Monday, December 29, 2008

Leon Edel's "Henry James: The Untried Years"

Edel takes a chronological approach to his subject, beginning with sharp portraits of Henry James Sr. and Mary Walsh, before taking in the years of their son's life, from 1843 to 1870. The first installment of this five-volume work ends with the death of Minny Temple, James's beloved young cousin, and with his return to Boston after a year's travel in Europe. 

The chronological narrative is occasionally interrupted by sidebar discussions of significant events in young James's life, for instance, his nightmare based on his experience of the Louvre. These discussions highlight what Edel sees as the themes of this writer's life. The nightmare, illuminated by other incidents, illustrates the fierce sibling rivalry between William and Henry, the latter obsessed with being second born, and so with being inferior to the elder. 

Another theme is James's fear of female sexuality, a fear his biographer lays at the door of--not quite persuasively--his mother's "vampirish" consumption of his father's energies. The same fear emasculates any possible courtship of Minny Temple, and genuine though Henry's grief was for this young woman her death also provided his mind and his art with an ideal image. I am disappointed that Edel does not discuss James's sexual feelings for men. 

A third theme is Henry's "obscure hurt," which Edel settles in favor of a lower back injury, and not, according to rumors that solidified into fact, castration. Henry--or Harry as he was nicknamed, partly to distinguish him from his dad--suffered his injury at the outbreak of the Civil War, which he, like his older brother, sat out. His younger brothers, Bob and Wilkie, did enlist, and this probably strengthened Harry's self-conception of feminized passivity. 

In lucid prose Edel's story-telling is well-paced, though the seemingly endless succession of European hotels and houses through which Henry was dragged up by his father is a little wearying to read. Edel makes copious but not non-critical use of James's own memoirs Notes of a Son and Brother and A Small Boy, as well as letters written by James and various family members and friends. Where appropriate, he points out the links between life and art, such as the governess who probably inspired the same character in "The Turn of the Screw," or, more obviously, Minny Temple who was the inspiration for Milly Theale in The Wings of a Dove

Beyond characters, Edel is also quick to trace in James's carpet of writing the patterns in the life. Such explanations, of life and art, are what we have come to expect of biographies, but their effect runs counter to Edel's avowed aim, as given in an epigraph quoting James: "To live over people's lives is nothing unless we live over their perceptions, live over the growth, the change, the varying intensity of the same--since it was by these things they themselves lived." To explain is not quite the same as to live over. What is wonderful in James's writing is the tone, the shape, the size of his perceptions, and explanation, like narrative, must baffle itself before it can touch perception. 


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