About THAS

“I was not about to say that I do [teach well], but I do say that I especially wanted to teach Henry James well. As a graduate student once said to me of another student in a different class who was floundering and about whose fate she was worried, so I now say about Henry James: “I love him, you see.” James seems to me the most artistically intelligent, the most subtle, finally the greatest American writer. No other writer has given me so much pleasure nor, I believe, taught me so much about literature and life. I wanted ardently to get my appreciation for James across. I wanted converts, not to my precise views, but to at least a rough recognition of Henry James’s immense achievement.

Before this could be done, I suspected, there was a need to scrape free the barnacles of cliché that have clung to the vessel of James’s reputation. The cliché that he was a very great snob—“an effete snob,” into the bargain, in Theodore Roosevelt’s phrase—must be chipped away. So, too, the notion that Henry James’s subject was an impossibly rarified one, that he wrote almost exclusively about people who could really never have existed: unanchored in work, nationally rootless, without financial concern, detached in nearly every way, sheer engines of pure and apparently inexhaustible cerebration. Although Henry James was an immitigably highbrow writer—some would say the first American modernist writer, given his tireless interest in the formal properties of his art—he also happens to have been an extraordinary comedian, in my opinion one of the funniest writers going. The cliché of Henry James as a great square stiffo, the ultimate stuffed shirt, this, too, had to be quickly swept away.

Were my students even aware of these clichés? Difficult to know. But then it is a bit difficult to know what, exactly, is taught to undergraduates nowadays. In the course descriptions that go out each quarter, which I admit to reading in good part for the unconscious humor I find in them, one often encounters offerings promising the latest theory-a-go-go written in the most rococo gibberish. But then there are also standard survey courses and teachers who haven’t gone in for the nouvelle intellectual diet. My guess is that an undergraduate majoring in English at Northwestern today is likely to have been taught a single work by James—Washington Square, perhaps Portrait of a Lady, just possibly “Turn of the Screw.”

I recalled my own introduction to Henry James as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago in the middle 1950s. It came when I was twenty years old in a course in the modern novel taught by Morton Dauwen Zabel. The novel was The Spoils of Poynton, a book of 1897, when James had already begun to write in his late—which is to say, more complex and circumambulating—style; and its subject, that of the passing on of a lovingly gathered collection of antique furniture, doubtless must have seemed rarefied in the extreme to a Middlewestern boy to whom the entire notion of “antique” held not the least interest. How much of the novel I could be said to have comprehended I cannot say. Yet I came away with respect for it, which was in part owing to the respect I had for the respect in which my teacher held it. I did at least grasp that Henry James was serious stuff, and that if I were one day to consider myself a serious literary man I should have to return to him.

It’s probably a bad idea to ask how much anyone gets out of a book. (“None of us,” writes Ned Rorem, “can ever know how even our closest friends hear music.”) The question is especially complicated when applied to the young. I think of myself at nineteen reading Proust. What was going through my mind? Probably chiefly delight at the notion of myself reading Proust. When young, one does a great deal of reading that, if one is going to be among that small portion of people who go on to take books seriously, will have to be done again. As an earnest student of mine once put it shortly before his graduation, “God, I wish I had a chance to do a second draft on my education.” Some of us have been lucky enough to be able to arrange our lives spending the rest of our days putting draft after draft on our education. 

Yet a teacher of the young must not dwell on the question of what, even roughly, his students derive from the books he teaches them. My own assumption is that they, or at least the best among them, do not get much less than I do; and I have always tried to teach to the best in the class. To do less would be to lapse into condescension of a kind that would be defeating. This doesn’t mean that I don’t stop to explain and discuss fundamental matters—how symbolism works, what constitutes style—but I do assume that my students read for the same reasons that I do: aesthetic pleasure and spiritual profit.


First day of class, right out of the chute, the sales pitch began. After setting out the ground rules—examinations, papers, grades, attendance—I announced what I took to be the point of the course. This was to establish in their minds an appreciation for the work of one of the most subtle of American writers, an understanding of what constitutes an exemplary career in literature, and, somehow, through all this, I hoped they would take away something that, in ways that could not be predicted, would alter, however slightly, their ways of thinking about life and make them a little bit smarter.

