The Long Wards


Henry James

logo

Published in The Book of the Homeless, edited by Edith Wharton, Macmillan, 1916.

This web edition published by eBooks@Adelaide.

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 21:02.

To the best of our knowledge, the text of this
work is in the “Public Domain” in Australia.
HOWEVER, copyright law varies in other countries, and the work may still be under copyright in the country from which you are accessing this website. It is your responsibility to check the applicable copyright laws in your country before downloading this work.

eBooks@Adelaide
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005

The Long Wards

THERE comes back to me out of the distant past an impression of the citizen soldier at once in his collective grouping and in his impaired, his more or less war-worn state, which was to serve me for long years as the most intimate vision of him that my span of life was likely to disclose. This was a limited affair indeed, I recognise as I try to recover it, but I mention it because I was to find at the end of time that I had kept it in reserve, left it lurking deep down in my sense of things, however shyly and dimly, however confusedly even, as a term of comparison, a glimpse of something by the loss of which I should have been the poorer; such a residuary possession of the spirit, in fine, as only needed darkness to close round it a little from without in order to give forth a vague phosphorescent light. It was early, it must have been very early, in our Civil War; yet not so early but that a large number of those who had answered President Lincoln’s first call for an army had had time to put in their short period (the first term was so short then, as was likewise the first number,) and reappear again in camp, one of those of their small New England state, under what seemed to me at the hour, that of a splendid autumn afternoon, the thickest mantle of heroic history. If I speak of the impression as confused I certainly justify that mark of it by my failure to be clear at this moment as to how much they were in general the worse for wear — since they can’t have been exhibited to me, through their waterside settlement of tents and improvised shanties, in anything like hospital conditions. However, I cherish the rich ambiguity, and have always cherished it, for the sake alone of the general note exhaled, the thing that has most kept remembrance unbroken. I carried away from the place the impression, the one that not only was never to fade, but was to show itself susceptible of extraordinary eventual enrichment. I may not pretend now to refer it to the more particular sources it drew upon at that summer’s end of 1861, or to say why my repatriated warriors were, if not somehow definitely stricken, so largely either lying in apparent helplessness or moving about in confessed languor: it suffices me that I have always thought of them as expressing themselves at almost every point in the minor key, and that this has been the reason of their interest. What I call the note therefore is the characteristic the most of the essence and the most inspiring — inspiring I mean for consideration of the admirable sincerity that we thus catch in the act: the note of the quite abysmal softness, the exemplary genius for accommodation, that forms the alternative aspect, the passive as distinguished from the active, of the fighting man whose business is in the first instance formidably to bristle. This aspect has been produced, I of course recognise, amid the horrors that the German powers had, up to a twelvemonth ago, been for years conspiring to let loose upon the world by such appalling engines and agencies as mankind had never before dreamed of; but just that is the lively interest of the fact unfolded to us now on a scale beside which, and though save indeed for a single restriction, the whole previous illustration of history turns pale. Even if I catch but in a generalising blur that exhibition of the first American levies as a measure of experience had stamped and harrowed them, the signally attaching mark that I refer to is what I most recall; so that if I didn’t fear, for the connection, to appear to compare the slighter things with the so much greater, the diminished shadow with the far-spread substance, I should speak of my small old scrap of truth, miserably small in contrast with the immense evidence even then to have been gathered, but in respect to which latter occasion didn’t come to me, as having contained possibilities of development that I must have languished well-nigh during a lifetime to crown it with.

