Sense and Sensibility

The King of the Cats and Other Remarks on Writers and Writing

by F.W. Dupee
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 214 pp., $4.95

When F. W. Dupee’s critical biography of Henry James appeared, it came at a time of such superfluity of James items that the reader who had been actively, faithfully consuming in the market felt he could not find room for another word on this subject. But Dupee’s book was not a redundance, a glut. Instead it was a work of rare interest and success. It summed up James’s life and art with a balance and assurance that were valuable and also charming. Indeed, Dupee’s Henry James is one of the best critical biographies we have. And yet I have been told—with what accuracy I cannot judge—that this beautiful book is not sufficiently appreciated in the academic world. They do not know how to place it, what use to make of its modest rightness. Shouldn’t it weigh in heavier, bigger, fuller, like other professors’ books? And this is the question with all of Dupee’s critical writing. What shall we say of a man simply doing as he pleases, refusing to increase his volume of business, tending the store in a relaxed manner, without regard for his reputation, his image? For my own part I do not know whether to condone Dupee’s fidelity to his own way—I think he waits for a kind of inspiration even when he writes the briefest review—or to feel that he should lengthen, fatten, digress, and repeat, along with the best of them.

I opened his new book—a collection of reviews and prefaces, “remarks on writers and writing,” as he calls it—with a good deal of emotion. I had read most of the pieces before and felt I knew the creative effort that had gone into them, and also that I could guess at the roots of the rather unusual diffidence that marked their structure, their length, and their tone. Courtesy, purity of taste, fineness of style are maintained without intermission. Every page of The King of the Cats is admirably done. The writing goes along with an ease perhaps intemperately untroubled, but it is an ease nevertheless, born of craft and intelligence. The title is taken from an essay on Yeats, an essay that is a model of the author’s manner. He describes Yeats’s friendship with Lady Gregory:

He [Yeats] rejoices in his periods of residence at Coole Park, her country home; the “great rooms” (in the plural) are splendidly silent and there are no fewer than seven woodlands, all magnificent. In all this there is something of the eternal spirit of the bachelor; he must make his nest all the cozier, and chirp the louder over it, because it is a nest for one. The spirit persists after Yeats’s belated marriage, when he begins to celebrate his wife’s feats of housekeeping and decorating, and the attractions of the houses that he himself is now in a position to acquire.

And there is Dupee himself. His long connection with Partisan Review, his Trotskyite youth, his several decades on the New York literary scene, his…

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