The Henry James Show

Ruth Bernard Yeazell

  • Henry James: A Life by Leon Edel
    Collins, 740 pp, £25.00, July 1987, ISBN 0 00 217870 2
  • The Complete Notebooks of Henry James edited by Leon Edel and Lyall Powers
    Oxford, 662 pp, £25.00, March 1987, ISBN 0 19 503782 0

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.

Behind ‘The Birthplace’ lie James’s failed theatrical ventures of the previous decade as well as his own lifelong rivalry with best-selling women: like the ‘female fiction’ that seemed to crowd out the Master’s narratives, ‘the Show’, as the tale repeatedly calls the guided tours of the Birthplace, threatens to supplant the works of the master dramatist. Though Gedge ends by cultivating romantic lies about the poet’s life, the immediate targets of James’s satire are his unappreciative public and his more popular rivals, not his future biographers. But in the context of Leon Edel’s longstanding defence of the biographer’s art, his reading of the story as one in which ‘the creative imagination triumphs over the mundane’ and ‘the keeper of the shrine pays his tribute to art by being imaginative himself’ is nonetheless disconcerting. For while Gedge does discover in himself a certain ‘genius’ for invention, James makes clear that the caretaker’s art is a vulgar one – and that poor Gedge can only bring himself to spin his tales after he has ‘strangled’ his ‘critical sense’.

The author of ‘The Birthplace’ – or, still more obviously perhaps, of The Aspern Papers – is not an easy subject for a biographer. ‘Wherever he turns,’ Edel himself good-naturedly complained some thirty years ago, the would-be historian of James’s life ‘stumbles upon an ironic mockery, a kind of subterranean laughter – at the biographer!’ Though the novelist did not succeed in covering his tracks as thoroughly as Shakespeare, he did manage to burn a vast collection of papers and to convey to his nephew and literary executor his wish ‘to frustrate as utterly as possible the post-mortem exploiter’ by leaving in his will ‘a curse not less explicit than Shakespeare’s own on any such as try to move my bones’. But for all James’s deliberate reticence and evasions, the difficulty as Edel has characterised it is more a function of documentary plenitude than of scarcity. In the introduction to Henry James: The Untried Years (1953), the first of what was to become a five-volume history, Edel announced that he had been compelled to disregard Boswell’s advice that the biographer should let his subject speak for himself rather than ‘melt down’ the materials. Figuratively, at least, Edel saw ‘the contemporary biographer’ as engaged in a life-and-death struggle – ‘forced, by the mere dead weight of paper, by the mountains of letters and journals and newspapers, to melt his materials or be smothered by them’. By the time the second volume was published in 1962, the reader, too, was potentially imperilled: ‘My task,’ Edel wrote, ‘has been one of arriving at significant detail and essence, lest I bury the reader under the epistolary documents.’ The last of the original instalments, The Master, was published in 1972. Five years later, there appeared in Britain a two-volume ‘definitive’ edition of the entire work. The current version, a one-volume abridgment and slight revision of the latter, represents a still further ‘melting down’ of the materials.

Of course the written record is vast, and interpretative summary is both necessary and inevitable. What most resists ‘melting down’, however, is not the sheer mass of the evidence, but the antithetical pull of James’s own imagination: his constant impulse, apparent everywhere in the notebooks, to rework and refine his materials, to transform even the slightest and crudest lump of matter for a story by subjecting it to the play of a psychologically subtle and ironic mind. This is not to urge that reverence for the Master replace a healthily suspicious criticism – only that if James ‘was too afraid to be banal’, as he scolded himself in a notebook entry for The Spoils of Poynton, the ideal biographer should be able to question the sources of that fear without surrendering to banality in turn. Edel has often written as if the biographer must choose between a tedious documentary record and a more freely interpretative (and, in literary terms, more rewarding) narrative; and he has prided himself on his willingness to ‘borrow’ some of the techniques of fiction, especially, as he argued in his Literary Biography (1957), the modern novelist’s refusal to be ‘fettered by the clock and the calendar’. Indeed, one of the many strengths of Henry James: A Life, as of its predecessors, is its willingness to risk a story – the compression of the reduced version only intensifying the pace and readability of the narrative. In all its versions, Edel’s work has been immensely successful at refuting the assumption that James was too detached and cerebral a figure to make for an absorbing biography. What is troubling about the project is not the story-telling impulse as such, but the tendentious and reductive story that the Life often tells – and the obscuring of the evidence that might make alternative narratives possible.

