James, “The Middle Years”

“Dencombe was a passionate corrector, a fingerer of style; the last thing he ever arrived at was a form final enough for himself” (344).

James, Henry. “The Middle Years.” Henry James: Complete Stories 1892-1898, The Library of America, 1996, Page 335-55.

Dencombe’s continuous dissatisfaction with his published works translates into his existential despair about his ending life. Just as he edits the first edition of The Middle Years, he craves more time to rewrite his life, which, for much of the story, he believes he can change if given a second chance.

“The Middle Years” by Henry James Commonplace-Book Entry: Prediction of Future Apprentice

“Chance had brought the weary man of letters face to face with the greatest admirer in the new generation whom it was supposable he possessed. The admirer, in truth, was mystifying, so rare a case was it to find a bristling young doctor–he looked like a German physiologist–enamoured of literary form. It was an accident, but happier than most accidents, so that Dencombe, exhilarated as well as confounded, spent half an hour in making his visitor talk while he kept himself quiet.”

James, Henry. “The Middle Years.” Henry James: Complete Stories 1892-1898, The Library of America, 1996, page 342.

Tone change in Dencombe from reminiscent and sorrowful to pleasantly surprised and appreciative. It seems as though meeting Doctor Hugh, a smart and young admirer of Dencombe’s artistic touch in literature, was a rare, fateful occurrence to Dencombe, which seems to make him truly happy and forget his mournful attitude that his old age has given him about life. Perhaps when Dencombe reveals his true identity to Doctor Hugh, he could solve his problem of not having enough time left to create more books using his refined talent, by training Doctor Hugh to become his successor in creating artful stories for him, so that his legacy as an author can still live on through Doctor Hugh, whom Dencombe also seems to admire in return.

Henry James, “The Middle Years” blog post

“He read his own prose, he turned his own leaves, and had, as he sat there with the spring sunshine on the page, an emotion peculiar and intense. His career was over, no doubt, but it was over, after all, with that.”

James, Henry. “The Middle Years.” H. James Complete Stories 1892-1898, The Library of America, 1996, page 337.

This moment of reflection Dencombe has speaks beyond his character. As a successful novelist, he is also experiencing many losses & is remembering his own work; overwhelming him not with loss, but with a new emotion that is ultimately all he has left from his ended career.

Commonplace-Book Entry: “The Middle Years” by Henry James, Unfinished Dream

“‘Yes, it’s what passes.’ Poor Dencombe was barely audible, but he had marked with the words the virtual end of his first and only chance.”

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

This story ends on a more sad and thoughtful note, as neither Doctor Hugh nor Dencombe, himself, were able to give Dencombe his dream of another chance at life, and without explanation as to what the other characters, such as Doctor Hugh, did after Dencombe passed. I feel that this deviates from the traditional endings of stories where they are happy and every loose end is tied together nicely. I suppose that this ending is meant to reflect complex, realistic endings in life where people die and some of their hopes and dreams are left unfinished while those they know and love still have to continue living without them, surrounded by their unfinished projects. 

“The Middle Years” Excerpt on Observation

“Equally innocent and infinite are the pleasures of observation and the resources engendered by the habit of analyzing life,” (James 340).

James, Henry. “Henry James Completed Stories 1892-1898.” Scribner’s Magazine, May 1893, p. 340.

As Dencombe is looking over the cliff from his bench at the people bellow, he contemplates how one can be content by simply observing the world around them, and how the peace and quiet makes it easier to analyze the little things in life.

Henry James, “The Middle Years”, Observation

“He couldn’t have chanted to himself a single sentence, couldn’t have turned with curiosity or confidence to any particular page.”

James, Henry. “The Middle Years.” H. James Complete Stories 1892-1898, The Library of America, 1996, page 337.

Dencombe is struggling with many losses, including but not limited to his life and his identity and his career as an author, which is incredibly important to him. This realization that he cannot remember a single detail of his revisions, for him especially, is something out of nightmares.

James, “The Middle Ages” Commonplace Book Entry: The Purpose of Life

“ ‘A second chance—that’s the delusion. There never was to be 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.” In Complete Stories 1892-1898, edited by John Hollander and David Bromwich, 335-55. New York: Library of America, 1996, p. 354

All the doubt and fear Dencombe felt was the accumulation of passion which he designated to be the purpose of human life and as a result, his passion for writing gains the respect and admiration of Doctor Hughes. His work is what inspires and preserves the doctor’s passion for literature (a dying field.) In a handful of words, the author portrays a fulfilled circle of life one that serves to reassure us of own doubts. Rather than try and dismiss our fear of the uncertainty, it is portrayed as being a necessary component of passion that drives us to live. This vicious cycle of self-doubt, regret, and fear finds itself in our lives and our sense of fulfillment, but perhaps this is necessary to help us complete our purpose?

James, “The Middle Years”, and Observation

“He had followed literature from the first, but he had taken a lifetime to get alongside her. Only to-day, at last, had he begun to see, so that what he had hitherto done was a movement without direction. He had ripened too late and was clumsily constituted that he had had to teach himself by mistakes” (James 347).

James, Henry. “The Middle Years.” Henry James: Complete Stories 1892-1898, 335-55. New York: The Library of America, 1996. pp. 347.

Dencombe in his fading health observes how despite his achievement  of a soon to be successful novel, it marks the end of his bittersweet career. In his struggle to reach his ideal through mistakes, he had squandered the limited time he had to live and lost the time he needed to reach perfection.

James, “The Middle Years.” Topic: Observation

This act, and something in the movement of either party, instantly characterised the performers- they performed for Dencombe’s recreation- as opulent matron and humble dependant.

James, Henry. “The Middle Years.” In Complete Stories 1892-1898, edited by John Hollander and David Bromwich, 335-55. New York: Library of America, 1996, p. 336.

when does trio on beach become performers? being observed transforms people into performers (not only their fluid movements, but they must be seen), dichotomy of opulent matron/ humble dependant related to observer/performer?

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