Disillusionment and Success
Most aspiring writers dream of achieving fame, fortune, and social advancement if they can only manage to attain recognition with their work. The middle-aged George Dane, who is pretty obviously Henry James's alter-ego, has achieved international recognition and can afford to live in a big flat with a manservant and undoubtedly a maid to do all the housework. But instead of being happy he is disenchanted and exhausted. He can't call his soul his own. Evidently he didn't realize that literary success would impose such demands on his time and mental energy that he would no longer be able to do the creative work that had brought him such recognition in the first place. He keeps receiving letters which he feels obliged to answer. He is invited everywhere, and he either has to go or else think of polite excuses for not going. Some invitations he simply cannot turn down, because they come from men and women with titles. In England it is customary for wealthy people who have big houses in the country to invite guests to come for the entire weekend. A man like Dane, who is evidently an introvert, must find it wearisome to have to meet and mingle with a bunch of strangers and try to find subject matter to talk about. James describes one such weekend in the opening scenes of his story "The Beast in the Jungle."
Henry James makes the experience of being a successful writer seem unpleasant. It is almost as if Dane had sold his soul to the devil. He tells his manservant Brown:
"Look about you and judge. Could anything be more 'right,' in the view of the envious world, than everything that surrounds us here; that immense array of letters, notes, circulars, that pile of printers' proofs, magazines and books, these perpetual telegrams, these impending guests, that retarded, unfinished and interminable work? What could a man want more?"
Most of us can identify with George Dane without being famous authors. We know what it is like to have so many petty things to do that we can't call our souls our own. Dane complains to himself about the terrible complexity of the "modern" world, but he was writing in the late nineteenth century, in the days of horses and carriages. Our own modern world is infinitely more complex and stressful.
Dane toys with the idea of ignoring everything and even running away, but:
Then he knew again as well as ever that leaving was difficult, leaving impossible--that the only remedy, the true, soft, effacing sponge, would be to be left, to be forgotten.
Eventually he changes places with a young aspiring writer who is delighted to take over all the correspondence and other onerous duties of a successful writer, while Dane vanishes into a dream world which he calls "the Great Good Place." There he finally manages to recover his own soul and feels capable of creative writing again. James tells us pretty plainly that the true goal of the creative writer is not fame and fortune but the pleasure and satisfaction in the magic and wonder of creativity itself. Nobody can really help the creative artist but can only hinder him; and hardly anybody really appreciates his work after it is done.