The new version brings the outlines of the plot into sharper focus; and the distance of more than three decades since the work originally began to appear helps us to see how much Edel’s account of James’s emotional life conforms to certain popular psychological assumptions of post-war America. Edel’s portrait of Mary James – the strong mother who inspires in her favourite son a lifelong fear of women and of passion – more closely resembles the overbearing Mom whose supposedly pernicious influence was so much debated in the 1950s than it does the rather contradictory and elusive record. One need not believe that she was really the ‘angel’ of her son’s memorialising – or doubt that she had her own kinds of strength – to find Edel’s account of her unconvincing. Given his relentless claim that the psychic configurations of the James family inspired in the novelist an unconscious belief that ‘to be led to the marriage bed was to be dead,’ it is noteworthy that Edel persistently misreads ‘The Lesson of the Master’ (1888), as if James’s famous tale really did enforce the moral it ironically questions – that the writer must choose between passion and art. This is indeed the premise which James records in his notebook, but by the time the tale was finished it had been subjected to a series of witty and disquieting reversals. The Master, Henry St George, has apparently sacrificed his literary genius to an enviable marriage and worldly success. Having been persuaded by St George that his is an example to be avoided, a promising younger writer decides to give up the girl he loves – only to discover that the Master has become engaged to marry her himself after the death of his first wife. The final lines of the tale even raise the possibility that this second happy marriage might rejuvenate the Master’s art. It is hard to believe that Constance Fenimore Woolson, the American novelist Edel contends was secretly in love with James, ‘would know exactly where this most eligible bachelor of literary London stood on the subject of marriage’ after reading this tale.

The other psychological theme of the Life – the novelist’s rivalry with his older brother, William – comes closer, in one sense, to James’s own account of his history. While Edel reads Henry’s idealising tributes to his mother suspiciously, he apparently sees no reason to question the novelist’s retrospective picture of his fraternal ‘abasement’: if James recalls in his Notes of a Son and Brother (1914) that as an adolescent he wished to live ‘by the imagination, in William’s so adaptive skin’, the comment ‘expresses clearly what he has always wanted to be – his elder brother’. Though Edel is quick to register the note of ironic deference in James’s letters to inferior novelists and other acquaintances, he is convinced that the memorial tributes to the recently dead brother are ‘filled’ with ‘self-pity’. That the second son’s feelings for his older sibling included a measure of competitive aggression seems probable enough, though Edel so insistently drives home the point, and so exaggerates its determining force, that one is tempted to discount it altogether. His zealous accounting of each headache and backache to which the brothers succumbed in one another’s presence tends to obscure the fact that even when they were on separate continents their letters repeatedly chronicle similar symptoms; illness does seem to have served the Jameses as a kind of language, but one more subtly inflected than Edel allows. And when virtually every instance of conflict in the fiction turns into a case of sibling rivalry – when even Dr Sloper, the tyrannical father of Washington Square (1881), ‘would appear to be still another of James’s fictional re-creations of his brother’, the explanatory power of the thesis is rapidly exhausted. (Henry Sr’s supposed feminising in relation to the strong-willed Mary James presumably disqualifies him for the fatherly role.)

