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Centennial of Henry James' death recalls author's wide-ranging life, work

Henry JamesHugh Kenner opens The Pound Era with a symbolic incident of Henry James, elderly with his niece, meeting Ezra Pound and his wife on the street in London shortly before the First World War. Pound and James exchange pleasantries, walk together, and the groups go their separate ways. It is for Kenner as if James passes the torch of American letters to Pound, then well on his way to becoming poet-priest of the Modernists.

Apocryphal verging on indelible, the encounter has provided generations of writers, critics and scholars with a jumping-off point for literature of the American and the expatriate varieties, of the 19th and 20th centuries, of detail-driven realism and the ever-churning dynamo of the new. And it situates James, whose death on Feb. 28, 1916 will be commemorated around the world this year, as perhaps the key figure in just about all that has happened in American letters since.

Though the meeting might never have happened outside Kenner’s imagination, James bridged American literature to literary modernism as Kenner’s incident suggests. Pound himself carried James there by including him in the Cantos: “And the great domed head, con gli occhi / onesti e tardi / Moves before me, phantom with weighted motion, / Grave incessu, drinking the tone of things / And the old voice lifts itself / weaving an endless sentence.”

“James is still there, still around, still very important,” said Greg Zacharias, Ph.D., professor of English and director of the Center for Henry James Studies at Creighton University. “People are thinking about the value of James’ work in many different ways. The 100th anniversary of his death, especially, makes what had been for so long the possession of James by Jamesians and fiction writers a more public acknowledgment of what he accomplished, what he means to a wider circle. James still speaks to us, all of us. And we can see ourselves in his work.”

Memorial events, academic conferences and public readings are slated in places James knew well, including London and Paris, where he spent many years in his youth and later life, and Venice, which he visited many times. And in a sign of what James’ work has meant even more globally, Beijing and a site in South Korea will both host events dedicated to James later this year.

The main event to commemorate the centenary of James’s death will occur in June at Brandeis University and at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where James spent his middle years, attended Harvard Law School for a short time, and where his ashes now rest. Creighton will help sponsor the conference with the Henry James Society and Harvard University. A special exhibit to remember James will be shown at the Houghton Library at Harvard, which holds the bulk of the James family papers.

Zacharias said James’ life and work has long been a subject of international interest, but there’s been a widening net of late, with more scholars from Asia and Central and Eastern Europe and researchers in disciplines outside literary studies looking at a man who wrote dozens of novels and other books, along with essays, novellas and short stories. The work cuts across two centuries, two continents and a host of different phenomena including economics, religion, war and politics, all of which have found purchase in James scholarship.

Two new avenues of scholarship opening are studies on the importance of memory and class for James. In the latter, while James has long been thought of as an author overwhelmingly interested in the upper crust of society, scholars are paying close attention to middle and working class characters in his work.

“I think that’s something very much in the moment now,” Zacharias said. “It’s a political topic, what happened to the middle class and this is driving some of the investigation. What are some of the middle class pressures people are facing in the 19th century? In the past, I think it was accepted James really only paid attention to the upper one-tenth of one percent, so that’s the real surprise now, that he always did pay attention to the middle and working classes, too.”

Even new technical studies, such as one being undertaken by a doctoral student from Brazil looking at James’ narrative techniques, are enhancing the body of scholarship and knowledge of the writer with each passing day.

“It’s such a rich line that keeps yielding and yielding,” Zacharias said. “Wherever we find ourselves, we realize that James had been there already.”

In observance of the centenary of James’ death, the Library of America has released a new volume of the author’s memoirs from his younger years, A Small Boy and Others and Notes of a Son and Brother, originally published in 1913 and 1914, respectively.

From the Center for Henry James Studies, where an ongoing project to document and publish all of James’ correspondence continues, the next volume of the letters, the 10th in the series, is due out in October and the 11th a year from that.

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