem to hold up as a banner is . . . disturbing.)
Wells went on to justify himself:
There was, he wrote, “a real and very fundamental difference in our innate and developed attitudes towards life and literature. 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, too dominant in the world of criticism and I assailed it in tones of harsh antagonism.”
Then Wells said his Boon parody had been “just waste-paper basket” stuff and that he had written it to escape from the war then raging. He ended –
“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.”
Wells signed the letter as James’s “warm if rebellious and resentful admirer, and for countless causes yours most gratefully and affectionately.”
James’s response to this was the last letter he ever wrote to H.G. Wells.
James began by saying that he didn’t think that Wells had made a case for his bad manners. One simply does not publish the content of waste-baskets. Nor was James aware that his view of life and literature had as much of a following as Wells had suggested. James said that he believed that literature lived in the individual practitioner, not in any set of rules. This was precisely why he had admired Wells, he said.
“I live, live intensely and am fed by life, and my value, whatever it be, is in my own kind of expression of that,” he wrote in conclusion. “Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance.” James finished by telling Wells that he, Henry James, knew of no substitute whatever for “the force and beauty of its process.” He completely rejected the idea that literature was a mere craft like architecture. Both, he said, were – in their purest forms – art, not merely a means to serve people or provide some basic need for a fee. Because he believed this, he had always rejected and would always reject the “utility” theory of art.
That was the end of their friendship and of their correspondence.
But years after Henry James’s death, H.G. Wells was still attempting to justify his attack on his former friend. His autobiographical writings about James are a mixture of affection, confusion, and self-justification, but all of them showed that he’d understood neither James’s life nor work.
Wells did show, dimly, that he was aware that Henry James had spent his working life remaking the world in terms of his quest for perfection, working toward that perfection and real understanding of human motivation in his own mind and consciousness; Wells could imagine remaking the world only in his endless stories and novels about future social utopias.
But decades later, the hostility toward Henry James was still there, the dismissal of literature as art rather than as a craft or tool or mechanism to change something:
“He saw us all as Masters or would-be Masters, little Masters and great Masters, and he was plainly sorry that Cher Maître was not an English expression,” wrote Wells. “One could not be in a room with him for ten minutes without realizing the importance he attached to the dignity of this art of his. I was by nature and education unsympathetic with this mental disposition. But I was disposed to regard a novel as about as much an art form as a market place or a boulevard. It had not even necessarily to get anywhere. You went by it on your various occasions.”
You’ve been very kind with my digressions so far, Dear Reader (sorry, I’m in the habit of using my Wilkie-Collins-as-narrator-of-Drood archaic voice), but at this late point in the proceedings I’m going to try your patience with one last series of digressions.
Quite a few years ago now, I was guest of honor at some SF convention in Texas and accepted the invitation largely because the other guest was a Famous (although not that much older or Golden Age of SF) Writer of “Hard” SF. I’d read this guy’s work for years, long before I started trying to write for publication myself. I’d enjoyed it. I’d even taught his most famous “Hard” SF novel to my advanced sixth-grade reading group when I was a teacher, spending the money for the paperbacks myself.
For those of you who don’t know the term “Hard Science Fiction,” it means SF that, theoretically, takes no liberties with science in its speculation. Whatever is presented in a “Hard” SF story or novel is supposed to be supported by real science, real research, even real technology, however speculative.
I’d grown up reading Hard SF, among other types, and enjoyed it quite a bit – perhaps for the same reason now, as an older adult, I buy a couple of computer magazines and a car magazine or two each month and subscribe to Scientific American. When “human” things get too emotional and confusing, I get a relief out of reading technical things with no emotional content whatsover.
I had noticed though, even as a young reader of Hard SF (including of this Famous Hard SF Writer’s books and stories), that nothing in the universe is more dated than old Hard SF tales. The Hard SF of the 1940’s and ‘50’s led to computers (if computers were mentioned at all) the size of Texas with glowing vacuum tubes by the tens of thousands in them, the whole mess and mass cooled by diverted rivers. And a story based almost completely on – say – mini-black hole theory hot in the early 1970’s, is not so viable a decade or two later after the same physicists have decided that mini-black holes are too unstable to hang around long enough to be part of the plot.