In his preface to the new Life, Edel speaks of having ‘discard[ed] certain former reticences’ while revising the text, in view of what he calls ‘the more unbuttoned ways of our age’. The practical effect of these revisions is that the sibling rivals of the 1950s have been updated for the 1980s by a touch of incestuous and homo-erotic feeling. Writing in the New Republic in 1979, Richard Hall faulted the five-volume biography for manifesting ‘a peculiar timidity at the centre of the work’. What was missing from Edel’s account, according to Hall, was not so much James’s ‘homo-erotic bent’ – Edel had, after all, speculated in the final volume on the novelist’s feelings for young men like Jocelyn Persse and Hendrik Andersen – but ‘a living spark, an emotional presence’. ‘One feels afterward that one still doesn’t know James,’ Hall complained, and he set out to remedy this lack by arguing that ‘the peculiar void at the centre of Henry James’s personality’ was to be explained by ‘a lifetime of sexual anxiety engendered by incestuous feelings of love on the part of Henry toward his handsome, vital and extroverted brother’. Hall admittedly brought forward no new evidence in support of this claim: his essay did little more than summarise Edel’s argument and repackage it under a new label, though there was much suggestion of bravely venturing on ‘tabooed’ ground and of daring to look into ‘the very abyss’ of James’s emotional life. No one likes to be charged with shrinking from the abyss, however, and Edel has now risen to the challenge by duly incorporating fragments of Hall’s thesis into his own, together with some further speculations on the subject by Howard Feinstein in his Becoming William James (1984). Edel has always read James’s early story, ‘A Light Man’ (1869), as a record of fraternal rivalry, but now it is also said to bring us ‘into the deeper realm of the homo-erotic feeling that Henry must have had for his brother William and which William sensed and feared’. The unscrupulous narrator of the story competes with another young man for the favour of a rich old widower, an action that Edel previously described as playing on the old man’s ‘erratic affections’, but which in the new Life he has liberated with the alteration of a single vowel: ‘He plays on the old man’s erratic – and erotic – affections.’

The question is not whether ‘A Light Man’ can be read as representing a homo-erotic triangle, as Feinstein suggested, but what such a reading is further taken to mean. Apart from a single sentence some hundred and fifty pages later in which Edel declares that ‘what William could not have understood was that Henry’s libidinal “investment” in himself as elder brother probably precluded identification with the gay world,’ his thesis about the brothers remains unchanged, though he also briefly applies to their relationship Feinstein’s language about ‘twinship’ and the need for ‘individuation’. A good argument could be made for calling all same-sex affection ‘homo-erotic’, because to do so would acknowledge the continuum of sexual feelings in most people, and put into question the rigid notion of a distinctive ‘homosexual’ identity. And in this sense, of course, all fraternal affection, including that of the Jameses, is ‘homo-erotic.’ But Edel’s glib re-labelling of the brothers’ relation amounts to little more than a form of genteel titillation – a way of vaguely suggesting Everything, as the novelist would say, while in fact claiming nothing. As for Hall’s stronger version of the thesis – that Henry’s desire for William prevented him from loving anyone else – the only evidence on which it rests is Edel’s already exaggerated claims for the emotional power of the brothers’ relation. It should be possible to speculate about the complex patterns of James’s erotic identifications and avoidances – as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has brilliantly done with ‘The Beast in the Jungle’, for example – without assuming that the Figure in the Carpet must always turn out to be William.

Though the preface to Henry James: A Life proclaims that ‘this volume stands quite free of its predecessors,’ that freedom unfortunately does not extend to its documentation of sources, which, as the back of the book reveals, is largely ‘confined to the new material and to the revised or rewritten sections’. ‘Researchers’ are directed to consult the annotations in the five-volume edition. But anyone who tries to make serious use of these notes is likely to find the experience frustrating: keyed only to chapter titles, printed in continuous blocks, and marked by numerous gaps and elisions, they often make it very difficult to track down the origin of a quoted phrase or to know on what evidence a particular conclusion has been based. In view of the many years in which Edel held exclusive rights to the James family papers, such presentation of his material seems especially grudging.

The new ‘authoritative and definitive’ edition of The Complete Notebooks of Henry James, on the other hand, would appear at first glance to be a text chiefly designed for scholars, since it is hard to imagine a wide readership for the novelist’s surviving cash accounts, for example – or his address lists. Indeed, much of the material with which the current editors have supplemented F.O. Matthiessen and Kenneth Murdock’s 1947 edition of the notebooks does not really lend itself to what most people ordinarily think of as ‘reading’:

29 May 1913 Wednesday

   Sargent 11.

   Mrs. Sutro: 3.30 (?)

   [HJ had written ‘Ranee, 5 Hyde park Mansions 8’ but crosses this out.]

   C. Wheeler comes.

30 May 1913 Friday

   Gosse’s Lecture 5

   [HJ erased the words ‘Queen’s Acre p.m.’]

