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Henry James and his Cult

Henry James: The Master, 1901-1916

by Leon Edel
Lippincott, 591 pp., $12.95

With this fifth volume, perhaps somewhat too brashly and summarily entitled The Master, Leon Edel at long last brings to a close his biography of James which has been appearing serially since 1953. In its way it is a phenomenal production, if only because of the truly exhaustive research that has gone into it and because it is probably the longest biography in English, and for all I know in any other language, of any single writer—of a writer, moreover, of whom it cannot be said that he really “lived,” as even Edel himself admits albeit reluctantly and apologetically.

With so exiguous a life, what James mostly did was to spend his time alone in a room writing, subsisting on impressions and perceptions, which he insisted, with a fervor all too plainly defensive, on equating with what most of us mean by “experience.” That Edel makes too much of James, that he overestimates his importance in the most extravagant manner possible, that he is much too expansive, even rapturous, about him, has been evident all along.

The excessive length of this biography is explained by its glut of detail, of which much is only of minor interest. No wonder that the effect of far too many of its pages is that of supersaturation. James was a prolific correspondent, and was it really necessary for Edel to present us with a surfeit of information about every one of his correspondents, friends, and acquaintances? After all, we are interested not in every casual person who came his way, but only in his principal literary and social relationships. Moreover, the few happenings that might be regarded as “events” in James’s life are treated at inordinate length. Thus in his penultimate volume, The Treacherous Years, Edel describes the failure of the play Guy Domville, James’s only strenuous theatrical venture, at such length and in such detail as to make one think that he is recounting an event comparable, say, to Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow.

The same can be said of his voluminous account of James’s move from his London flat to Lamb House at Rye. Why treat this as if it had world-shaking implications? Nor does Edel persuade me when he goes so far as to read into the anxieties occasioned by this move the psychic motivation that impelled James to write The Turn of the Screw.

In general Edel’s numerous excursions into the psychoanalytic investigation of James both as author and as personality strike me as neither very apt nor convincing. The metaphorical couch on which he all too readily lays James out yields surprisingly meager results. In James’s case there is simply too little attestable clinical material (on this score he was remarkably reticent in his autobiographical writings) to permit us to arrive at conclusions that are not vague or amateurish.

The biography also contains its full quota of literary criticism of James’s work—and here too Edel cannot rest without bringing in every item of his writings, even the most obviously contrived and lacking in perceptible value. Moreover, the critical effort is all too often directed to tracing or detecting the personal sources of James’s works rather than to the precise evaluation of their merits and demerits. It goes without saying that when the demerits do come up for discussion they are for the most part given short shrift.

For instance, William James showed no small measure of critical acumen in his negative reaction to his brother’s later manner, as did a good many other resistive respondents, including Edith Wharton who, for all her admiration of James, did confront him with a leading question concerning The Golden Bowl: “What was your idea in suspending the four principal characters in a void? What sort of life did they lead when they were not watching each other and fencing with each other? Why have you stripped them of all the human fringes we necessarily trail after us through life?” James answered in a disturbed voice: “My dear—I didn’t know I had….”

Surely this lame reply tells us much about the peculiar assumptions underlying James’s creative consciousness. It may well be that he had so stringently refined his singularities as to cease understanding susceptibilities of a more normal order. Yet Edel treats virtually all such remonstrances in cavalier fashion, as if they were irrelevant or else actuated by motives unduly personal. He does not even extend them the courtesy of a closely reasoned rejoinder—a rejoinder which, in my view, is not even very difficult to draw up. Disregarding Edith Wharton’s pointed query, he persists in characterizing The Golden Bowl as “the richest” of all of James’s novels. But, after all, Edith Wharton was not alone in questioning the art of that novel. More than a few critics of stature have been taken aback by it. Still, Edel ignores them all.

However, there are certain revelations in the last volumes of this biography that are of immense biographical importance. I am referring, especially, to the story of Miss Constance Fenimore Woolson, who was in love with James and committed suicide in Venice because of his failure to respond to her. (The reverberations of this event in the story “The Beast in the Jungle” are apparent though the roles of male and female are changed.)

Then there is the tantalizing question of James’s homo-erotic tendencies that surfaced only very late in his life. It is to Edel’s credit that he treats these belated “romances” with candor, uncommon tact, and good judgment. There can be no doubt any longer that James was in love (or thought he was) with two exceedingly handsome young men: the sculptor Hendrik Andersen and the socialite Jocelyn Persse. Account must also be taken of his very ambiguous relationship with the young writer Hugh Walpole. Edel quotes extensively from the passionate letters James wrote to all three, but unfortunately their replies are mostly lost. Thus to the question of what was the exact nature of these “affairs”—“just romantic or also physical?”—Edel can only answer that at this late date it is impossible to establish the facts on any kind of firm basis.

