Pale Adventurers, by Florida Pier
Mr. Henry James has prepared us, in spite of his long list of glowing heroines, for the substitution, in The Finer Grain, of faded, sensitive old gentlemen as the principal characters rather than the young people we always and sometimes wilfully feel to be most important, no matter what the emphasis of the author. His vivid young women are in this new book as in the others; but though they may be the adventures themselves, they are only important in their relation to the innately Boston gentlemen so characteristic of James, and noticed by him so early that they almost owe their public existence to him, no matter how long they may actually have flourished in the city of their embryonage. His readers, therefore, have reached the point in this volume of admitting these old gentlemen to be his real heroines (we cannot somehow call them his heroes), and, their number suddenly looming large, they rise, a pale host, dimming completely Masie, Daisy Miller, Charlotte and Maggie, and so many others.
There was, not so very long ago, that wonderful man in The Ambassadors. There were, as a matter of fact, two of them in that book, but it was the paler who survived the longer and who was triumphantly the entire book. It was he who had that rare experience in rural France, where he managed, with Jamesesque felicity, to enter and inhabit for one long day the precise French landscape which on canvas he had once longed to buy, though he never felt equal to the value demanded. He wandered, always keeping happily within the frame, up the very road and past the identical willows, reaching finally the precise swollen, slowly flaming stream and delectably scented but frugally decorated augberge which he had always known lay beyond the dip in the hill. Such a day was of course a supreme adventure for the dear pale gentleman, as the chapter fairly amounts to for the reader, but then the entire book is his heyday of life. He had waited, as have all these other faded, elderly, and gently wistful men, almost a lifetime, without anything happening to him.
Their nationality is occasionally neglected, as in this latest book, with quite strong hints given of England being our hero’s rightful place of residence. But we are not in the least fooled. If Mr. James likes to make it appear as though they grew natively in English soil, we do not mind, but we staunchly retain our rooted belief that if it not been for New England they never could have been at all. It is their very arid New-Englandism that makes them as important to Mr. James as they obviously are. Their spareness, their aptitude for getting so much out of a crumb—it has taken generations of New England to do that, just as it takes at least fifty years of their own barren willingness before their great adventures can possibly come to them. They are so gray and so tentative, so pathetically unfolding in the belated warmth that is finally theirs. There was Stransome, whose great adventure was dying, and Mr. Verver, and all the others who on a moment’s pondering disclose themselves as having made all the stories possible. If they had not, through being deprived of everything so long, become exquistely able to turn andfondle and twist the tiniest situation until all its dim faucets took on wonderful lights, where would we have been?
There are moments, and they same most frequent in Mora Montravers, when it was the eptiome of nothingness that could happen to these gentlemen that constituted their adventures. They get such rich experience out of scanty fare and appear so amply nourished by it, so really replete and plethoric on what to any one else would be a complete nihility, that one is torn between gratitude for the lesson learned that everything is an adventure and one need be only alive to be constantly aghast, and an irritation felt against these depleted, dry and shrivelled parties at producing such an effect of gormandizing on complete starvation.
Their lack is their great asset and their barren New-Englandism is so complete as to denude them to the point where any fragment of a garment coming late in life takes on the sumptuousness of a great enveloping cloak. They fairly wolf whatever fare is thrown them, and yet to such dimensions has their appetite grown that it has passed the stage of mere hunger, and its pleasure is in delicately plucking out which of its many pains shall be assuaged, and slowly satisfying past desires.
Having spoken thus harshly of them, one is shamed for one’s crassness. These pale adventurers are so gray, so humbly claimless and expectant of being passed by, that it is ungracious to be less gentle toward them that Mr. James, who in judging their meagreness worth while sets us a lesson in fine manners that we gladly, if a little yawningly, follow.
Florida Pier (1883-1979)
in her near-weekly column (1908-1911) “The Gentler View,” Harper’s Weekly (Advertiser section; December 19, 1910) : 22 (link at hathitrust)
same (University of Michigan) scan at google : link
- The Finer Grain (1910), contains “The Velvet Glove,” “Mora Montravers,” “A Round of Visits,” “Crapy Cornelia,” and “The Bench of Desolation.”
several scans/copies via hathitrust : (link)
- The passage on naming these old gentlemen “heroines” rather than “heroes” may prefigure her (Florida Pier’s) later Women and Sometimes Men (1957).
- Whose “yawningly” is that? the editor’s? or what aspect/part of Florida Pier?
- The first interior page of this number (link), “Who done say dat dey ain’t no Sandy Claws?” drawn by E .W. Kemble, examples the casual racism — in caricatured representatives of Blacks, maids etc., in ads and in editorial copy alike — throughout (but certainly not only) Harper’s Weekly. The magazine seems to address middle class/professional whites, for whom a trip to Paris is at least an aspiration... (thinking of Florida Pier’s “Mr. Walker” in The Delineator (May 1913) (link).
28 August 2022