The Master at War

Henry James’s awareness of things had an unexpected military streak. No professional soldier can afford illusions about his life and its duties and James certainly had none; but he would have seen the point of Marshal Lyautey’s claim that gaiety was needed to be a good officer. It is probably also needed to be a good biographer, certainly a good biographer of James; and Fred Kaplan is fortunate to possess in large measure the ebullience esteemed so highly by the French general. Edel’s great biography was not lacking in it either; but Edel allowed himself a certain nonmilitary indulgence in prosy abstraction and psychological theorizing. Kaplan’s gaiety takes him straight into battle, as it were, and riding his narration like a spirited horse.

We see the perspective of the Jamesian battlefield much more clearly as a result, over not much more than five hundred pages taking in the whole sweep, from the Cambridge and Boston childhood to death in London as a British citizen. Raised in the shadow of one war, James died in the midst of another, a conflict of even more dire proportions, to which he had loyally given all the help and support an old man could, and an old man who was by then a writer with an august international reputation. Kaplan lays stress on these points and surely rightly: an emphasis of a different kind from Edel’s mulling over the question of the “obscure hurt” which James had received when helping to put out a fire in Newport (strange repetition of his father’s loss of a leg firefighting in similar circumstances) and the guilt he may have felt in consequence for not enlisting in the Civil War. Whatever the hurt may have been—probably no more than a bad back—James was not the kind of man to be haunted by conscience as a result. Indeed, as his biographer robustly suggests, he had his own war to fight and to win, “in the alcove of a yellow-toned sunlit room in Cambridge. Massachusetts, where he pretended to study law.”

Although his two younger brothers were soldiers, “engaged,” Kaplan writes, “in the most massive conflict since Napoleon had made Europe his empire,” Henry James’s will to win assumed a different form. “His motives for writing were clear to himself and they were not unusual: He desired fame and fortune.” No less than generals and conquerors do he belonged to the category of what the novelist Anthony Powell has called “men of the will.” A marvelous paragraph toward the end of that very Jamesian nouvelle The Aspern Papers describes the statue on a square in Venice of the great soldier of fortune Colleoni, sculpted by Verocchio, lifting his “small hand” high in a commanding gesture as he rides his great horse to victory. It is a conjuration which James’s narrator, who desires more than anything in the world to get his hands on the papers of the pioneer American writer …

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