Besides, this same “Famous Author of Hard SF” had used faster-than-light travel and teleportation in his “hard” science novels. Both technologies are, to me, as much fantasy as an elven cloak or magical sword, despite both our abilities to tapdance some pseudoscientific explanation for them.
Still, Hard SF is fun and some classics of it – such as Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity -- will be fun forever.
At any rate, while not fawning over or at this Famous Author of Hard SF when we met at the convention, I did tell him how pleased I was to meet him and how much I’d enjoyed his books. I even mentioned that I’d taught his one book to gifted young readers (although I didn’t mention that one reason I taught it was that it hadn’t presented any sex or real adult-human-being problems to the 11- and 12-year-olds reading it.)
The Famous Author of Hard SF just grunted. Since I always feel embarrassed in the rare occasions when another professional writer praises my work to my face, I thought nothing of that grunt.
Until we were “alone” that first evening of the convention (“alone” defined as hanging out with 10 or 20 fans.) At that point the Famous Author of Hard SF told me that quite a few of his friends had insisted that he read my novel Hyperion and that finally, somewhat reluctantly, he’d done so.
“Oh?” I said wittily.
“Yes, I did,” continued the Famous Author of Hard SF, “and I have no idea of what they could have seen in the thing. I think it’s the stupidest book I’ve ever read.” And then he went on to catalogue Hyperion’s idiocies, illogical elements, and scientific failings.
What can one say to that except that one is sorry the other person didn’t like your work? I’m no more eager to hear criticisms of my writing than is any other writer – certainly not attacks phrased in hyperbole such as I was hearing that night in Texas – but it’s true to say that the attack didn’t hurt my feelings or bother me in any real way. It was just too off the wall excessive. I did wonder if the Famous Author of Hard SF was drunk (not because of his criticism of my book, plenty of sober folks might have expressed similar opinions, but because there was a strange fuzziness and unfocused irritation hanging about this guy the entire weekend, as if his atoms had been slightly phase-shifted out of this dimension and, wherever they were, he was well and truly pissed off about it.)
Cut to a couple of months ago when I was temporarily knocked down by flu-like symptoms and spent a day more in bed than out. I’d been reading one “serious” book and author after another for some months and was tired of that. I needed something light, something fun . . . something fueled by Ideas rather than by that stupid old human heart in conflict with itself.
So I wandered my basement bookshelves where I keep old (and often beloved) paperbacks collected since the 1950’s and chose, for my sickroom reading, a huge (640-page, tiny font) late-1970’s bestselling (?) novel by this same Famous Author of Hard SF.
Reading it was a strange experience . . . not because of hard feelings from his attack on me and my own novel so many years ago (that was just out of context – it’s awful for a novelist to admit such a thing, but I tend to forget the writer as I enter into his or her book), but just because it had been so long since I’d read the thing. My tastes had changed, predictably, since I’d plunked down $2.50 for the paperback more than 30 years earlier (I could never afford hardcover books in those days . . . who could?), but so – I discovered – had my expectations for the entry threshold of quality for a work of fiction.
The book is about an astronomical event that Ends Civilization as We Know It, a topic I’ve always loved and will always love (although, in truth, I’ve now lived long enough that I’ve already seen the end of civilization as we once knew it) and the point-of-view in the novel jumped gleefully (and bestsellerly) around between about fifty different characters.
But that wasn’t the problem with it.
I realized that I was getting a huge dose of H.G. Wells’s literary philosophy as I read this big bestseller-wannabe “Hard SF” novel for the masses. The thing was an instrument of shoveling Ideas and purveying the author’s Opinions – on the absolute importance of Science, on the idiot treehuggers who thought that “aerosol cans were screwing up the atmosphere,” on anyone who would oppose, say, nuclear reactors – but the disturbing part was that the novel was devoid of any human beings worth caring about or listening to as they (and the authorial voice) pontificated to each other.
A tidal wave was headed for Los Angeles. The good guys (all white, it turns out) headed for the hills where they set up a good-guy post-Apocalypse colony on the ranch of their leader, a U.S. senator that was a mixture of the actor John Forsyth and Dwight Eisenhower. Meanwhile, the inner-city blacks turned, naturally, first to raping and then looting all the evacuees' homes and then, within days (perhaps hours) to becoming cannibals. This was a little disturbing, even by 1970’s standards, but even more disturbing was the dialogue and thoughts attributed to these black-cannibal characters. It was as if the author had never heard a black American speak, but was content with doing a parody of the dialogue and mannerisms in one of the “black exploitation” films in theaters in the 70’s.