I next touched briefly on a question that, fifteen or twenty years ago, would simply never have arisen—that of “how” we shall read Henry James. “I suppose my answer to this question,” I said, “is, ‘As intelligently as possible.’ I do not myself read him as a Marxist, a Freudian, a Deconstructionist, a Post-structuralist; I don’t read him to discover that he might be ‘elitist,’ or ‘pro-capitalist,’ or ‘anti-feminist,’ or anything of the sort. One of the interesting things about Henry James is that he makes all these ways of reading seem rather beside the point. I read him for the pleasure of his language, for his wit, for his meaning, which, if I may say so, is not always that easily caught. A critic named Philip Rahv [surely no one in the class, graduate students included, is likely to have encountered that name], who once remarked that James was a secular New Englander, interested in the same moral questions that his fellow New Englanders had been interested in, once formulated James’s way of coming at these questions thus: For Henry James ‘any failure of discrimination is sin, whereas virtue is a compound of intelligence, moral delicacy, and the sense of the past.’

Raising the sales pitch slightly, I began, in a brief lecture on Henry James’s life, by calling him a genius. A genius, though, I emphasized, of a particular kind. There are no Mozarts in literature, nor Einsteins for that matter, so that Henry James’s genius was not of the natural kind but came about as the result of fortunate circumstances—chief among them being born into the James family—and the most careful self-cultivation. And I quoted James himself, in The Tragic Muse, on the nature of genius in the arts: “Genius is only the art of getting your experience fast, of stealing it, as it were. …” It is also, of course, the ability to make the most of this experience, to have the energy and determination to make that experience count and to make it tell in works of art. I also quoted James on another character in the same novel: “Life, for him [one Mr. Carteret], was a purely practical function, not a question of phrasing.” To which I added that they, my students, ought to know right off that for Henry James not entirely but in good part life was a matter of phrasing—the right phrasing. I’m fairly sure no one in the room quite knew what I meant.

The second session of class I brought in a photograph of Henry James in his early sixties, my only visual (non-audio) aid. In this photograph, which I acquired some years ago from the Smith College Archives, James wears pince-nez and is without his beard. I asked the students to take a minute or so with the photograph so that they might recall that the man they would be reading all quarter really was of flesh and blood, however godlike at times he may seem. I also suggested that the more penetrating among them might just discover, behind what at first glance seems a most formidable late-nineteenth-century countenance, a slight but very sly humor lurking.

Together the class and I worked our way through the essay James titled “The Art of Fiction.” He wrote it in 1884, when he was forty-one, well launched on his career but far from having attained the heights he would soon reach. The essay is too rich to summarize here, but it is about what James calls the “artistic idea” and the variety of possibilities that novels— which “are as various as the temperament of man, and [are] successful as they reveal a particular mind, different from the others”—and all that the glorious form of the novel, then attaining its pre-eminence as a literary form, was capable of achieving in the hands of serious practitioners. Best as I remember it, the discussion was not exhilarating—it is generally easier to teach imaginative than critical works—but earnest, and at least nothing flat-out stupid was said. I also handed out Xerox copies of a sheet of quotations. The most impressive of these, from James’s essay on Turgenev, I read aloud, prefacing it by saying that James himself, in the same essay, remarks that when we read a writer of real power we want to know what he thinks about the world. This quotation, I think, comes as close as any single passage from James that I know to answering that question.

Life is in fact, a battle. On this point optimists and pessimists agree. Evil is insolent and strong; beauty enchanting but rare; goodness very apt to be weak; folly very apt to be defiant; wickedness to carry the day; imbeciles to be in very great places, people of sense in small, and mankind generally, unhappy. But the world as it stands is no illusion, no phantasm, no evil dream of a night; we wake up to it again for ever and ever; we can neither forget it nor deny it nor dispense with it. We can welcome experience as it comes, and give it what it demands, in exchange for something which it is idle to pause to call much or little so long as it contributes to swell the volume of consciousness. In this there is mingled pain and delight, but over the mysterious mixture there hovers a visible rule, that bids us learn to will and seek to understand.