On his part he is inclined to see in these attachments “the love of an aging man for his lost youth and evocation of it in figures of masculine beauty” that were, however, lacking in intellectual endowments. (At least two of them were.) Perhaps this very lack might serve as a key to the real nature of these attachments, but this is no more than nebulous speculation. On the whole Edel seems to have given us a fairly plausible account of these episodes, to which very little can be added unless further documentation becomes available.

Hugh Walpole, who certainly knew James as well as anyone else did, said more than once that his life was chiefly dominated by his “inevitable loneliness” and the persistent conflict in him between his “intellectual curiosity” and his inbred “reticent puritanism.” And in my reading of his life and career it is his loneliness that comes through as the most ascertainable reality, even though Edel tries very hard to mitigate this impression. Still, I don’t see how one can fail to recognize the psychogenic significance and therefore give due emphasis to the following remarks in James’s letter to his Parisian friend Morton Fullerton, who asked him point blank to tell him his idea of the actual point de départ of his life. James felt that he could only “in a manner” reply to that:

The port from which I set out was, I think, that of the essential loneliness of my life—and it seems to me the port also, in sooth, to which my course again finally directs itself! This loneliness was—what is it still but the deepest thing about one? Deeper, about me, at any rate, than anything else; deeper than my “genius,” deeper than my “discipline,” deeper than my pride, deeper, above all, than the deep counterminings of art.1

One can only regard this singular avowal—perhaps confession is the more proper term—as decisive for our understanding of James, certainly far more so than his belated “romances,” conducted mostly in epistolatory form, which, in my effort at comprehension, appear to be no more than rather pathetic symptoms of senile sexuality, that is to say, of a sexuality so long and tenaciously suppressed that it could find an outlet only in the blessed safety of old age, when James could assure himself in good conscience that implementation was no longer a practical possibility.

Edel ends his biography with such an excessive tribute to the Jamesian oeuvre as to disclose, to me at least, his grave disabilities as a critic of the very subject to which he has devoted so many long years. For one thing, he is far too staunch an adherent of the James cult, which he assumes is destined to last forever. Thus he expresses no doubt whatever of James’s “enduring fame.” It seems to me, however, that the history of James’s reputation fails to bear Edel out. It is a reputation that has waxed and waned, and precisely now it has already begun to wane. Though the taste of the young scarcely serves as a touchstone for me, I think it is none the less worth considering their taste in this period. It is clear to anyone in contact with young people that what they want from literature is mainly immediacy, spontaneity, and sensuality—the very qualities in which James is patently deficient. Hence the cult, which attained its peak in the Forties and Fifties, is already losing force and is rapidly drawing to a close. But of course Edel’s involvement with James has been so close and prolonged that one cannot really expect him to perceive the strained nature of the cult of which he is now the leading hierophant.

I myself was at one time engaged to some extent in helping to restore James’s reputation after its long decline. But then the academy, with its characteristic lack of discrimination, took him over, displacing certain critics who entirely on their own, in the Twenties and Thirties, continued to insist on his importance. When it became apparent that the James boom was in full swing, I wrote in the Foreword to my book Image and Idea (1948) that “the apotheosis of James is not quite what is wanted. For it appears that the long-standing prejudice against him is by now giving way to an uncritical adulation equally retarding to a sound appraisal of his achievement.” Edmund Wilson, too, in the same year, spoke up quite sardonically about the cult in his appendix to his famous essay “The Ambiguity of Henry James,” even while re-affirming his belief that we do well to be proud of him.

If I now enter a demurrer to Edel’s approach it is because that approach consists almost wholly of uncritical adulation, approximately of the sort at present prevailing among the professors, who, let it be recalled, were strikingly inattentive to James when The Little Review devoted an issue to him in 1918 (with Eliot and Pound among the contributors) and, later, when in 1934 The Hound and Horn made a brave effort to revive the interest in James by presenting a collection of brilliant critical articles in an issue entirely given over to him. As usual the critics won out in the long run, but it was not until the early Forties that the academics began suspecting that James was definitely “in.” Since then they have been producing endless dissertations about him that are mostly wearisomely pedantic and that tend to take for granted exactly what requires the most rigorous proof.

  1. 1

    Italics in the original. The letter is quoted in part on page 350 of The Treacherous Years.

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