I can’t, I can’t

Anne Diebel

  • Monopolising the Master: Henry James and the Politics of Modern Literary Scholarship by Michael Anesko
    Stanford, 280 pp, £30.50, March 2012, ISBN 978 0 8047 6932 7

Across the street from where I live in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights there’s an enormous residential tower which in 1932 replaced the Henry James, an apartment house built at the turn of the 20th century and advertised to appeal to ‘refined persons’. When William Dean Howells first told James about the building, James replied that the news ‘at once deeply agitated & wildly uplifted’ him. It was his ‘delirious dream’ that the event would bring his work to the American public’s attention, but he feared that the venture would fail and be rebranded with the name of a more popular writer: ‘best of all as the Edith Wharton!’

In 1902, when he made this prediction, James was hardly lacking in fame. And in the two years that followed he published The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl. After his death in 1916 his reputation rose steadily, buoyed by T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound in the 1920s and later by R.P. Blackmur and Lionel Trilling among other critics, who brought about the ‘James Revival’ which began in the 1940s and is still going strong. James did much in his lifetime to build up a name a developer could use as shorthand for sophistication. The enduring image of James – the aloof aesthete unconcerned with money, devoted to style and horrified by vulgar public curiosity about his life – comes partly from the tireless project of self-presentation he undertook in his last decade: revising and collecting his fiction in the New York Edition, writing pieces of an autobiography, and burning piles of letters in an effort to guide future critics and frustrate future biographers.

In recent decades critics and biographers have uncovered beneath this detached, mandarin persona a more nuanced figure – professionally anxious, socially effervescent, passionately attached to a number of younger admirers. In James’s lifetime, his expatriation, his homoerotic friendships and his woeful health troubled William James and his family, who tried to conceal the details of his private life. The Jameses never quite understood Henry’s deracination, and though they all participated in the same Anglo-American social world, William once described his brother as ‘a native of the James family’ who had ‘no other country’. James exulted in this unfetteredness: shortly after he moved to London, he accepted more than a hundred dinner invitations in a single year. He developed ardent friendships with men and women (but mostly men) and expressed his affection without inhibition, often in physical terms. After the death of his friend Hendrik Andersen’s brother in 1902, James wrote to the young sculptor: ‘The sense that I can’t help you, see you, talk to you, touch you, hold you close & long, or do anything to make you rest on me, & feel my deep participation – this torments me, dearest boy, & makes me ache for you, & for myself.’ There was also the matter of James’s actual bodily pain, a seemingly Old World debility: his back and his bowels were the subjects of countless agonised (and, for the robust William, trying) letters.

Michael Anesko’s archivally heroic and at times scandalmongering book traces the way the legendary Master took hold of the public imagination while stifling the real James. Monopolising the Master opens with James’s own efforts to determine his posthumous reputation but quickly locks focus on the biographer Leon Edel’s alliance with James’s nephew Harry, which allowed Edel to gain control of the James papers. The second half of the book is an entertaining takedown of the unscrupulous Edel, but some of Anesko’s most interesting discoveries concern the James family in the years just before and after Henry’s death, long before Edel came on the scene.

Soon after William’s death in 1910, his wife, Alice, and their children clashed with Henry over his plan to write a family memoir that drew on William’s correspondence. When Henry, with good intentions but uncontrollable editorial impulses, emended his brother’s letters and then lost the originals, Harry told his uncle off. In a pained 28-page apologia, Henry briefly admitted that his nephew was ‘right in being offended’, a concession that Harry parried with an indignant exclamation point in the margin. Harry’s annoyance wouldn’t have mattered that much had he not been in line to inherit Henry’s estate after Alice’s death. When James died in 1916, Alice and Harry made provisional plans to publish his correspondence, but Alice soon reported to James’s friend Edmund Gosse that they were ‘so fully occupied’ with William’s intellectual remains that ‘it would be several years before they were likely to do anything with the letters of Henry.’ Dismayed at the news, Gosse and Edith Wharton schemed to take over the project, not only to speed up publication but also to forestall the family’s caution and vanity. The conflict inaugurated a sixty-year struggle among family, friends and critics for control over James’s – and the Jameses’ – legacy.

