Lessons of the Master

In 1909, in a mood of depression, Henry James burned all his correspondence. In Author, Author, a part-fiction, part-biographical reconstruction of James’s later life, David Lodge has him say:

I hate the idea of people reading [letters] after we are dead…. And not only reading them, but publishing them, and making money out of them. It’s the way things are going in this dreadful Americanised age of ours. There is no privacy, no decency any more. Journalists, interviewers, biographers… I feel it is our duty to deny them, to defeat them. When we are dead, when we can no longer defend our privacy, they will move in with their antennae twitching, their mandibles gnashing. Let them find nothing—only scorched earth.

But who has inspired what must be the longest literary biography ever? Who has had his brother’s, father’s, sister’s life scrutinized almost as closely? Who prompted Lodge to acknowledge his debt to more than twenty books of Jamesiana—including A Henry James Encyclopaedia?

Quoting a little-known essay of James’s, “Is There a Life After Death?,” Lodge plays with the idea of a ghostly Henry floating above us, able to watch the Henry James industry: sales figures, university courses, critical arguments, “the babble of our conversation about him and his work, swelling through the ether like a prolonged ovation.” He would be well satisfied, says Lodge. Overjoyed might be a better guess, considering the anxieties, stressed in Author, Author, about money, sales, and reputation that dogged him during his life. Gnashing mandibles and twitching antennae would be soon ignored once he knew the verdict of posterity. It is easy to forget that inside the stout and polished Master there was always a shy girl getting ready for her first ball. Is that why so many have explored Henry’s life—the relation between the outer man and the hidden one, and beyond that to his characters and narrative? Secrets are always a challenge.

Part of the Henry story is the intense, fluctuating entente with William, only a year older: I admit I was disappointed that Lodge has chosen not to write this into his story. Henry’s outpouring to William when, at fifty-six, he was buying his first home and felt criticized by his brother: “My whole being cries out for something that I can call my own—and when I look round me at the splendor of so many of the ‘literary’ fry…I do feel the bitterness of humiliation, the iron enters my soul, and (I blush to confess it,) I weep!” Much later, William’s dash, when he himself was near death, to his brother’s bedside, to find him weeping and indeed in a state of breakdown.

Author, Author concentrates rather on what Henry himself called “simply the most horrible experience of my life,” the failure of his play, Guy Domville. (“Author, author,” they cried in the gallery—and pelted him with boos and hisses.) “Oh the mutilated brutally simplified …

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