The climax of the novel was a battle over a nuclear reactor that was the Only Hope of Any Future Civilization. The good guys on Sen. John Forsyth Eisenhower’s ranch wanted to save the reactor and get it running. The black cannibals, meanwhile, had joined forces with thousands of religious fundamentalists, and this mob wanted to destroy the reactor (and any and all vestiges of Science) and eat the good guys. (Why black cannibals and white religious zealots, all regular folks a few weeks earlier, didn’t want their electricity back on was never really explained.)
In the deciding battle, the Saint of the good guys enclave – an older scientist dying of diabetes – saved the day by (and I kid you not) whomping up big batches of mustard gas and other poison gas (including, probably, Zyklon-B). The joyous finale of the novel showed the outnumbered pro-Science good guys killing thousands of these cannibals and religious Science-deniers by throwing gas bombs at them.
Some of the cannibals survived. The techno-white good guys wrestled with their conscience for half a page or so and – inevitably – and for the Sake of the Future, turned the POW black survivors of the poison-gas attack into slaves.
And the interesting thing about all this was that there was no irony in the tale – not a jot, not a tittle, not a nano-scintilla.
Please understand that this digression was not trying to compare the little snit-fit at me from the Famous Author of Hard SF with H.G. Wells’s attack on Henry James. I’m no Henry James and the Famous Author of Hard SF will never be, on his best day, H.G. Wells. (If I were less of a mensch, I would have said that he would never be, on his best day, a pimple on the great white flabby behind of H.G. Wells.)
No, I mention this story and reading the book because of something that happened about two weeks after this sick-day re-reading of that novel.
One evening I noticed that the movie “Things to Come” was going to be on the Turner Classics Movie channel.
Now I’ve known about the 1936 film “Things to Come” – based on H.G. Wells’s book The Shape of Things to Come – since I was a kid. I know the plot, have seen stills from the movie forever, but somehow I’ve never actually caught it on the Late Show or any one of my 6,298 satellite channels over the years.
So I settled in to watch it.
It was . . . interesting. And in almost precisely the same way that the Famous Author of Hard SF’s 1970’s novel had been. It gave me the same sense of queasiness – almost active nausea -- as had the big paperback.
Wells had written the script for the 1936 “Things to Come” and – according to what I’d read long ago – had a say on almost every element of the movie, down to the silly costumes worn in their utopian future of 2035.
Here is an imdb summary of the plot –
“A global war begins in 1940. This war drags out over many decades until most of the people still alive (mostly those born after the war started) do not even know who started it or why. Nothing is being manufactured at all any more and society has broken down into primative localized communities. In 1966 a great plague wipes out most of what people are left but small numbers still survive. One day a strange aircraft lands at one of these communities and its pilot tells of an organisation which is rebuilding civilization and slowly moving across the world re-civilizing these groups of survivors. Great reconstruction takes place over the next few decades and society is once again great and strong. The world's population is now living in underground cities. In the year 2035, on the eve of man's first flight to the moon, a popular uprising against progress (which some people claim has caused the wars of the past) gains support and becomes violent.”
This sounds like H.G. Wells and sounds like a fun movie, but it conveys none of the . . . inhumanness . . . of “Things to Come.” Raymond Massey is the lead, playing both the Wings Over the World leader of the blacksuited “Airmen,” John Cabal, who conquers the last ragged tribes of barbarians in 1970 post-Apocalyptic War England and his own grandson, Oswald Cabal, who wears big cardboard shoulder pads and a cute little white skirt, as do all denizens of 2035 (except those who wear white togas.)
There are no men and women in “Things to Come.” No human beings. Except, that is, for a young (well, a younger) Ralph Richardson who plays “the Boss,” a Mussolini-strutting, shaggy-fur-wearing barbarian chieftain who stands between the Wings Over the World Airmen and a Global Society. Richardson and his barbarian-princess main squeeze Roxana are the only two people in the entire stilted, bizarre, clumsy, sterile, ridiculous film who you can even imagine might sweat or swear or have sex or feel any emotion other than a fanatical, true-believer dedication to Science and Progress.
