A Letter from the Jolly Corner

Etching by Peter Milton, in The Jolly Corner, Aquarius Press, 1971.

Henry James’s final ghost story features a very important—but pointedly lost and irretrievable—epistolary text. James’s expatriate protagonist, Spencer Brydon, is dogged in his pursuit of a projected, All-American Doppelgänger, and haunted by the memory of an unopened letter. This letter is mentioned only once in the story, but its significance for the protagonist, as it fills his obsessive conjectures, is remarkable: 

the worry of it, the small rage of curiosity never to be satisfied, brings back what I remember to have felt, once or twice, after judging best, for reasons, to burn some important letter unopened. I’ve been sorry, I’ve hated it—I’ve never known what was in the letter (Complete Stories, Library of America, 1996, vol. V: 706). 

At the level of Spencer’s psychology, the burned letter may be understood as a parallel to his double, a figure of the unknown and the what-could-have-been, shrouding the character’s mind in his obsession with an impossible form of past futurity. At the level of literary form, the cloud of fire and smoke surrounding the letter, its undisclosed emissary, its lost contents, and Spencer’s unconfessed “reasons” to destroy it, turn it into the symbol of an epistemic gap that is central to the Jamesian ghostly. 

In a process of gradual unveiling that ultimately resists our conventions regarding narrative closure, the action of “The Jolly Corner” fundamentally consists of a quest for knowledge of something hidden. Spencer is literally in search of his inexistent self: an irresistibly mysterious figure that, soon after his return from Europe, he speculates may be conjured up from the latent memories and projections brooding in the rooms and surfaces of his cherished, and now significantly empty, childhood home in New York. After a prolonged game of hide and seek, Spencer at last encounters the object of his tireless search, but what he finds is violently different from what he expected:

The face, that face, Spencer Brydon’s?—he searched it still, but looking away from it in dismay and denial, falling straight from his height of sublimity. It was unknown, inconceivable, awful, disconnected from any possibility!—He had been “sold,” he inwardly moaned, stalking such game as this: the presence before him was a presence, the horror within him a horror, but the waste of his nights had been only grotesque and the success of his adventure an irony. Such an identity fitted his at no point, made its alternative monstrous. A thousand times yes, as it came upon him nearer now, the face was the face of a stranger. (725)

The way Spencer’s double, defying his deepest hopes, escapes elucidation—“It was unknown, inconceivable, awful, disconnected from any possibility!”—is after all not far removed from the hero’s own initial statement, in which he admits to be irremediably shut upon himself:

“Everyone asks me what I ‘think’ of everything,” said Spencer Brydon; “and I make answer as I can—begging or dodging the question, putting them off with any nonsense. It wouldn’t matter to any of them really,” he went on, “for, even were it possible to meet in that stand-and-deliver way so silly a demand on so big a subject, my ‘thoughts’ would still be almost altogether about something that concerns only myself.” (697)

Therefore, the inner Spencer, the one who inhabits the dark chambers of thought, desire, and infinite possibility, remains to the end disjointed—“Such an identity fitted his at no point”—strange, and ungraspable, even to, and in spite of, himself. This complete lack of identification between Spencer and his alternative self may be evidence of the futility of his quest (as he initially believes), or it may be exactly the “point” of it, as is finally suggested by Alice Staverton—Spencer’s only friend in America and his hypothetical lover—, when she lucidly asks him: “‘Isn’t the whole point that you’d have been different?’” (730). 

In any case, Spencer’s hope of clarification as to the shape of his life not-lived seems to have been erased or moved back into the dark chamber from where it never really left, pointing to a state of things that had earlier been inferred by Spencer in a moment of adumbration:

He found all things come back to the question of what he personally might have been, how he might have led his life and “turned out,” if he had not so, at the outset, given it up. (…) “What would it have made of me, what would it have made of me? I keep forever wondering, all idiotically; as if I could possibly know! I see what it has made of dozens of others, those I meet, and it positively aches within me, to the point of exasperation, that it would have made something of me as well. Only I can’t make out what, and the worry of it, the small rage of curiosity never to be satisfied, brings back what I remember to have felt, once or twice, after judging best, for reasons, to burn some important letter unopened. I’ve been sorry, I’ve hated it—I’ve never known what was in the letter. (706)

With this turn, the narrator invites us to see the burned letter as an adequate simile, conceived by Spencer, of his own frustrated meditation. On a deeper level of repressed signification, it is a central figure, if not the central figure of the story: its dark kernel. Just as Spencer figures as a detective of unreadable texts, his shadowy double becomes associated with forfeited experience and lost epistemology. In “The Jolly Corner,” the double is an epistemic element; not “real,” as creatures of fantasy become real in that genre, but “real” as an apparition of the hero’s consciousness. James makes the double an allegorical image of the story itself, wherein fictionality is rendered visible.

If Spencer’s double literalizes the metaphorical dimension of narrative and literary language, Spencer himself is inextricable from the aesthetic theory implicit in “The Jolly Corner.” From the moment Spencer sets foot on the American scene, and well before he meets his sought-after apparition, he is a figure of duplicity. As both investigator and object of the unknown, the reader now understands Spencer’s self-inventory as an unreadable text.

Ultimately, Spencer’s dubious constitution, partly materialized in his role as an interpreter and partly expressed in his role as an object of interpretation, is bound to remind the reader of their own peering over the ghostly threshold of the story. They can only take an inquisitive look at the unfathomable depths of its protagonist, and, perhaps like Alice—picking up the scarce but cogent enough clues—envision with Spencer, not a clear image, but the spoils of a story and the shape of its hero’s own disfiguration.


Summary in Portuguese

A última história de fantasmas de Henry James contém um texto epistolar importante, mas enfaticamente perdido e irrecuperável. O expatriado que protagoniza a história, Spencer Brydon, está determinado na busca pela projecção do seu Doppelgänger essencialmente americano, assim como é assombrado pela memória de uma carta queimada antes de aberta. Esta carta é mencionada uma única vez ao longo da história, mas a sua relevância para o protagonista, na medida em que preenche as suas obsessivas conjecturas, é notória. Ao nível da psicologia de Spencer, a carta queimada pode ser entendida como um paralelo do seu duplo, uma figura do desconhecido e do que poderia ter sido, encobrindo a mente da personagem na sua obsessão com uma forma impossível de futuridade pretérita. Ao nível da forma literária, a nuvem de fogo e fumo que envolve a carta, o seu emissário não identificado, o seu conteúdo perdido, e as “razões” de Spencer para a destruir, inconfessas, transformam-na no símbolo de uma lacuna epistémica que é central na concepção Jamesiana do fantasmagórico.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.