Our book today is Henry James: A Life, Leon Edel’s massive 1985 one-volume abridgment of the monumental five-volume James biography he worked on for twenty years. That five-volume set, finished in 1972, constitutes another classic example of a “Steve book” – a book my friends are a) certain I’ve read and b) almost equally certain they themselves will never get around to reading.

I can’t vouch for the second part (one day I may get my fondest wish and the rest of you may finally devote a proper amount of time to reading!), but the first part is true: I’ve read that five-volume work twice over, and I did it with increasing desperation, because Henry James remains a (metaphorically speaking, of course) closed book to me. I’ve heard stellar estimations of his work for a hundred years, had colleagues at the old Boston Transcript and Boston Ledger telling me he was the greatest novelist since Richardson even while I was in the act of penning a pithy damnation of his latest serialized piece of sop-work in Scribners. And of course the ensuing decades have only more firmly enshrined James in the literary pantheon – you won’t see any five-volume biographies of Booth Tarkington.

Even for a reader as confident as I am, such universal praise can be unsettling. You start to wonder (if you’ve kept an open mind, that is): could I be wrong about this guy’s work? Could I be missing something? Can fourteen million Frenchmen, as the saying goes, possibly be wrong?

I keep meaning to return to James’ novels with an unbroken concentration to sniff out any particular worth in them. I said I’d do it in 2008, then in 2009, then in 2010. I’m not averse to finding that worth – but I keep putting off the search, mainly because some of my worst reading-memories of turn-of-the20th-Century literature are associated with my last run-through the Master’s canon.

In the meantime, I’ve searched Edel’s volumes for hand-holds to help scale the mountain – and although I don’t think I’ve ever found any, I’ve enjoyed the biography itself immensely. Gore Vidal once witheringly referred to the five-volume set as an extended historical novel, and over the years I’ve spent an absurd amount of time pouring over individual volumes making a mental effort to exonerate them from this claim. I confess that even in the one-volume abridgment, Edel provides plenty of fuel for Vidal. There’s penny-ante psychoanalysis on virtually every page, as in this bit about William James’ sudden marriage:

He [Henry] was patently jealous of the young bride and for complex psychological reasons. It was not that William was rejecting him. William had pushed him away ever since their childhood when he had plainly told Henry he was too much of a sissy to play with boys like himself who curse and swear. The drama, as critics have suggested, resided now in the struggle of the two brothers, and after half a lifetime of “twinship,” to achieve their individuation.

But the reason my efforts were absurd is because I forgot one of the cardinal rules of Gore Vidal: never take his apercus seriously. The only apercus one should ever take seriously are one’s own.

And besides, those incidences of head-shrinking aren’t but a fraction even of the abridged volume. Mostly what we get on page after page is Edel’s frank and inviting prose and his unceasing spirit of inquiry, as when he’s chronicling James’ rise from simple literary immigrant to the toast of England’s landed elite:

The crude state of poverty in London gave Henry pause. He was stuck by “the rigidly aristocratic constitution of society; the unaesthetic temper of the people; the private character of most kinds of comfort and entertainment.” The Victorian world was carefully organized to preserve – to reinforce – respect for traditional institutions. This was one way of maintaining national stability. To a member of America’s upper middle class, where society was in a state of flux, England’s codes and rules, and its stratified class structure, proved a revelation. The thought occurred to James that in a nation in which personality was repressed to such an extent, there had to be some safety valve. Where had the Britons placed the “fermenting idiosyncrasies” that had been corked down? “The upper classes are too refined,’ James was to write, “and the lower classes are too miserable.” The judgment may have seemed to him in later years too summary, too unsubtle. His revising pen altered it to “The better sort are too ‘genteel,’ and the inferior sort too base.” This might be the measure of the distance he was to travel from Bolton Street into the life of England’s leisured class.

No, it’s not Edel who bothers me in every re-reading of his biographies (and although I’m not sure any writer deserves a five-volume biography, I whole-heartedly recommend this one-volume condensed version – it’s still far and away the life of James to read, if you’re so inclined), it’s James himself, just as always. Here he is simpering and temporizing and pettily guarding secrets nobody wants to know. Here he is counting coins even when wealthy, making waspy remarks even about his own gracious hosts, and through it all exuding an aura of petulance that makes even a sympathetic reader gasp for cleaner air. Edel is just about as sympathetic a biographer as James is likely to get from the ranks of first-rate historians, and yet even in his account, the Master comes off as an essentially small man, a treasurer of trifling transgressions, his own handiest sycophant.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the central apostasy of James’ life, his much-ballyoo’d expatriate status. Edel paints this picture with the same accuracy he paints everything else, but that does James no favors. We read again James’ own justifications for his removal to England. In a section of Edel’s book on James’ biography of Hawthorne, we read the expat’s acidic little aria to all the things England has that his own country lacks:

No sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church, no clergy, no army, no diplomatic service, no country gentlemen, no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old country-houses, nor parsonages, nor thatched cottages, nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals, nor abbeys, nor little Norman churches; no great Universities, nor public schools – no Oxford, nor Eton, nor Harrow; no literature, no novels, no museums, no pictures, no political society, no sporting class – no Epsom or Ascot!

That half those assertions were wrong even when they were made is both obvious and infuriating; but it’s far worse that the original sentiment – which was Hawthorne’s, from The Marble Faun – is twisted out of context and drained of affection:

no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong, nor anything but a commonplace prosperity, in broad and simple daylight, as is happily the case in my dear native land

Is it any wonder that James’ piping little “No Epsom or Ascot!” should infuriate his erstwhile countrymen and perhaps make them hate him just a bit – or more than a bit?

In fairness to Edel’s enormous talent if nothing else, I should grant that the hatred is hard to maintain for the whole of this graceful, persuasive book. This is a warm, even-handed portrait of the artist, and that portrait contains some personable elements, some charm. And it’s not like we need personal perfection from our writers, Heaven knows – I may believe that James’ contemporary and friend Edith Wharton was the much better novelist, but three biographies of her have convinced me I probably wouldn’t have liked her any more than I currently like James. Her novels are far less self-consciously fussy, but it’s possible, just possible, that James was tangling things up for effect, in full cognizance of how it read.

Maybe I’ll grant him that, in 2011.

  • Sam

    I like Edel’s short Bloomsbury biography, for what it’s worth, even though it also has way too much Freudian psychoanalysis, and probably very few ideas not already written in other biographies of those people. Its worth is in Edel’s prose, which is strong and punchy and fun to read.

    Keep us updated on your ongoing toils with Henry James!

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