Passion and Henry James

The writer of a two-part life who calls his first volume Young So-and-So faces a problem of tact and aptness when it comes to the second. Sometimes the life itself provides an elegant answer: Young Melbourne grew into Lord M., Young Thomas Hardy was followed by Thomas Hardy’s Later Years, quietly eloquent of a career that flourished into his ninth decade. Sheldon M. Novick called the first half of his biography of Henry James, going up to 1881 and the publication of The Portrait of a Lady, The Young Master, a term whose resonances he seemed not quite to hear: Did James not struggle for mastery, by a prolonged, unresting process of discovery, or was Master, like Melbourne, a sort of feudal title? Since then, for eleven years, The Old Master has loomed; but in the event we have The Mature Master, not exactly an idiomatic expression, except perhaps in the world of S&M—a suggestion which even Novick, the advocate of a new, sexier James, might shrink from.

Novick’s ambition in these books has been to see James afresh, to replace the “querulous old maid” of Leon Edel’s five-volume biography, published between 1953 and 1972, with “the active, passionate, engaged man his contemporaries knew.” Like many such revisions, this entails a drastic caricature of the earlier work—“Instead of James’s life,” Novick claims absurdly, “Edel wrote of the unconscious, impersonal machinery of the Oedipal conflict”—and a somewhat wishful or idealized notion of what is replacing it.

Still, he has a point: social attitudes and academic orthodoxies have changed, and the strongly Freudian view adopted by Edel is no longer fashionable (that “Mature” may be a riposte to the Freudian idea of James as animated by unresolved infantile crises). Much new material has become available. The amount of material is in fact overwhelming: the more than ten thousand extant letters, for instance, though available in scores of different selections, are still largely unpublished. The immediate question is whether this material supports a view of the writer as less detached, less fearful of intimacy, than the so-far-dominant Edel account. The larger question is whether this is the most important question.

Novick’s first volume caused a bit of a kerfuffle with its reading of a passage in James’s late journals that refers, rapturously but cryptically, to his “initiation première” in Cambridge and in Ashburton Place during “the ‘epoch-making weeks’ of the spring of 1865!”—a subject James described as “for fatal, for impossible, expansion.” No such restrictions need apply to the biographer, however, and Novick did expand it, stating his belief, not founded on any solid evidence, that at this time James had had sexual relations of some kind with Oliver Wendell Holmes (who was the subject of Novick’s first, much lauded, biography). Slate magazine put Leon Edel himself on the case, and there followed a hot-tempered and unavailing correspondence, Novick attacking Edel in a very personal way, while another recent biographer of …

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