The driving anxiety in many battles over literary estates is familial: whether patrimony, as in the case of Stephen Joyce, who terrorised scholars with his capricious restrictions on quotation from his grandfather’s published work until it came out of copyright last year; or the lateral bonds of marriage, which produce similar dramas of insecurity. (Valerie Eliot withheld her husband’s letters for thirty years under the colour of responsible editing, though also to efface his vivid first wife; Olwyn Hughes, appointed executor of Sylvia Plath’s estate by her brother in spite of the two women’s mutual hatred, continued Ted’s work of suppressing information unflattering to him.) There is certainly some conscious irony in the ‘characteristic’ dispassion with which James charged his puritanical Bostonian relatives with the protection of his memory. We tend to think that the people who deserve to assume intellectual inheritances are not necessarily one’s kin but one’s kindred, whoever cares enough about the work to guard it responsibly. James, though, may have taken a certain pleasure in entrusting his relatives per damnationem with his art, given that it was the very thing that had estranged him from them. And knowing that Harry, an accomplished lawyer and historian, would take over from Alice, James honoured the person he decided not to be when he left law school and America altogether. (As if anticipating this transference, James’s 1908 story ‘The Jolly Corner’ portrays a man haunted in his childhood home by his alter ego, the ghost of the man he might have been.)

Edel, whose pact with Harry James afforded him near exclusive access to the James papers for the four decades it took him to complete his five-volume biography, was born in Pittsburgh and raised in Saskatchewan; he studied literature at McGill and then journalism at the Sorbonne. Once in Paris he became, in his own account, ‘a junior hanger-on of the expatriates in Montparnasse’ and decided to write a doctoral thesis on James’s years as a playwright. He contacted Harry James, who happened to think his uncle’s plays unjustly neglected and had for many years sought to secure the copyright to the surviving manuscripts by arranging for their publication. Although Harry was usually dismissive of inquiring scholars, he liked Edel’s professional manner (‘quite unknown; very meticulous’) and granted him permission to quote from James’s dramatic materials, and to compile an edition of the plays. Years later Edel gloated about the moment when, all alone with the vast and virgin James family archive, he copied some papers he wasn’t authorised to consult and ‘discovered’ his ‘vocation as a biographer’ – or, in Anesko’s telling, began his career as a ruthlessly proprietary pseudo-scholar. Not only did he become forbiddingly territorial about the James archive (academics were ‘trespassers’), but his possessiveness was bizarrely personal: the scrawny Jewish journalist came to identify so thoroughly with the hefty Wasp Master that he took to wearing on the same finger the topaz ring James had worn for John Singer Sargent’s 1913 portrait.

Despite this, Edel was willing to play both sides of the scrimmage over the writer’s reputation. In the 1950s, when the prominent collector (and friend of Edel’s) Clifton Waller Barrett won a bidding war over James’s erotic correspondence with Hendrik Andersen and deposited the letters at the University of Virginia, Edel persuaded Barrett that he should have sole access. When the British writer Michael Swan got permission from Andersen’s sister Lucia to see the original letters (the auctioned ones were duplicates) and published excerpts in Harper’s Bazaar without consulting the James estate, Edel took advantage of the minor scandal to reassure the family that he alone would defend their interests against such shameless dilettantism. Some twenty years later, he pitched his editor at Harvard University Press a collection of James’s letters to younger men, declaring that ‘the entire gay world is waiting for these.’ The publisher reminded him that his 22-year-old contract to produce a multi-volume edition of James letters took priority over everything else.

Edel tried at every turn to make money on James’s name. In the 1970s he retired to Honolulu, selling off the trove of Jamesiana he had accumulated (at discounted prices and sometimes, as with the topaz ring, for free) to Barrett, the collector who had bought the Andersen letters. Anesko, with an anti-bourgeois dismay worthy of the James family itself, sees this as an instance of exactly the kind of mercenary dealing Edel was supposed to be protecting the Jameses from. Anesko is more sympathetic to other parties, particularly friends and followers whose self-interested acts he attributes to their affection or admiration for the self-sabotaging James. In her covert efforts to manage James’s career, Edith Wharton went so far as to fund an advance James mysteriously received from Scribner’s just after the stunning failure of the New York Edition. Percy Lubbock so believed in James’s gallant abstention from prosaic realities that when he accepted Alice and Harry’s offer to edit James’s letters he gladly followed their instruction to exclude anything tainted with the crudity of the everyday (as well as any non-American correspondents). Other friends, including Gosse and A.C. Benson, eulogised James with tender anecdotes demonstrating their intimate access to his private life: Gosse tells of calling on James the morning after the disastrous premiere of Guy Domville and finding him, contrary to public expectation, perfectly calm.