One had during the long interval not lacked opportunity for a vision of the soldier at peace, moving to and fro with a professional eye on the horizon, but not fished out of the bloody welter and laid down to pant, as we actually see him among the Allies, almost on the very bank and within sound and sight of his deepest element. The effect of many of the elapsing years, the time in England and France and Italy, had indeed been to work his collective presence so closely and familiarly into any human scene pretending to a full illustration of our most generally approved conditions that I confess to having missed him rather distressfully from the picture of things offered me during a series of months spent not long ago in a few American cities after years of disconnection. I can scarce say why I missed him sadly rather than gladly — I might so easily have prefigured one’s delight in his absence; but certain it is that my almost outraged consciousness of our practically doing without him amid American conditions was a revelation of the degree in which his great imaging, his great reminding and enhancing function is rooted in the European basis. I felt his non-existence on the American positively produce a void which nothing else, as a vivifying substitute, hurried forward to fill; this being indeed the case with many of the other voids, the most aching, which left the habituated eye to cast about as for something to nibble in a state of dearth. We never know, I think, how much these wanting elements have to suggest to the pampered mind till we feel it living in view of the community from which they have been simplified away. On these occasions they conspire with the effect of certain other, certain similar expressions, examples of social life proceeding as by the serene, the possibly too serene, process of mere ignorance, to bring to a head for the fond observer the wonder of what is supposed to strike, for the projection of a finished world, the note that they are not there to strike. However, as I quite grant the hypothesis of an observer still fond and yet remarking the lapse of the purple patch of militarism but with a joy unclouded, I limit myself to the merely personal point that the fancy of a particular brooding analyst could so sharply suffer from a vagueness of privation, something like an unseasoned observational diet, and then, rather to his relief, find the mystery cleared up. And the strict relevancy of the bewilderment I glance at, moreover, becomes questionable, further, by reason of my having, with the outbreak of the horrors in which we are actually steeped, caught myself staring at the exhibited militarism of the general British scene not much less ruefully than I could remember to have stared, a little before, at the utter American deficit. Which proves after all that the rigour of the case had begun at a bound to defy the largest luxury of thought; so that the presence of the military in the picture on the mere moderate insular scale struck one as ‘furnishing’ a menaced order but in a pitiful and pathetic degree.

The degree was to alter, however, by swift shades, just as one’s comprehension of the change grew and grew with it; and thus it was that, to cut short the record of our steps and stages, we have left immeasurably behind us here the question of what might or what should have been. That belonged, with whatever beguiled or amused ways of looking at it, to the abyss of our past delusion, a collective state of mind in which it had literally been possible to certain sophists to argue that, so far from not having soldiers enough, we had more than we were likely to know any respectable public call for. It was in the very fewest weeks that we replaced a pettifogging consciousness by the most splendidly liberal, and, having swept through all the first phases of anxiety and suspense, found no small part of our measure of the matter settle down to an almost luxurious study of our multiplied defenders after the fact, as I may call it, or in the light of that acquaintance with them as products supremely tried and tested which I began by speaking of. We were up to our necks in this relation before we could turn round, and what upwards of a year’s experience of it has done in the contributive and enriching way may now well be imagined. I might feel that my marked generalisation, the main hospital impression, steeps the case in too strong or too stupid a synthesis, were it not that to consult my memory, a recollection of countless associative contacts, is to see the emphasis almost absurdly thrown on my quasi-paradox. Just so it is of singular interest for the witnessing mind itself to feel the happy truth stoutly resist any qualifying hint — since I am so struck with the charm, as I can only call it, of the tone and temper of the man of action, the creature appointed to advance and explode and destroy, and elaborately instructed as to how to do these things, reduced to helplessness in the innumerable instances now surrounding us. It doesn’t in the least take the edge from my impression that his sweet reasonableness, representing the opposite end of his wondrous scale, is probably the very oldest story of the touching kind in the world; so far indeed from my claiming the least originality for the appealing appearance as it has lately reached me from so many sides, I find its suggestion of vast communities, communities of patience and placidity, acceptance and submission pushed to the last point, to be just what makes the whole show most illumination.

‘Wonderful that, from east to west, they must all be like this,’ one says to oneself in presence of certain consistencies, certain positive monotonies of aspect; ‘wonderful that if joy of battle (for the classic term, in spite of new horrors, seems clearly still to keep its old sense,) has, to so attested a pitch, animated these forms, the disconnection of spirit should be so prompt and complete, should hand the creature over as by the easiest turn to the last refinements of accommodation. The disconnection of the flesh, of physical function in whatever ravaged area, that may well be measureless; but how interesting, if the futility of such praise doesn’t too much dishonour the subject, the exquisite anomaly of the intimate readjustment of the really more inflamed and exasperated part, or in other words of the imagination, the captured, the haunted vision, to life at its most innocent and most ordered!’ To that point one’s unvarying thought of the matter, which yet, though but a meditation without a conclusion, becomes the very air in which fond attention spends itself. So far as commerce of the acceptable, the tentatively helpful kind goes, one looks for the key to success then, among the victims, exactly on that ground of the apprehension pacified and almost, so to call it, trivialised. The attaching thing becomes thus one’s intercourse with the imagination of the particular patient subject, the individual himself, in the measure in which this interest bears us up and carries us along; which name for the life of his spirit has to cover, by a considerable stretch, all the ground. By the stretch of the name, moreover, I am far from meaning any stretch of the faculty itself — which remains for the most part a considerably contracted or inert force, a force in fact often so undeveloped as to be insusceptible of measurement at all, so that one has to resort, in face of the happy fact that communion still does hold good, to some other descriptive sign for it. That sign, however, fortunately presents itself with inordinate promptitude and fits to its innocent head with the last perfection the cap, in fact the very crown, of an office that we can only appraise as predetermined good nature. We after this fashion score our very highest on behalf of a conclusion, I think, in feeling that whether or no the British warrior’s good nature has much range of fancy, his imagination, whatever there may be of it, is at least so good-natured as to show absolutely everything it touches, everything without exception, even the worst machinations of the enemy, in that colour. Variety and diversity of exhibition, in a world virtually divided as now into hospitals and the preparation of subjects for them, are, I accordingly conceive, to be looked for quite away from the question of physical patience, of the general consent to suffering and mutilation, and, instead of that, in this connection of the sort of mind and thought, the sort of moral attitude, that are born of the sufferer’s other relations; which I like to think of as being different from country to country, from class to class, and as having their fullest national and circumstantial play.