The minute Raymond Massey lands his futuristic airplane in the Boss’s Madmaxian ruined wasteland of a city, “the Boss” Richardson promptly takes the smirking Massey prisoner, and while everything is written to make the Science-loving Massey the hero (certainly a saint and probably a god), his constantly smirking arrogance, condescension, and vague-eyed paeans to the Advancement of Science – “The lives of us little humans, as individuals, mean nothing in the Longer Run of Science and Progress, etcetera” – made me want to shoot the supercilious sonofabitch and have done with it.
Instead, Massey’s pals – a bunch of cloned, blackshirted Airmen – drop “Peace Gas” on the Boss and his barbarian tribe, putting them to sleep, thus evidently putting down the last threat to One World Rule of Science and Logic. (All the other barbarians wake up and throw away their weapons – why, I wasn’t certain – but only Richardson, the Boss, didn’t wake up. The Peace Gas killed him. He just couldn’t stand progress, I guess.)
Cut then from 1970 to the Perfect Future of 2035 where – despite the fact that the surface of the Earth is green and empty and under sweet-smelling blue skies – all the people live in white-enamel Underground Cities (Wells and his whole era of nascent SF writers were obsessed with Things Underground).
This is the big payoff for SF fans and viewers from 1936 or 2008 – the big digging machines and then all those little white skirts and togas on the men and women and the Inside City with its upward- and downward-zipping glass elevators connecting the hundreds of levels of tidy white terraces, with big TV viewscreens everywhere.
They have seen the future and it’s a fucking Hyatt Hotel.
The masses suddenly rise up and riot – once again we have the cannibal-religious types trying to undo Progress, get in the way of Science – and their object now is to destroy the Space Gun, a 240-storey tall . . . well . . . space gun that’s going to shoot Oswald Cabal’s cute little white mini-skirted daughter and her dimwit husband to the moon. Cabal, in Massey’s most irritating droning, condescending voice, admits that the kids only have about one chance in a hundred of returning alive, but, hey, . . “The lives of us little humans, as individuals, mean nothing in the Longer Run of Science and Progress, etcetera.”
The story is inhuman and Fascist. Raymond Massey is inhuman and Fascist. The dialogue is inhuman and Fascist. The future that H.G. Wells and his script gets so orgasmic over is inhuman and Fascist. Hell, the wardrobe is inhuman and Fascist . . .or at least silly as hell. (But I sort of liked the big space gun.)
There was no way to get around the fact that this botched twaddle of a movie I’d waited most of my life to see and enjoy “was disposed to regard a novel (or in this case, movie) as about as much an art form as a market place or a boulevard.”
It was a delivery system for Opinion and Politics and H.G. Wells’s version of Right Thinking (i.e. the worship of Science and Great Big Honking Ideas.)
But most of all . . . so sadly very much most of all . . . it, and the Astronomical Apocalypse novel I’d read a few weeks earlier, were products of an opinion-and- engineering- über-alles way of thinking that, in any deeper artistic or human sense, had a natural horror of dignity, of finish, of honesty, and of perfection.
In the late 1880’s and into the 1890’s, Robert Louis Stevenson’s restless nature made him keep moving on, always moving west, always hunting for a place that would let him live a little longer with his illness while satisfying his cravings for the exotic.
In 1887, after the death of his father, he left England with Colorado as his destination, but ended up spending the winter in a cottage at Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks, where he wrote some of his best essays and began The Master of Ballantrae. During the snowed-in months in the Adirondacks, he and his wife made plans for a cruise to the South Pacific.
“The proudest moments of my life,” he wrote, “have been passed in the stern-sheets of a boat with that romantic garment over my shoulder.”
Stevenson and his family set sail from San Francisco in the chartered yacht Casco in June of 1888. After experiencing adventures and making friends in Hawaii, the Gilbert Islands, and Tahiti, Stevenson finally purchased 400 acres on the island of Upolu, one of the Samoan Islands.
Henry James continued a correspondence with Stevenson during all of these years, sending his friend books and reviews and begging for details of the South Seas in return.
In 1890, an acquaintance of James’s, the American historian and descendent of presidents John Adams, set off for a multi-year round-the-world trip. Adams’s brilliant but melancholy wife Clover had committed suicide some years earlier, and Adams – along with his artist friend John La Farge (also an old acquaintance of Henry James’s) – decided to drown their sorrows in the sights, sounds, smells, and (perhaps) “dusky women” of the South Seas.
