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Contemporary Novelists

T. S. Eliot with Virginia Woolf and Vivien Eliot, 1932 Photograph: © Archivio Giovannetti/effigie/Writer Pictures

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The original English typescript of T. S. Eliot’s “The Contemporary Novel”, located in the Houghton Library, Harvard, was translated into French as “Le roman anglais contemporain” for the Nouvelle revue française of May 1, 1927. Eliot took up the invitation to write this “chronicle” early in 1926. After it appeared, he wrote to Edmund Wilson on June 3 to say that he could have the article for the New Republic, promising to send him a copy of the English text; however, on August 3 he had to inform Wilson that he had “sent the only copy of the English text to my mother. I have written to ask her to forward it to you if she has read it, but as she has been ill you may not receive it very promptly”. The copy was not sent; it remained in his mother’s collection and unpublished in English until now. It will appear in The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot: The critical edition; Volume Three – Literature, Politics, Belief, 1927–1929, edited by Frances Dickey, Jennifer Formichelli and Ronald Schuchard. This will be published in September on the Project Muse website by Johns Hopkins University Press and Faber, followed in December by Volume Four – English Lion, 1930–1933, edited by Jason Harding and Schuchard, with sequential pairs of the eight-volume edition appearing annually and available by subscription. R.S.

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In his little book on Nathaniel Hawthorne, published many years ago, Henry James has the following significant sentences:

“The charm [of Hawthorne’s slighter pieces of fiction] is that they are glimpses of a great field, of the whole deep mystery of man’s soul and conscience. They are moral, and their interest is moral; they deal with something more than the mere accidents and conventionalities, the surface occurrences of life. The fine thing in Hawthorne is that he cared for the deeper psychology, and that, in his way, he tried to become familiar with it.”

The interest of this passage lies in its double application: it is true of Hawthorne, it is as true or truer of James himself. “They are moral, and their interest is moral”; this is the truth about all of James’s long series of novels and stories; a series of novels and stories which fell, accordingly, exactly upon the generations least qualified to appreciate the “moral interest”. Note the term “deeper psychology”. James’s book on Hawthorne was published in 1879. “Psychology” had not then reached the meaning of to-day, or if it had the meaning had not reached Henry James. One could not use the phrase now without surrounding it with a whole commentary of exposition and defence. But one feels that it is right; and that our contemporary novelists, under the influence of the shallower psychology by which we are all now affected, have missed that deeper psychology which was the subject of Henry James’s study.

It is in trying to find some principle of unity among the bewildering diversity of forms and contents of the contemporary novel in England and America, that I am led back to Henry James. The conclusion is certainly not a cheerful one; for I can find unity – or rather, unanimity – only in the fact that they all lack what James seems to me so preeminently to possess: the “moral preoccupation”. And as I believe that this “moral preoccupation” is more and more asserting itself in the minds of those who think and feel, I am forced to the somewhat extreme conclusion that the contemporary English novel is behind the times. The production of novels in England at the present time is, it is true, vast; I have only read a few; but I think that the names I can cite are amongst the most highly considered.

I am aware too that in my opinion of Henry James I come into conflict with so distinguished an authority as M. Abel Chevalley.1 Were M. Chevalley alone in his opinion, I should consider it great temerity to disagree with him. Not only is M. Chevalley as thoroughly documented as any English critic; but a foreign critic with so much knowledge of the language and literature, and with the acumen and judgement which M. Chevalley displays elsewhere, is quite likely to have perceptions, and a line of reasoning starting from a new angle of vision, which will render him decidedly formidable. But in this case M. Chevalley’s opinion happens to be, in general, the opinion of that of most English and American critics of Henry James; so that he raises no objection for which I am unprepared.

It would be a work for a more highly trained and specialized mind than my own, to trace the effect of psycho-analysis upon literature and upon life, within the last thirty years or so. This effect is probably both greater and more transient than we suppose. It would have to be distinguished from the influence of Dostoevski; or rather, one would have to reconstruct hypothetically what the influence of Dostoevski would or could have been had not one aspect of his work been tremendously reinforced by the coincidence of his vogue in western Europe with the rise of Freud. All that I wish to affirm is that nearly every contemporary novel known to me is either directly affected by a study of psycho-analysis, or affected by the atmosphere created by psycho-analysis, or inspired by a desire to escape from psycho-analysis; and that, in each case, the result is a loss of seriousness and profundity, of that profundity which Henry James, if he did not always get it, was at least always after.

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