12/23/2013 01:23 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Henry James on Late Bloomers

Psychologists believe that creativity is only for the young. They are wrong. They don't understand experimental creativity. They might take a lesson from Henry James, who did.


Portrait of Henry James by John Singer Sargent (1913). Image courtesy National Portrait Gallery, London.

James was a great admirer of Honoré de Balzac, a prolific novelist who exhibited virtually all the strengths and weaknesses of an experimental artist. These were carefully surveyed by James. Balzac was a late bloomer: James noticed that he published 20 novels before the age of 30, all of low quality. But James observed that Balzac's "early incompetence" was not an anomaly, for Balzac had had to learn his trade "largely by experiment and...little by divination; order to discover what he could do he...had to make specific trial of the things he could not do." And over time Balzac's powers grew: "Whatever he encountered,...he observed...[H]is novels imply a period of preparatory research." What emerged gradually, with little planning, was the dozens of linked novels that comprised the Human Comedy, in which Balzac proposed no less than "to illustrate by a tale or a group of tales every phase of French life and manners during the first half of the nineteenth century." That he could not accomplish this did not trouble James, for "what is most interesting in Balzac is not the achievement but the attempt." Balzac's unattainable goal gave rise to his real accomplishment, for "it was in the convenient faculty of persuading himself that he could do everything that Balzac found the inspiration to do so much." Characteristically for an experimental novelist, Balzac's plots were weak: "his novels are ponderous, shapeless, overloaded." But also typically for an experimentalist, his strength lay in creating character, and in this James judged that he "distances all competition," including his closest rivals in this respect, Dickens and Turgenev: "it is not only that his figures are so definite, but that they are so plausible, so real, so characteristic, so recognizable." James compared him to the greatest of all experimental writers: "Balzac may, like Shakespeare, be treated as a final authority upon human nature."


Henry James (1906). Image courtesy National Portrait Gallery, London.

At the age of 50, James created a detailed portrait of an experimental novelist in old age, in his novella, "The Middle Years." Terminally ill, the novelist Dencombe has traveled to Bournemouth to spend his final days near the sea. At the beginning of the story, he has just received in the mail the published version of what he realizes will be his final work, a novel titled The Middle Years. Drawn into the book, he realizes it is his best: "Never probably had that talent, such as it was, been so fine. His difficulties were still there, to his perception, though probably, alas! to nobody's else, was the art that in most cases had surmounted them." The book was a culmination, "somehow a result beyond his conscious intention: as if he had planted his genius, had trusted his method, and they had grown up and flowered with this sweetness." With this recognition of his achievement, however, came the painful realization of how slowly his skill had grown: "His development had been abnormally slow, almost grotesquely gradual. He had been hindered and retarded by experience, he had for long periods only groped his way. It had taken too much of his life to produce too little of his art."


Henry James (1910). Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Henry James of course had a deep understanding of experimental creativity, because he was The Master, an archetypal example of an experimental old master. He was committed to observation to the point of declaring that "the only reason for the existence of a novel is that it does attempt to represent life." He valued realism above all: "The air of reality...seems to me to be the supreme virtue of a novel." The quality of art depended on the intelligence of its maker, who should have as much knowledge of the world as possible, and the only path to this was "to have lived and loved and cursed and floundered and enjoyed and suffered."

Quintessentially experimental, James was not inclined to definitive statements: he once confided to a friend, "Nothing is my last word about anything." He firmly believed that his skill grew over time, writing to his mother that "Practice tells slowly with me...But eventually I shall write none the worse for having learned slowly." Scholars have long puzzled over the fact that when his collected works were published as the New York Edition, the elderly James not only wrote new prefaces for the volumes, but also made extensive revisions in the texts of novels and stories that had originally been published as much as three decades earlier. Yet this was a logical consequence of James' experimental distrust of finality and his faith in his artistic growth. Theodora Bosanquet, James' secretary during the last decade of his life, explained that "It was Henry James' profound conviction that he could improve his early writing in nearly every sentence. Not to revise would have been to confess to a loss of faith in himself," and this was not an issue, for James had no doubt of "his ability to write better at the end of a lifetime of hard work and varied experience than at the beginning. He knew he could write better."

Experimental late bloomers in all disciplines can take inspiration from the example of Henry James, and from his analysis of the growth of experimental writers, both real and fictional. And scholars in all relevant disciplines can learn, from these same sources, that creativity is not only for conceptual young geniuses, but also for experimental old masters. Anyone who does not understand this should be required to read the complete works of Honoré de Balzac, or failing that the entire New York Edition of James, to remedy the obvious deficiency in their education.