Shortly after reaching Samoa, Adams and La Farge set out to visit Stevenson at “Vialima,” the 400-acre tract about an hour from the town of Apia and 800 feet above the sea where the writer and his family were just beginning to build. The historian and artist rode for an hour under lowering skies (James’s dear friend John Hay, former secretary to Abraham Lincoln, forwarded these descriptions in letters) before they reached a backwoods clearing of burned stumps. In the center of the ugly clearing, there was “a two-story irish shanty with steps outside to the upper floor, and a galvanized iron roof.”
Out came a figure “so thin and emaciated he looked like a bundle of sticks in a bag, with a head and yet morbidly intelligent and restless.” This was, of course, Robert Louis Stevenson standing before John Adams, the writer dressed in “dirty striped cotton pajamas, the baggy legs tucked into coarse knit woolen stockings.”
Mrs. Stevens was so scantily and crudely dressed, reported Adams, that she ran for the shanty to hide when she saw the two white men approaching.
Over the next few weeks Adams saw Stevenson many times – Stevenson would ride his horse to town through the jungle, swimming it across the raging river – and Adams and La Farge began to understand that they’d arrived at an awkward time for the Stevenson family. The family and their native Samoan helpers – who called RLS “Tusitala” (Samoan for “Story Teller”) – had just cleared the property in preparation for building a large and comfortable manor house. The shanty that Adams and La Farge had found them living in was just a temporary home until the big house went up.
Henry James loved hearing from both Stevenson and Henry Adams via John Hay and – as he almost always did when friends wrote of interesting people and places – asked for more details, more images!
There is a great tenderness in Henry James’s letters to the absent RLS. He told Stevenson that his friends brandished laurel over his absent head and James called him a “buccaneering Pompaour of the Deep” and “a wandering wanton of the Pacific.” One time when Stevenson misdated a letter by two years (something that James would do near the end of his own life), James twitted his friend, calling him “my dear time-deluded islander.” He saluted the distant author’s family as “your playfellows – your fellow-phantoms. The wife-phantom knows my sentiment. The dim ghost of a mother has my heartiest regard.”
James wrote that he grieved that Stevenson had gone so far away that he had become a legend, but a legend of “opaline iridescence.”
On December 3, 1894, Stevenson was writing as hard as ever – this time on Weir of Hermiston. That evening while chatting with his wife and working hard to open a bottle of wine, he suddenly fell to the ground and cried, “What’s the matter with me? What is this strangeness? Has my face changed?”
Stevenson died a few hours later. He was 44 years old.
Word of Stevenson’s death reached James in London on December 17, 1894. James was at rehearsals for Guy Domville only a few weeks before the terrible opening night to come. When he was told the news – it was not fully certain – he walked out of the rehearsal and went home. That evening he wrote – “This ghastly extinction of the beloved RLS . . . it makes me cold and sick – and with the absolute, almost alarmed sense of the invisible material quenching of an indispensable light.”
Shortly after the death was confirmed, word arrived that Stevenson had named Henry James as his literary executor. Having recently been executor of his deceased sister Alice’s estate and papers, James eventually begged off the duty, but it says volumes that Robert Louis Stevenson felt confident in leaving his papers and chance for literary immortality in the hands of his friend Henry James.
Eventually James was to hear the details of his old friend’s funeral.
On the day that Stevenson died, the Samoan natives had insisted on surrounding his body with torches and a watch-guard all through the night. The next day they bore the body of Tusitala, their Story Teller, on their shoulders to nearby Mt. Vaea and buried him at a high spot overlooking the sea.
The tablet that was placed on Stevenson’s grave was from his poem “Requiem” –
Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
That had always been Robert Louis Stevenson’s choice for his own epitaph, but there was another simple verse, written when he was only 25, that might have served both him and his friend Henry James as a shared and worthy literary epitaph. Stevenson’s father had had never seen “mere literature” as real work and insisted that his son finish getting a degree in law, although the ordeal of passing the bar had almost killed the sickly young man. Stevenson’s father’s lack of understanding – perhaps not so dissimilar to H.G. Wells’s refusal to understand why Henry James could think of mere literature as an art so important unto itself – made the 25-year-old RLS write this poem in protest:
Say not of me that I weakly declined
The labours of my sires, and fled the sea
The towers we founded and the lamps we lit,
To play at home with paper like a child.