August 19, 2002


We received a charming e-mail recently from a fellow who posted a devastating critique of our (my) rather shallow Henry James reviews to the JAMESF-L mailing list. Haunted by guilt, as befits a Jamesian, at the surreptitious nature of his attack, he sent a copy. It reads in part :
A Blog Takes On Henry James (Casey Abell)
[I] happened to have landed on a blog called The Brothers Judd when I followed a link on some political topic. This site offers a rather conventional blog, but it also features something interestingly titled "Book Reviews."

Hm, did HJ [Henry James] land among the reviews? I clicked the Book Reviews link and found The Turn of the Screw among the list of recommended books. The Judd Brothers (who after a very short while seemed to consist only of Orrin Judd) gave the book a B rating on an A to F scale. That's really pretty good by his exacting standards, as I discovered when I clicked on The Turn's link. Seems that Mr. Judd doesn't have much good to say about a whole lot of books. Joyce's Ulysses receives an "F times googolplex" rating, and a lot of other works with imposing reputations get trashed almost as badly.

And it also seems that Mr. Judd isn't bothered by the hobgoblin of little minds. Despite his recommendation of The Turn as "just a good creepy little tale," he also thunders: "This revival of Henry James has to stop. I can not put this any more plainly: his books are not good." HJ's most famous and best-selling book must be a glaring exception to this anathema.

Even within his review of The Wings of the Dove, Mr. Judd can't seem to remember what he wrote a few paragraphs ago. He praises The Wings for "a terrific plot set up," which he describes in enthusiastic detail. But just a couple paragraphs later, he calls the book worthless from page four on. Maybe he thought the entire plot was set up in the first three pages. Maybe he just watched the movie.

Mr. Judd's objection to James looks to be mostly political. His harsh words on the novelist: "What is there that a repressed (or closeted) homosexual,who loathed his own country, has to tell us, that we need to hear?" I thought that the ancient bigotry against James for his expatriation and eventual naturalization in Britain had died off in the 1930s. But some folks cling to old prejudices. As for the homosexuality charge, it continues to amaze me that some people judge authors on what they are supposed to have done (or not done) with their genitalia. Judging writers on what they wrote rather than on who they f***ed (or didn't f***) appears to be a more reasonable approach.

Mr. Judd also refers to James's works as suffering from "twisted emotional dementia." But somehow the author of such demented works receivedseventieth birthday greetings and handsome testimonials (a golden bowl, Sargent's portrait, Derwent Wood's sculpture) from some 270 friends. Maybe they were all demented, too. I wonder how many will celebrate Mr. Judd's seventienth.

It's plain that Mr. Judd has read, at the most, three books by James: The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Turn of the Screw. I doubt that he's even aware of the enormous range of HJ's fiction, criticism, travel writings and social essays, though that doesn't stop him from pronouncing all of HJ's books bad - except for the book Mr. Judd likes, which happens to be the one book most casual readers know Henry James by.

A final thought: Mr. Judd once again demonstrates what an interesting psychological test The Turn is. A glance at his blog shows that Mr. Judd lands far to the right on sociopolitical issues. Sure enough, his interpretation of The Turn follows what I have called Option One: the ghosts are real and are corrupting the "potentially wicked" children. That's exactly the interpretation you would expect from an arch-conservative secure in his ideology. It's the mirror image of Option Five (the governess is evil, the ghosts don't exist, the kids are blameless) which was presented a few years ago in the Henry James Review by a high-school teacher with an ideology as far left as Mr. Judd's is far right.

Sure, it's not a perfect correlation. But a critic's reaction to The Turn often tells us more about the critic than about the story. Edmund Wilson was the most famous example, but countless others have followed.

All of his criticisms seem valid at a glance. I do recommend Turn of the Screw (available on-line here) but have never read anything else by Mr. James that was not excruciating. The experience of reading him is so unpleasant that I've not delved much deeper that his most famous story and a few novels. As I said in my review, Wings of the Dove has the makings of a great noir--James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, or any number of other great American writers would have worked wonders with the set up--but Mr. James squanders it.
Posted by Orrin Judd at August 19, 2002 10:08 AM
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