Henry James, “The Middle Years” Commonplace Book Entry: Losing and Holding On

“He was lost, he was lost– he was lost if he couldn’t be saved. He was not afraid of suffering, of death; he was not even in love with life; but he had had a deep demonstration of desire. It came over him in the long, quiet hours that only with ‘The Middle Years’ had he taken his flight; only on that day, visited by soundless processions, had he recognised his kingdom.”

James, Henry. “The Middle Years.” Henry James: Complete Stories 1892-1898, 335-55. New York: The Library of America, 1996. pp. 345-46.

Dencombe is drowning in his many, palpable losses. His health, his memory, his identity as a writer, and his time to fully realize his potential as a writer are all slipping through his fingers. But the futile fight to keep these things from slipping into loss is not only frustrating– it’s fear-inducing. Has he actually, finally, found his “kingdom,” or is he fearfully grasping for any purpose to hang onto the life he is already losing?

The Middle Years: Living Documents, Dead Authors

“He lived once more into his story and was drawn down, as by a siren’s hand, to where, in the dim underworld of fiction, the great glazed tank of art, strange silent subjects float” (James 337).

James, Henry. “The Middle Years.” Henry James: Complete Stories 1892-1898, Library of America, 1996, pp. 335–355.

Writing is bound up in its own world but the affect is transformative; what has already been written lives again as we read, and what may have originally been meant by the author is made into something new with each new reading.  It’s a kind of infinity.

An Extension: The Middle Years

“No, no–I only should have had more time. I want another go.”
“Another go?”
“I want an extension.”
“An extension?” Again Doctor Hugh repeated Dencombe’s words, with which he seemed to have been struck. “Don’t you know?–I want to what they call ‘live.’”

(James, Henry.) ‘The Middle Years’. Terminations, Scribner’s Magazine, 1893, pp. 348.

An ailing writer trapped in a perfectionist mindset, unable to accept the body of work he will soon leave behind. An “extension” is a extra amount of time granted to a writer to complete a piece of work to satisfaction, but in this context Dencombe also asks from his doctor for an extension on life itself, saying he “want(s) to what they call ‘live.;”

Henry James, ‘The Middle Years’ Book Entry

‘His book was a novel; it had the catchpenny cover, and while the
romance of life stood neglected at his side he lost himself in that of the circulating library’ (James 336).

James, Henry. ‘The Middle Years’. Terminations, Scribner’s Magazine, 1893, pp. 335–55.

Dencombe’s observation of the three beach goers represents the idea of mortality. The young man reading the book is unable to realize that something just as exciting as his story is happening right next to him because he is so enraptured by wild ideas and fantasies found within stories. ‘His book was a novel’ is not only talking about the young man’s book, but his own life. It means his life is also a story, a story that he has to shape and write himself for it to be just as enjoyable and fulfilling as the books he losses himself in, reminding Dencombe and readers that life is fleeting and we do not get 2nd chances to properly enjoy it.

The Middle Years Book Entry Second Chance 1

“He had had a revelation of his range. What he dreaded was the idea that his reputation should stand on the unfinished. It was not with his past but with his future that it should properly be concerned. Illness and age rose before him like spectres with pitiless eyes: how was he to bribe such fates to give him the second chance? He had had the one chance that all men have – he had had the chance of life.”

-James, Henry. “The Middle Years.” H. James Complete Stories 1892-1898, The Library of America, 1996, page 346.

The Middle Years Book Entry Second Chance 2

“‘You’ve made me think it all a delusion.’

‘Not your glory, my friend,’ stammered the young man.

‘Not my glory – what there is of it! It is glory – to have been tested, to have had our little quality and cast our little spell. The thing is to have made somebody care. You happen to be crazy, or course, but that doesn’t affect the law.’

‘You’re a great success!’ said Doctor Hugh, putting into his young voice the ring of a marriage-bell.

Dencombe lay taking this in; then he gathered strength to speak once more. ‘A second chance – that’s the delusion. There never was but one. We work in the dark – we do what we can – we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.'”

-James, Henry. “The Middle Years.” H. James Complete Stories 1892-1898, The Library of America, 1996, page 354.

Sample Commonplace-Book Entry

His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face.

James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, ed. Jeri Johnson (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000), 5.

Tone change; strange details (“a glass”); grotesque (hairy face). Is this the same person who tells the story of the moocow and baby tuckoo?

A few notes on James’s “The Middle Years”

Bournemouth (337)
Beach town in Dorset (Southwest England).
diligence vincit omnia (338)
“Conquers all,” but the Latin phrase (from Virgil) is usually omnia vincit amor (or amor vincit omnia), “love conquers all”
qui dort dine (339)
French cliché: literally, “who sleeps, dines,” but meaning, “if you’re sleeping you don’t need to eat”
intrigante (346)
French: a (female) schemer