What Henry James can teach us about the culture wars

The author understood the dangerous allure of the romantic reactionary

January 03, 2022
Christopher Reeve as Basil Ransom and Madeleine Potter as Verena Tarrant in the 1984 film adaptation of The Bostonians. Credit: Alamy
Christopher Reeve as Basil Ransom and Madeleine Potter as Verena Tarrant in the 1984 film adaptation of The Bostonians. Credit: Alamy

As the culture war continues to rage, one type of writer seems to be doing pretty well: the world-weary reactionary. Usually conservative but sometimes self-described as a centrist liberal, they respond to what they see as the excesses of left-wing activists—tearing down statues or encroaching on freedom of speech—not with overt anger but ironic commentary. In the US, writers like Wesley Yang (who coined the phrase “successor ideology,” popular in some circles), the organiser of the Harper’s letter on free speech Thomas Chatterton Williams and, more combatively, writer and podcaster Andrew Sullivan are eloquent woke-sceptics. Over here, you find higher-class exponents on sites like Unherd or, more recently, on Substack. Even when I disagree with their takes, I often enjoy reading them. Something about their (usually) polite scepticism is a balm after watching an author being shouted down on Twitter for a supposed faux pas, or seeing someone you once respected join an online mob in the name of social justice.

But afterwards, I’m left with an uneasy feeling that something important has been missed out. Often they simplify their arguments by focusing on the most outrageous examples of woke ideology. And rarely do they consider why such overreactions might be happening. If deeper causes are suggested they tend to be psychological. In their book The Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff argue that indulgent parenting has created a generation unable to cope with being challenged by different opinions. No matter how much I wanted to agree with the authors—everyone likes to think young folk don’t get it—the barely masked aggression made me uncomfortable: I, who make all my decisions on the basis of rational thought, must teach you, whose beliefs are based on mere emotion, how to behave properly. 

For help unpicking all this, we can turn to Henry James. (Consider this article a companion to my 2017 piece on his novel The Princess Casamassima and its insights into terrorism.) The Bostonians (1886) is one of James’s less well-known novels: it was published to poor reviews and the author did not include it the canonical New York edition of his works. Often described as a satire on feminism, it might seem the perfect novel for the woke-sceptic—and for large sections, you could argue it is. But the novel develops into something more than mere satire—and speaks in a remarkably acute way to our own age’s concerns.  

The plot is simple. Mississippian Basil Ransom and fought on the losing side in the Civil War. In the mid-1870s, he visits his cousin Olive Chancellor, a charmless feminist, in Boston. Across the novel, they battle for the affections of the beautiful Verena Tarrant, a young woman who delivers speeches in favour of female emancipation. Verena is attracted to Basil, who likes nothing more than to mock the earnestness of the Boston feminist circle. (Today we might call him an arch-negger.) The story ends conventionally—Basil gets the girl—but not in a romantically satisfying way.

Planning the novel, James wrote: “I asked myself what was the most salient and peculiar point in our social life. The answer was: the situation of women, the decline of the sentiment of sex, the agitation on their behalf.” The breaking down of old divisions between the sexes was fertile territory for the novel. Much of the novel’s early friction comes from Basil’s ridiculing of feminism. Olive, for her part, is exasperated by his conservatism: “Don’t you care for human progress?” she asks. “I don’t know—I never saw any,” he replies. “Are you going to show me some?” 

The critic Lionel Trilling praised James for “daring to seize on the qualities of the women’s rights movement which were ‘unnatural’ and morbid.” There is the campaigner Miss Birdseye, a member of the “Short-Skirts league” who “belonged to any and every league that had been founded for almost any purpose whatsoever.” (The character was based on abolitionist Elizabeth Peabody.) Man-loathing Olive has “the ecstasy of the martyr.” Her protectiveness of Verena is also, it is hinted, a marker of same-sex attraction—that’s what Trilling meant, in his prim 1950s phrasing, by the “unnatural” qualities of the women’s movement.

And yet as the novel progresses, the satirical framework breaks down. Basil is not the ideal Southern gentlemen he thinks himself. Though “by natural disposition a good deal of a stoic,” writes James, he was also “very conceited, for he was much addicted to judging his age.” His courting of Verena is more akin to a mansplaining session. In one long speech to her, which could be reproduced word-for-word in a Jordan Peterson lecture, he declares: “The whole generation is womanised; the masculine tone is passing out of the world; it’s a feminine, a nervous, hysterical, chattering, canting age, an age of hollow phrases and false delicacy and exaggerated solicitudes and coddled sensibilities,”—note Haidt and Lukianoff’s favourite word coddled—“which, if we don’t soon look out, will usher in the reign of mediocrity, of the feeblest and flattest and the most pretentious that has ever been.” In a James novel, anyone so vehement is not to be trusted.

Overhanging Basil and Verena’s courtship is the Civil War. Verena takes him to Harvard’s Memorial Hall, dedicated to Northern soldiers. Basil, facing the memorial to men who tried to kill him, experiences a revelation. Both sides suffered and both sides, “the victims of defeat as well as the sons of triumph,” are remembered in this beautiful building. Verena, like modern-day monument-sceptics, doesn’t like the place. “If it wasn’t so majestic, I would have pulled it down.”

On the question of slavery, Basil is somewhat embarrassed: “a national fiasco” is the term he uses to describe it. James sees emancipation as an example of yet another cause the Bostonians espouse. Later in life, he travelled to the South and sensed the ingrained racial prejudice, but here it doesn’t exercise him much. Very few African-American characters appear in the book, and they are pretty stereotypical: “a couple of shuffling negresses, who mingled in the conversation and indulged in low, mysterious chuckles.” What’s missing is a figure like Frederick Douglass, already a famous author by this time.

There is one intriguing moment when Basil’s conversation is said to be “pervaded by something sultry and vast, something almost African in its rich, basking tone, something that suggested the teeming expanse of the cotton-field.” These words could be put down to Northern snobbery (and racism) on James’s part. But perhaps he is also hinting that Basil’s conservatism derives from his fear of being from a culturally “diluted” backwater. Just as only by seducing Verena could he take revenge on the North for the battles lost in the Civil War. The novel’s final paragraph is one of the most sinister James ever wrote. Verena is tamed but in tears—tears that we are told “were not the last she was destined to shed.”

So what does Henry James teach us about our culture wars? He reveals the seductive comfort of looking on any attempt at societal change with contempt. He shows the sometimes blinkered nature of the progressive—“after so many ages of wrong,” says Olive, “men must take their turn, men must pay!”—but also acknowledges the “silent rage” that leads to such outbursts. And in its final pages, he turns the screw on the reader by exposing the union between Basil and Verena as a prison. For it is Olive, the one who ruins every dinner party by banging on about her feminist crusade, the one without humour or irony—she is the one whose fears are proved correct.