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Henry James, The Jolly Corner

Henry James’ last ghost story, and his finest since The Turn of the Screw, is also his final meditation on some of his most personal concerns: the international theme, the American who goes back after a long period spent in the Old World, and his impressions of a rapidly changing country that at the turn of the century was rising to the role of world power.

Spencer Brydon, 56, a New Yorker, returns home after living in “Europe” [sic] for 33 years, in order to look after his property: two NY buildings, whose leases constitute his income and which are now to be subjected to “reconstruction as a tall mass of flats”. He accordingly finds himself willing to supervise the works –something he would never have dreamed of doing in his long European years– and discovers thus a dormant talent. Spencer Brydon is therefore a late assessment of the Jamesian theme of the life not lived, a theme that had already run through the so-called major phase of his career (i.e. the first years of the new century), often in the guise of what could have been of a character had s/he (not) gone abroad.
The theme, however, takes a peculiar turn in this case. Brydon, who has acquiesced to the conversion of one of the buildings, is reluctant about the other one: the house on the corner (the jolly corner) of street and Avenue, where he and his family had always lived. He secretly enjoys nightly visits to the place, now utterly devoid of furniture but still full of his memories. In the course of such visits, he develops the belief that his own sense of wonder for the New York he has find upon returning inhabits the house, and that the very life he has not lived is impersonated in a human figure, his alter-ego. He grows more and more obsessed with the idea, to the point of overcoming his fear and of actually hunting the ghost. James therefore collapses the traditional ghost story trope. Leon Edel has shown that this idea was based on a personal experience: while both his father and his elder brother (Henry senior and William junior) had at some point in their lives had hallucinatory experiences of evil and invisible presences, Henry James dreamed a similar situation but was able, in his unconscious, to react and confront the ghost, eventually driving it away. As in The Turn of the Screw, the terror of a haunted person can be as scary as a ghost.

The Jolly Corner then revises themes that had already surfaced in James’ canon, and is in fact a reworking of the aborted novel The Sense of the Past. It also runs parallel to another, earlier story, The Beast in the Jungle. John Marcher, the protagonist, is obsessed quite like Spencer Brydon; except for the fact that the Beast, the event he believes will make his life exceptional, lies in the future (constantly in the future), while Brydon is haunted by his past—or better, by the ghost of the past he never lived. The two tales build on a similar concept of the untrodden path: The Road Not Taken is actually the title of a Robert Ford poem, of which TJC is considered a narrative rendering. Both men, moreover, are middle-aged egocentrics, and yet both have the caring attentions of a sensitive, altruistic woman, whose love is their redeeming factor.
Curiously, moreover, in both cases a reading influenced by queer theory is possible, again based on James’ closeted homosexuality: the mysterious thing that haunts the two protagonists can be interpreted as an unconfessed homoerotic drive. Spencer Brydon self-obsession (in the end, who would ever dream of being haunted by his own ghost?) may then be read in narcissistic terms. And before you label this as far-fetched, remember that both Henry James Sr. and Alice James were probably closeted homosexual as well.

As I said earlier, TJC, especially in its opening pages, is a profound meditation on the rapid changes of early 20th century USA. The theme had strong autobiographical elements, since James himself had returned to the States in 1904-5 after twenty years spent abroad. Passages such as the following show that his fiction questioned how he might himself have changed under different circumstances. James’ re-evaluation of his country is complex and multi-faceted.

It was a few days after this that, during an hour passed with her again, he had expressed his impatience of the too flattering curiosity—among the people he met—about his appreciation of New York. He had arrived at none at all that was socially producible, and as for that matter of his “thinking” (thinking the better or the worse of anything there) he was wholly taken up with one subject of thought. It was mere vain egoism, and it was moreover, if she liked, a morbid obsession. He found all things come back to the question of what he personally might have been, how he might have led his life and “turned out,” if he had not so, at the outset, given it up. And confessing for the first time to the intensity within him of this absurd speculation—which but proved also, no doubt, the habit of too selfishly thinking—he affirmed the impotence there of any other source of interest, any other native appeal. “What would it have made of me, what would it have made of me? I keep for ever wondering, all idiotically; as if I could possibly know! I see what it has made of dozens of others, those I meet, and it positively aches within me, to the point of exasperation, that it would have made something of me as well. Only I can’t make out what, and the worry of it, the small rage of curiosity never to be satisfied, brings back what I remember to have felt, once or twice, after judging best, for reasons, to burn some important letter unopened. I’ve been sorry, I’ve hated it—I’ve never known what was in the letter. You may, of course, say it’s a trifle—!”
“I don’t say it’s a trifle,” Miss Staverton gravely interrupted.

But for all this, TJC remains James’ most haunting and thrilling ghost story after The Turn of the Screw, full of suspense and psychological subtleties. And my favourite amongst his short stories, so far.

Henry James
The Jolly Corner (1908)
pp. 48, €8/copyleft
Dodo Press, 2007

Giudizio: 5/5.

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