It would be of the essence of these remarks, could I give them within my space all the particular applications naturally awaiting them, that they pretend to refer here to the British private soldier only — generalisation about his officers would take us so considerably further and so much enlarge our view. The high average of the beauty and modesty of these, in the stricken state, causes them to affect me, I frankly confess, as probably the very flower of the human race. One’s apprehension of ‘Tommy’— and I scarce know whether more to dislike the liberty this mode of reference takes with him, or to incline to retain it for the tenderness really latent in it — is in itself a theme for fine notation, but it has brought me thus only to the door of the boundless hospital ward in which, these many months, I have seen the successive and the so strangely quiet tides of his presence ebb and flow, and it stays me there before the incalculable vista. The perspective stretches away, in its mild order, after the fashion of a tunnel boring into the very character of the people, and so going on for ever — never arriving or coming out, that is, at anything in the nature of a station, a junction or a terminus. So it draws off through the infinite of the common personal life, but planted and bordered, all along its passage, with the thick-growing flower of the individual illustration, this sometimes vivid enough and sometimes pathetically pale. The great fact, to my now so informed vision, is that it undiscourageably continues and that an unceasing repetition of its testifying particulars seems never either to exhaust its sense or to satisfy that of the beholder. Its sense, indeed, if I may so far simplify, is pretty well always the same, that of the jolly fatalism above-mentioned, a state of moral hospitality to the practices of fortune, however outrageous, that may at times fairly be felt as providing amusement, providing a new and thereby a refreshing turn of the personal situation, for the most interested party. It is true that one may be sometimes moved to wonder which is the most interested party, the stricken subject in his numbered bed or the friendly, the unsated inquirer who has tried to forearm himself against such a measure of the ‘criticism of life’ as might well be expected to break upon him from the couch in question, and who yet, a thousand occasions for it having been, all round him, inevitably neglected, finds this ingenious provision quite left on his hands. He may well ask himself what he is to do with people who so consistently and so comfortably content themselves with being— being for the most part incuriously and instinctively admirable — that nothing whatever is left of them for reflection as distinguished from their own practice; but the only answer that comes is the reproduction of the note. He may, in the interest of appreciation, try the experiment of lending them some scrap of a complaint or a curse in order that they shall meet him on congruous ground, the ground of encouragement to his own participating impulse. They are imaged, under that possibility, after the manner of those unfortunates, the very poor, the victims of a fire or shipwreck, to whom you have to lend something to wear before they can come to thank you for helping them. The inmates of the long wards, however, have no use for any imputed or derivative sentiments or reasons; they feel in their own way, they feel a great deal, they don’t at all conceal from you that to have seen what they have seen is to have seen things horrible and monstrous — but there is no estimate of them for which they seek to be indebted to you, and nothing they less invite from you than to show them that such visions must have poisoned their world. Their world isn’t in the least poisoned; they have assimilated their experience by a process scarce at all to be distinguished from their having healthily got rid of it.

