Henry James wrote the novella The Beast in the Jungle in 1903. First published as part of a collection called The Better Sort, The Beast in the Jungle came to be considered one of his best works. In the preface to this edition, Clifton Fadiman agrees and expands on why: “For me this is the best of James’s shorter fictions, combining the utmost concentration of effect with the utmost inclusiveness of meaning.”
The ‘Beast in the Jungle’ refers to an unknown future life-defining event that the protagonist (John Marcher) is convinced fate has in store for him.
Something or another lay in wait for him, amid the twists and turns of the months and years, like a crouching beast in the jungle.
The ennui of daily existence simply cannot be what is meant to be; there must be something, someday that will happen to provide meaning to life. Yet, time marches as time does, and Marcher grows old having never experienced life since he sat back expecting an eventful and meaningful life to come to him rather than proactively seeking life by experience. I was struck by the truthfulness of James’s take on the passage of time and growing old:
She looked older because inevitably, after so many years, she was old, or almost; which was of course true in still greater measure of her companion. If she was old, or almost, John Marcher assuredly was, and yet it was her showing of the lesson, not his own, that brought the truth home to him.
Loneliness pervades Marcher. Fate ultimately disappoints by not providing him knowledge of his great mistake of avoiding love and life until too late, while death, the greatest of all events in life, the one fate that cannot be avoided, waits its turn. One can feel the emptiness, meaninglessness and failure of a life wasted:
No passion had ever touched him, for this is what passion meant; he had survived and maundered and pined, but where had been his deep ravage?…He had seen outside of his life, not learned it within…what he presently stood there gazing at was the sound voided of his life.
In fact, James goes on to say:
It wouldn’t have been failure to be bankrupt, dishonored, pilloried, hanged; it was failure not to be anything.
How many people in history have come and gone waiting for life to happen to them as opposed to making life happen for them?
Readers of Books and Vines know that the Allen Press is one of my favorite American presses of the twentieth century. I have and adore nearly all of their works. The Beast in the Jungle was published by them in 1963, in the midst of their their most impressive and creative decade of fine press work. As a production, this edition is appropriate to that high level of accomplishment. Yet, it is not one of my favorites, mostly because I struggle with the illustrations from Blair Hughes-Stanton, one whose work I normally admire. The Allens say of the illustrations:
The sixteen illustrations printed directly from the wood in two colors are remarkable for their unique style and their subtle allegorical interpretation of the emotional problems confronting the main characters.
The subtlety largely eludes me!
I normally love the use of color that the Allens always placed into their work. Here, however, I think it overboard with the text printed in green, purple, blue-red, green-blue, moss-green, blue and black-brown in succession with the running page titles printed in contrasting colors. I do, however, appreciate their intent and willingness to experiment, as discussed in their Bibliography:
Because this is a psychological novel, and because we had recently pursued J.H. Bustanoby’s ‘Psychology of Color’, we decided to print each of the seven chapters in a color reflecting the emotional theme of that section. In a way it is a tour de force, but we thought it would be an interesting variation in books design; and a private press is in a position to experiment.
About the story itself, I will go ahead and say it….Thankfully it is short as it is dour, dark, frustrating and really down on life. I get that such is largely the point, but are things really that bad? I am sure a hefty does of good serious Bordeaux may have increased my reading pressure, but I read this scott-free of any such exuberance enhancer.
In any case, there is a lot to like. It is a great novella that one should read, as it is thought-provoking. The handmade all-rag Arches paper has a fantastic tactile look and feel as always. The handset Romanée is eminently readable, even in the mix of colors it is presented in. As always, the Allens printed on damp paper which I believe, like they did, provides the best results from the handpress. The book is nicely hand-bound in handmade Italian paper.
A near fine or better copy will typically cost between $500 and $900.
About the Edition
- Designed, Printed and Bound in handmade Italian paper by Lewis and Dorothy Allen
- Preface by Clifton Fadiman
- 16 Engravings by Blair Hughes-Stanton
- The typeface is Romanée, handset
- Text is printed in green, purple, blue-red, green-blue, moss-green. blue and black-brown in succession with the running page titles printed in contrasting colors
- Paper is all-rag Arches from France
- Printed damp on an 1830 Acorn-Smith Handpress
- 15″ x 10″
- Limited to 130 copies
Pictures of the Edition
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