Sunday, May 8, 2016

Or Wherever, Or Whatever

Such as expressions as "or whatever" and "or wherever" have seemed to me teen-speak, something to nagged out of one's own offspring, and suffered politely among the children of others. I was surprised to encounter them in Henry James, but there they were in A Small Boy & Others:

  • "his foreign institution flourishing, as I seem to remember, in West Tenth Street or wherever" (Chapter XIV)
  • "over which towered Kiss's mounted Amazon attacked by a leopard or whatever" (Chapter XII)
I wonder whether James would have used these expression in the days when he wrote rather than dictated. The work does seem to me to show the marks of dictation. Every two or three pages there is something that I can't parse as a sentence, however I look at it. I have no reason to suppose the text is worse than it could be--if one can't trust Princeton University Press as publisher and Frederick W. Dupee as editor, whom can one trust? Yet I'm fairly sure that the word "ideal" as applied to a tutor of Boulogne days should be "ordeal" (Chapter XXIX).

I was also interested to encounter in Chapter V the expression "I seem to feel". In a letter of April 1949 to Nancy Mitford, Evelyn Waugh mocked Eddie Sackville-West for using just that phrase, "Surely the height of diffidence." I suppose, though, that Sackville-West was speaking of some more or less immediate perception; James wrote of memories of a time sixty years gone.

I am considering whether to take a break before continuing on with Notes of a Son and Brother.. Perhaps some German philosophy,  for shorter and less involved sentences?


  1. I love Henry James but somewhere I read or someone in my childhood commented - and it stuck with me ever after - that he wrote as if he were wrestling with a dead language. I love the fine shading of the phrase "I seem to feel", but Waugh is usually right, I suppose - certainly always ready to criticise. It was probably him who made the wrestling comment, now I come to think of it.

    1. I have heard many quips about James's style, but never that I remember one about wrestling with a dead language. His earlier work does not require the same effort to work out the sentences.