Nor do all the entries in the so-called ‘Pocket Diaries’ of 1909-15 catch the attention with such names as Sargent and Gosse. (James was then sitting for the Sargent painting that now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.) Several extended passages, on the other hand, movingly record the suffering and death of William James in August 1910, and there are numerous entries in which the novelist more or less explicitly details his own worsening condition: ‘Difficult night. Great nervousness, but better as day went on.’ Or, two days later: ‘Slightly gouty foot.’ But perhaps the most striking – if only because least Jamesian – portions of the record are those in which the master of subtlety and nuance has seemingly been reduced to the most primitive of sign systems: a varying pattern of black and red x’s which the editors interpret as registering bad and good (‘red letter’) days respectively. Edel has apparently abandoned an earlier speculation that the marks could also record a sequence of pill-taking. Whole pages of the Complete Notebooks are given over to the mere listing of dates, followed by solemn notations of the number of black or red x’s inscribed beneath each – the sad tedium only partly relieved by the occasional baroque variation on the system, as in the comment on 20 December 1910: ‘HJ has written a number of x’s in red; he then proceeds to superimpose blacks – so that he gets 11 black x’s; then he has a series of red x, black x, red x, black x – 11 x’s alternating black and red. Then he has 6 black x’s.’

There are passages in these diaries certainly worth having; and once the decision to publish them was made, it is probably best to have them complete – black and red x’s and all. But why they should have been judged worthy of such reverent attention while Edel has concluded that James’s letters deserve only selective publication is hard to understand.[*] Nor is the value of the diaries enhanced by an index that picks up a reference to The Magic Flute on page 400 but not to Der Rosenkavalier on page 401, or that registers an allusion to Granville Barker’s ‘incredibly stupid and hideous’ Winter’s Tale on page 368 but misses Beerbohm Tree’s ‘awful, unspeakable Othello!’ on page 360. And there is something perverse about an edition that scrupulously records the crossings-out and erasures in the novelist’s appointment book while silently correcting the slips of pen in his literary notebooks. (Where Matthiessen and Murdock supplied a list of textual emendations, the present editors simply incorporate such changes, unremarked, into the text.)

Since the original edition of the notebooks remains in print, the chief value of the current volume is its printing of previously unavailable materials. In addition to the pocket diaries, this includes a few brief notes of projects for publishers, several longer statements of narrative and dramatic plans which James worked out for himself, and some wonderfully characteristic pages from a late unfinished story, in which a couple try to commission a portrait of the child they have never had. And of course James’s remarkable capacity for imaginative improvisation – his ‘seeming to see’ so much in so little – makes his principal notebooks as strangely absorbing and exhilarating as ever. But the reader who encounters them for the first time in the present edition will have to trace those improvisations without the aid of Matthiessen and Murdock’s running commentary which lucidly linked the entries to one another and elegantly summarised the further history of an initial idea. Having arrived at the extraordinary conclusion that the notebooks are ‘primarily historical, biographical, geographical and psychological’ – only ‘their ultimate outcome,’ it seems, ‘is the concern of literary criticism’ – the present editors have chosen simply to identify the novels and tales that eventually resulted and to concentrate on annotating James’s often cryptic allusions to persons and places. No doubt Matthiessen and Murdock’s casual dismissal of such matters tended to reinforce the image of James as the isolated artist, and the purity of their interest in the notebooks’ ‘technical problems’ now seems artificial. Yet their focus on the writer’s imagination and the refinement of his materials remains a more just and useful tribute to James than still another tour around the Birthplace.

[*] Confusion is further compounded by Edel’s latest book-making enterprise – Henry James: Selected Letters (Harvard, 446 pp., £23.95, 30 November 1987, 0 674 38793 7). A one-volume melting-down of his already highly selected four-volume edition of the letters, it alone calls itself ‘selected’, while printing some two dozen letters for the first time, thus ensuring that anyone who wants as complete a collection as possible will have to purchase this volume as well as its predecessors. Edel’s introduction predictably attributes the inclusion of the new documents to the ‘freer climate of our time’ – a moment of liberation that would appear to have arrived sometime after the decade from 1974 to 1984 in which the original four volumes were published.