In 'The Birthplace' (1903), a tale inspired by the case of a couple who had served as custodians of the Shakespeare house in Stratford, Henry James constructed a marvellously ironic narrative about the 'stupid' avidity of a public who care nothing for the artist's work and everything for his legend, flocking to the shrine to see 'where He hung up His hat and where He kept His boots and where His mother boiled her pot'. Though James's notebooks clearly record the Shakespearean donnée, in the story itself 'the supreme poet' is never named: the celebrated mystery of the man from Stratford provides James with an ideal instance of the gap between the private person and the artist, even as the fictional poet's namelessness intensifies his disappearance into his work. In the words of Morris Gedge, the sensitive caretaker who is the story's protagonist: 'Practically ... there is no author; that is for us to deal with. There are all the immortal people - in the work; but there's nobody else.' Yet the poet's success in covering 'His tracks as no other human being has ever done' does not prevent the public from demanding the 'facts': it only means, finally, that those facts will have to be invented. When Gedge begins to cast doubt on the legend, he almost loses his job; when he brazenly embroiders the 'romance' and piles up the false details ('It is in this old chimney-corner ... just there in the far angle, where His little stool was placed, and where, I dare say, if we could look close enough, we should find the hearthstone scraped with His little feet ...'), the visitors' receipts pour in, and the governing committee doubles his wages. His wife has feared that Gedge may now be 'giving away the Show ... by excess', as before he almost dished them by restraint - but the point, of course, is that no excess can be too much for the vulgar multitude. The only real difference between Gedge's original position as librarian at 'Blackport-on-Dwindle' - 'all granite, fog and female fiction' - and his new one as caretaker at the Birthplace is that he has increased his income by himself becoming a popular romancer.
LRB 7 January 1988 | PDF Download