I closed that second class, our first working session, by quoting James yet again: “In every novel the work is divided between the writer and the reader; but the writer makes the reader very much as he makes his characters … the reader would be doing his share of the task; the grand point is to get him to make it.” Would James be able to turn this trick with these students? Remains, as political journalists hedging their bets say, to be seen."

- Excerpt from the Joseph Epstein essay 
"Selling Henry James" (1990)

A blog dedicated to the uncovering of the works and career of Tobe Hooper, whose breakthrough feature is famously the 1974 horror film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but whose most famous film is only a first quarter entry in a career - before and after the notorious slasher - spent entering his earnest contributions to the existent repository of cinematic exploration: going from documentary and avant-garde work, before his break into Hollywood, to the ostensible "Hollywood" product, in which he managed to combine the possibility of richness in mainstream narrative filmmaking with the radical disciplining impulses of a staid and serious-minded, beautiful formalism, and the radical view of a film as not just entertainment but as critical edification, cinematography not as a way for emotional or stylistic appeals but of a means of manifesting delicate idea, meaning, and wisdom through the allegorizing and sublime capacity of the camera and film language.

Hooper, it seems clear to me, serves as one of the very great filmmakers, withholding of the classical ambitions, the thorough visions, and the self-curatorial refinement of the storied makers of "great works."  I aim to place him alongside the great populist, formalist filmmakers, from Ozu, to Hitchcock, to Renoir, Ray, Ophüls, and Welles, in the refinement of their products, the scope of their achievement, the poetry of their intents, and the spirit of their commitment to an art.

Hooper distinguishes himself even at that, in that his popular product is never entirely that.  Ozu embodied folk graces, Hitchcock had the symbolist angst, Renoir the humanist magnitude, but they all provided mainstream product that still prioritized a level of plot and accessibility.  Hooper's niche work in genre allowed him to play in a genre realm of abstraction and metaphor that made the prioritization of pure aesthetics and a constantly allegorical cinema wholly available to him, an inclination that he notably manages to keep up throughout his span of work, so continuously of a humane and fabulist bent.

His form of through-composed camera musicality often seems most comparable to the similarly strident and symphonic camera of Fassbinder.  But even he distinguishes himself from Fassbinder, whose camera often betrays the ostentation of a "style" (and a "self-style," at that, though not at all to diminish the worth of self-involved, self-divesting filmmaking, or the strong personality art-maker).  Hooper is one of the few filmmakers I'd be hard-pressed to call a "stylist," as every flourish is borne first from idea and the most delicate and grace-minded cerebration.  Hooper may in fact be the fabulous bridge between mainstream entertainment filmmaking and the profound scholarly cinema of Jean-Marie Straub/Danièle Huillet, or Bresson.  In fact, Hooper's completely non-self-involved, universally concerned, unflappably kind sense of a "high art filmmaking" (also his wholly egalitarian attitude and working methodology on set - less possessive "high art" filmmaking, more earthy a belief in still a "high meaning" capable in the art) reminds me much of Agnès Varda.

"I met Tobe Hooper in Los Angeles and during his visits to Tokyo, I love his work, but also the person he is, humanly speaking."

- Kiyoshi Kurosawa, interview on Vodkaster.com [French], March 2012

"It reminds me of an interview with David Lean that I heard, where David Lean said that being a movie director is being placed in a very lonely position in life.  And I thought: well, wow, that's rather elitist and romantic, and, god, I wish I had your problems!  And this is when I was a very young filmmaker, and saw this 16mm interview with David Lean (who is one of the greats).  After decades, I understand what he means.  And to be given a reward for hanging in there, sticking with the loneliness..."

Hooper filming himself, framed at an architectural corner, The Great Ziegfeld (1936) by Robert Z. Leonard amazingly playing in the background, ending his speech with, "And with great humility," thanking his bestowers.  This blog is dedicated to this man.

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