Making sentences

Philip Horne

  • The Jameses: A Family Narrative by R.W.B. Lewis
    Deutsch, 696 pp, £20.00, October 1991, ISBN 0 233 98748 7
  • Meaning in Henry James by Millicent Bell
    Harvard, 384 pp, £35.95, October 1991, ISBN 0 674 55762 X

Forty-one years after F.O. Matthiessen’s suicide, and 44 after his big book The James Family: A Group Biography, here is R.W.B. Lewis, Matthiessen’s pupil at Harvard, with one on the same subject, nearly as big. Its very title twists a touch awkwardly to avoid repeating that of its precursor, to which Lewis acknowledges a large debt.

But The Jameses comes out into a different intellectual and cultural world from that which acclaimed The James Family. Matthiessen was, in the James book, as in American Renaissance and The Achievement of T. S. Eliot, asserting a canonical seriousness and establishing lines of inquiry that are now treated by many on the academic scene as ideologically compromised or naive. He was also urgently interested in artistic achievement, and the history of ideas, rather than the creatively psycho-biographical perspectives powerfully applied to the family’s relations and texts, soon after his death, by Leon Edel in his multi-volume life of Henry James.

As a Harvard professor, Matthiessen had been, under the terms laid down by the James estate, one of the very few permitted to use the huge family archive in the Houghton Library: in effect, as a Jamesian, the only permitted person at the time other than Leon Edel, who enjoyed special privileges. He had mined the archive for The James Family and for his long-authoritative edition (with Kenneth Murdock) of The Notebooks of Henry James, which came out in the same year; together with Henry James: The Major Phase (1944), these made him the central force in the field.

With his going, there was only Leon Edel (who in due course encouraged his colleague Gay Wilson Allen to write William James: A Biography, which appeared in 1967). Edel was at first going to produce an edition of Henry James’s letters, but decided to delay for over twenty-five years while he put out his four biographical volumes, edited The Diary of Alice James, and wrote introductions for huge numbers of reissues. By doing so he came, as the Henry James Review has put it, to ‘bestride James studies like a Colossus’.

In the last fifteen years or so Edel’s monopoly has lapsed and the James archives have been much more welcoming to younger scholars, thanks mainly to the friendly attitude of Alexander James, the present literary executor. Many bestridees seem to have continued to assume that the Colossal labour has done it all, but a few have emerged from the shadow and achieved some stature of their own: Jean Strouse in Alice James: A Biography (1980); Ruth Bernard Yeazell in The Death and Letters of Alice James (1981); Howard Feinstein in Becoming William James (1984); Gerald Myers in William James: His Life and Thought (1986); Jane Maher in Biography of Broken Fortunes: Wilky and Bob, Brothers of William, Henry and Alice James (1986); Michael Anesko in ‘Friction with the Market’: Henry James and the Profession of Authorship (1986); Rayburn Moore in Selected Letters of Henry James to Edmund Gosse (1988); and Lyall Powers in Henry James and Edith Wharton: Letters 1900-1915 (1990).

There’s a terrific load of information and perception that was untapped by Matthiessen in this recent shelf-ful, on top of all that’s in the Colossal edifice; and besides, Lewis, as one of the new set of literary biographers, with his 1975 Edith Wharton behind him, probably felt that Matthiessen’s life-and-letters approach, a respectful elucidatory embedding of a tactfully suggestive anthology of family writings, doesn’t read like the real right thing for the 1990s. In fact, it turns out that The Jameses had its origin in a proposed television series (documentary, one supposes): and Matthiessen’s earnest attentiveness wouldn’t thrill a cigar-chewing producer.

Lewis has gone with care over the Edel and Allen and Strouse and Maher biographies, and much else besides, gratefully admitting indebtedness, judiciously comparing and selecting, elegantly cutting and pasting and paraphrasing and commenting, to produce an extremely enjoyable and accessible digest of the state of the biographical art for the whole of America’s most eloquent family, with generous illustrations and fresh research of his own to fill in gaps. (An appendix, for instance, entertainingly tracks the clan down through some colourful figures – a flamboyant, drunken giant in the CIA, a much-imprisoned pacifist who ended walking a squirrel on a leash, a friend of E. E. Cummings, and a wife of Alexander Calder the mobilist – to its living descendants.)

Henry James Senior, father of the novelist and the philosopher, complained in his memoirs of the narrowness of the family world in which he had grown up in Albany in the early part of the 19th century. He deplored ‘a certain lack of oxygen which is indeed incidental to the family atmosphere’ – the way families tend to shut themselves off from the world. The James family he brought up, however, was to be exposed to regular bracing draughts of change, change of abode, country, tutor, school. Any fear of monotony raised by Lewis’s declaration that ‘the emphasis is in all cases on the personal and family aspects’ is laid to rest by the chequered careers befalling or pursued by the bewildered or stimulated offspring. The story is international, artistic, medical, psychological, philosophical, mystical, military, businesslike and invalidical in turn: it heads off in several directions and Lewis has trouble holding the strands together. Yet these children make sense as Jameses; the distinctiveness of each can in large part be traced back to the family identity.

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