Henry James and his Cult

Henry James: The Master, 1901-1916

by Leon Edel
Lippincott, 591 pp., $12.95

Henry James
Henry James; drawing by David Levine

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…

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