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James himself favoured partial portraits; he argued in a review of a biography of George Eliot that a biographer need not reveal every personal detail in order to convey ‘characteristic or essential’ truths about a writer. Edel, by contrast, aspired to provide a comprehensive account of James’s restive mind and turbulent career, and used a Freudian approach to solve the mysteries of his inner life, giving, in his first volume, a lengthy reading of a ‘dream-adventure’ set in the Louvre that James relates in A Small Boy and Others. Apparently discarding his own disclaimer (‘there is no question of seeking to interpret Henry James’s nightmare’; to do so would be ‘gratuitous speculation’), Edel reaches a surprisingly precise conclusion: ‘The nightmare appears to reflect – and here we are speculating – the fears and terrors of a “mere junior” threatened by elders and largely by his older brother.’ But conspicuously absent from such psychological analysis is any sustained attention to difficult (and, arguably, ‘characteristic and essential’) aspects of James’s daily existence: his financial insecurity and his unconsummated homosexuality. In the opening manifesto of Writing Lives (1984), Edel makes an assertion that helps to justify his omissions: a ‘subject’s inwardness can be re-created’, he writes, only ‘if sufficient self-communion has been bequeathed in diaries, letters, meditations, dreams’. This standard is not only at odds with his Freudianism but is also nearly impossible to apply to James, whose reticence on matters of desire can be summed up in his alleged response to a proposition from Hugh Walpole: ‘Si vieillesse pouvait’, or in another retelling: ‘I can’t, I can’t.’ In a 1985 interview, Edel offered the plainer explanation that he was always ‘very careful not to offend the Jameses’ or ‘to give them too much mental anguish’. (He added with alarm: ‘Biography will probably move closer to pornography.’) More recent books by Sheldon Novick (1996, 2007) and Fred Kaplan (1992) have served as correctives to Edel’s genteel evasion.

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A valiant attempt to commemorate James as he wanted to be remembered – for his work – was made by Theodora Bosanquet, his bright, loyal secretary from 1907 until his death. As the typist of his late novels and later ‘Napoleonic’ dictations, Bosanquet (whom Lubbock called ‘Little B.’) had daily access to James’s home life and writing process. In 1917 she wrote a well-received essay of homage and critical reflection that included biographical details, mostly in the service of better understanding (and praising) James’s method. But her interest in James turned eccentric: she began calling herself the deceased writer’s ‘mouthpiece’ and, in line with her interest in parapsychology and automatic writing, claimed that he communicated with her still. (She dutifully recorded his posthumous dictations.) Alice and Harry considered Little B.’s emotional attachment to James uncouth and excluded her from all decisions about the writing she knew so well, out of fear that she would put her confidence with her former employer to inappropriate use.

It would be hard to reconcile the Jameses’ cruel dismissal of the high-minded (but slightly nutty) Little B. with their unreflective embrace of the secret-seeking Edel if it weren’t clear how easily the family’s susceptibility to paranoia and flattery could cloud their understanding of their rights and responsibilities as executors. James’s heirs were above all afraid: an unexpurgated airing would reveal his increasing poverty (the subject of Anesko’s groundbreaking earlier book Friction with the Market: Henry James and the Profession of Authorship, 1986), his deteriorating health, his social promiscuity and other aspects of his life that made him, like his crackpot philosopher father before him, something of a liability to the proud family, which was evidently desperate to preserve a patrician aura. The idea that such opportunists as the destitute Andersen, who had hoped to publish his James correspondence in an illustrated volume, could make money by exposing Uncle Henry greatly distressed Harry and his equally circumspect brother Billy. They shared Andersen’s assessment that the letters were ‘entirely different in sentiment than those already published’, and quietly declined the sculptor’s request. Edel exploited their obsessive reticence and fear of exploitation by assuring Harry and his successors at every turn that he was uniquely qualified to put James’s letters in their proper context. ‘I alone have read thousands,’ he wrote to Billy, justifying his stern advice to refuse publication by anyone lacking the ‘proper perspective’. Of course, Edel ‘alone’ had combed through so much material because he got lucky early in his career by winning over James’s cagey custodians, not because he was the most adept or industrious scholar around. In the 1940s, the Harvard professor and literary critic F.O. Matthiessen set an astonishing example by producing five James books in three years, shortly before committing suicide.

