… He realized how constantly the tenderness of growing life is at the mercy of personal tyranny and he hated the tyranny of persons over each other.
I knew nothing of Henry James beyond the revelation of his novels and tales before the summer of 1907. Then, as I sat in a top-floor office near Whitehall one August morning, compiling a very full index to the Report of the Royal Commission on Coast Erosion, my ears were struck by the astonishing sound of passages from The Ambassadors being dictated to a young typist. Neglecting my Blue-book, I turned round to watch the operator ticking off sentences which seemed to be at least as much of a surprise to her as they were to me.
[line break added] When my bewilderment had broken into a question, I learnt that Henry James was on the point of coming back from Italy, that he had asked to be provided with an amanuensis, and that the lady at the typewriter was making acquaintance with his style. Without any hopeful design of supplanting her, I lodged an immediate petition that I might be allowed the next opportunity of filling the post, supposing she should ever abandon it.
[line break added] I was told, to my amazement, that I need not wait. The established candidate was not enthusiastic about the prospect before her, was even genuinely relieved to look in another direction. If I set about practising typewriting on a Remington machine at once, I could be interviewed by Henry James as soon as he arrived in London. Within an hour I had begun work on the typewriter.
… The business of acting as a medium between the spoken and the typewritten word was at first as alarming as it was fascinating. The most handsome and expensive typewriters exercise as vicious an influence as any others over the spelling of the operator, and the new pattern of a Remington machine which I found installed offered a few additional problems. But Henry James’s patience during my struggles with that baffling mechanism was unfailing — he watched me helplessly, for he was one of the few men without the smallest pretension to the understanding of a machine — and he was as easy to spell from as an open dictionary.
[line break added] The experience of years had evidently taught him that it was not safe to leave any word of more than one syllable to luck. He took pains to pronounce every pronounceable letter, he always spelt out words which the ear might confuse with others, and he never left a single punctuation mark unuttered, except sometimes that necessary point, the full stop. Occasionally, in a low “aside” he would interject a few words for the enlightenment of the amanuensis …
… “It all seems,” he once explained, “to be so much more effectively and unceasingly pulled out of me in speech than in writing.” Indeed, at the time when I began to work for him, he had reached a stage at which the click of a Remington machine acted as a positive spur. He found it more difficult to compose to the music of any other make. During a fortnight when the Remington was out of order he dictated to an Oliver typewriter with evident discomfort, and he found it almost impossibly disconcerting to speak to something that made no responsive sound at all.
[ … ]
… Wherever he might have lived and whatever human interactions he might have observed, he would in all probability have reached much the same conclusion that he arrived at by the way of America, France, and England. When he walked out of the refuge of his study into the world and looked about him, he saw a place of torment, where creatures of prey perpetually thrust their claws into the quivering flesh of the doomed, defenseless children of light.
[line break added] He had the abiding comfort of an inner certainty (and perhaps he did bring that from New England) that the children of light had an eternal advantage; he was aware to the finest fiber of his being that the “poor sensitive gentlemen” he so numerously treated possessed a treasure that would outlast all the glittering paste of the world and the flesh; he knew nothing in life mattered compared with spiritual decency.
We may conclude that the nationalities of his betrayed and triumphant victims are not an important factor. They may equally well be innocent Americans maltreated by odious Europeans, refined Europeans fleeced by unscrupulous Americans, or young children of any race exposed to evil influences. The essential fact is that wherever he looked Henry James saw fineness apparently sacrificed to grossness, beauty to avarice, truth to a bold front.
[line break added] He realized how constantly the tenderness of growing life is at the mercy of personal tyranny and he hated the tyranny of persons over each other. His novels are a repeated exposure of this wickedness, a reiterated and passionate plea for the fullest freedom of development, unimperilled by reckless and barbarous stupidity.
My most recent previous post from this book is here.