The case thus becomes for you that they consist wholly of their applied virtue, which is accompanied with no waste of consciousness whatever. The virtue may strike you as having been, and as still being, greater in some examples than in others, but it has throughout the same sign of differing at almost no point from a supreme amiability. How can creatures so amiable, you allow yourself vaguely to wonder, have welcomed even for five minutes the stress of carnage? and how can the stress of carnage, the murderous impulse at the highest pitch, have left so little distortion of the moral nature? It has left none at all that one has at the end of many months been able to discover; so that perhaps the most steadying and refreshing effect of intercourse with these hospital friends is through the almost complete rest from the facing of generalisations to which it treats you. One would even like, perhaps, as a stimulus to talk, more generalisation; but one gets enough of that out in the world, and one doesn’t get there nearly so much of what one gets in this perspective, the particular perfect sufficiency of the extraordinary principle, whatever it is, which makes the practical answer so supersede any question or any argument that it seems fairly to have acted by chronic instinctive anticipation, the habit of freely throwing the personal weight into any obvious opening. The personal weight, in its various forms and degrees, is what lies there with a head on the pillow and whatever wise bandages thereabout or elsewhere, and it becomes interesting in itself, and just in proportion, I think, to its having had all its history after the fact. All its history is that of the particular application which has brought it to the pass at which you find it, and is a stream round about which you have to press a little hard to make it flow clear. Then, in many a case, it does flow, certainly, as clear as one could wish, and with the strain that it is always somehow English history and illustrates afresh the English way of doing things and regarding them, of feeling and naming them. The sketch extracted is apt to be least coloured when the prostrate historian, as I may call him, is an Englishman of the English; it has more point, though not perhaps more essential tone, when he is a Scot of the Scots, and has most when he is an Irishman of the Irish; but there is absolutely no difference, in the light of race and save as by inevitable variation from individual to individual, about the really constant and precious matter, the attested possession on the part of the contributor of a free loose undisciplined quantity of being to contribute.

This is the palpable and ponderable, the admirably appreciable, residuum — as to which if I be asked just how it is that I pluck the flower of amiability from the bramble of an individualism so bristling with accents, I am afraid I can only say that the accents would seem by the mercy of chance to fall together in the very sense that permits us to detach the rose with the fewest scratches. The rose of active good nature, irreducible, incurable, or in other words all irreflective, that is the variety which the individualistic tradition happens, up and down these islands, to wear upon its ample breast — even it may be with considerable effect of monotony. There it is, for what it is, and the very simplest summary of one’s poor bedside practice is perhaps to confess that one has most of all kept one’s nose buried in it. There hangs about the poor practitioner by that fact, I profess, an aroma not doubtless at all mixed or in the least mystical, but so unpervertedly wholesome that what can I pronounce it with any sort of conscience but sweet? That is the rough, unless I rather say the smooth, report of it; which covers of course, I hasten to add, a constant shift of impression within the happy limits. Did I not, by way of introduction to these awaiters of acknowledgment, find myself first of all, early in the autumn, in presence of the first aligned rows of lacerated Belgians? — the eloquence of whose mere mute expression of their state, and thereby of their cause, remains to me a vision unforgettable for ever, and this even though I may not here stretch my scale to make them, Flemings of Flanders though they were, fit into my remarks with the English of the English and the Scotch of the Scotch. If other witnesses might indeed here fit in they would decidedly come nearest, for there were aspects under which one might almost have taken them simply for Britons comparatively starved of sport and, to make up for that, on straighter and homelier terms with their other senses and appetites. But their effect, thanks to their being so seated in everything that their ripe and rounded temperament had done for them, was to make their English entertainers, and their successors in the long wards especially, seem ever so much more complicated — besides making of what had happened to themselves, for that matter, an enormity of outrage beyond all thought and pity. Their fate had cut into their spirit to a peculiar degree through their flesh, as if they had had an unusual thickness of this, so to speak — which up to that time had protected while it now but the more exposed and, collectively, entrapped them; so that the ravaged and plundered domesticity that one felt in them, which was mainly what they had to oppose, made the terms of their exile and their suffering an extension of the possible and the dreadful. But all that vision is a chapter by itself — the essence of which is perhaps that it has been the privilege of this placid and sturdy people to show the world a new shade and measure of the tragic and the horrific. The first wash of the great Flemish tide ebbed at any rate from the hospitals — creating moreover the vast needs that were to be so unprecedentedly met, and the native procession which has prompted these remarks set steadily in. I have played too uncertain a light, I am well aware, not arresting it at half the possible points, yet with one aspect of the case staring out so straight as to form the vivid moral that asks to be drawn. The deepest impression from the sore human stuff with which such observation deals is that of its being strong and sound in an extraordinary degree for the conditions producing it. These conditions represent, one feels at the best, the crude and the waste, the ignored and neglected state; and under the sense of the small care and scant provision that have attended such hearty and happy growths, struggling into life and air with no furtherance to speak of, the question comes pressingly home of what a better economy might, or verily mightn’t, result in. If this abundance all slighted and unencouraged can still comfort us, what wouldn’t it do for us tended and fostered and cultivated? That is my moral, for I believe in Culture — speaking strictly now of the honest and of our own congruous kind.

This web edition published by:

eBooks@Adelaide
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005