Edel’s success depended on the division between the New England provincials who held James up as a familial and national treasure whose literary achievement redeemed his permanent European pilgrimage, and the ever encroaching rootless aesthetes – Wharton and her circle – who wanted to claim and celebrate him as an unapologetically un-American queer. These forces clashed over Lubbock’s candidacy for the job of editing James’s letters. Determined to prevent James’s relatives from ruining the author’s potential glory, Gosse and Wharton campaigned for Lubbock (keeping his homosexuality secret, of course) and privately called on other friends to do the same, but Wharton began to suspect that Harry loathed her ‘simply for the cosmopolitan & bejewelled immorality of which he regards me as a brilliant & baleful example’. Harry finally did make Lubbock an offer, with no inkling of what his new hire called the ‘farce’ of a conspiracy that landed him the job; and Lubbock ultimately deferred to the Jameses’ principles of exclusion. Although Anesko suggests that the editor’s closetedness equipped him to conceal his subject’s secrets, it seems that Lubbock may simply have preferred the magisterial image that the family enlisted him to bolster. (Anesko pieces together a series of lavender marriages that brought Lubbock, who married the wealthy Sybil Cutting for cover, into perilous social proximity to Harry, whose own wife, Olivia Cutting, sister-in-law to Sybil, turned out to be ‘a fully-fledged lesbian’.)

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Edel’s campaign to persuade those in power to recognise his singular authority constituted its own kind of farce: a toxic combination of pettiness and dilatoriness that made him seem a version of the ‘publishing scoundrel’ in ‘The Aspern Papers’. In acting as an intermediary between James’s heirs and the scholars, publishers and other outsiders who wanted a piece of his legacy, all the while taking nearly half a century to produce the books that would demonstrate his incomparable expertise, Edel deepened the Jameses’ insularity and defensiveness. The family gradually cooled to Edel, until in 1973 William’s great-grandson Alexander lifted the encumbrances that had prevented many eager scholars from enriching the enervated image of James that his most fidgety guardians had created. (Anesko suggests that students mark 4 May, the day Edel’s monopoly ended, as a holiday on their calendars.)

Anesko’s apparent shock at the biographer’s self-interest is overwrought. He notes Edel’s resemblance to Harry James (‘the indefatigable litigator, hardheaded businessman and jealous guardian of family privilege’), but otherwise portrays him as a uniquely ruthless villain who thwarted worthy attempts at uncovering information about James’s life and career. His chronicle of Edel’s undeserved victories makes for an exciting, gossipy story, but in showing just how many people Edel had to compete against, Anesko reveals, indirectly, how open for contestation (and legitimately so) James’s legacy was. Anesko’s most strident complaint is that Edel barred the people who cared – friends and students of James alike – from exercising their right to access to the entire output of James’s life. Yet despite the injustice, or at least the obnoxiousness, of his monopoly, Edel’s selective, sanitised representation of James, to say nothing of his procrustean Freudianism, is the very thing that has recruited recent scholars to the campaign of reconstructing James. And although Anesko promotes an ideal of archival openness, the availability of primary sources – all of James’s existing letters are currently being published in some twenty volumes by the University of Nebraska Press – hasn’t definitively answered the questions that the family, with Edel’s help, tried to hush. Anesko seems to share with Harry James and Edel the impulse to protect James at the cost of accurately portraying him: even as he reveals James’s own manipulations of his public image, he explains them away as the product of endearing anxiety rather than the vanity and greed he imputes to Edel and other exploiters of the Master’s glory.