Saturday, January 31, 2009

Leon Edel's "Henry James: The Middle Years 1882-1895"

The middle years of a writer's life are, perhaps, less talked about than the exciting beginnings of his early years, and the achieved satisfactions of his late ones. If the writer begins well but falls off, we may look at his middle years for explanations. If a writer begins well and ends better, we may not even see any middle to an apparently uninterrupted rise. The middle seems irredeemably transitional. Given the linearity of a biography, Edel's account of James's middle years does lens the transitions in that writer's life and art, but transition, as Edel sees it, is an absorbing story in and for itself. 

Having established himself socially and literarily in London, James still had to write constantly for his upkeep. The magazines did not pay enough for his tales, essays and criticism to maintain his comfortable life. These were the years before international laws for intellectual property rights were legislated, and so his work was republished without him receiving a cent for it. Hoping for a steady source of income, so that he could devote himself to writing fiction, James began writing for the theater. Though he enjoyed the creation of plays, he hated dealing with the world of theater, with its uncertainties, its messiness, its publicity, its commercialism. His unease with this world almost predicted his eventual failure, though this installment of the biography ends with the opening of his first play in London, Guy Domville

These years not only saw James venturing into a different genre, they also witnessed the broadening of James's sympathies. His Calvinistic attitudes towards life became more flexible, more tolerant. Edel describes the change with acute insight:

Henry had finally abandoned his American innocence. He could still portray it as subtly as of old; but he himself now understood it as never before. He was aware that what he had visioned as "corrupt old Europe" represented a splendid facade of civilization, formed over the centuries, behind which existed all manner of things Americans might judge harshly, and regard as evil--but that this facade also concealed a life of liberty; and that it offered a veil of public decency, codes and standards of judgments, with which to protect "the private life." To have a private life was to have freedom; and a loss of freedom, he said, "was the greatest form of suffering." To be impervious to others' judgments and others' meddlings was to have freedom: and this is what Henry had been discovering ever since he left Quincy Street in 1875.

This more tolerant understanding is not an inevitable result of living in a different culture. Another person may find his prejudices reinforced by the constant comparisons that expatriate living enforces on him. But, for an artist, this flexibility is crucial, if one wishes to take on all of life as one's materials for art. Flexibility allows for all manners of elaborations. 

Henry's most significant male friendship of this period was with the French writer, Paul Bourget, the first of Henry's literary disciples. Henry had been influenced by the older French writers, but now, in turn, he would influence one of their own, and one who would be elected rapidly to the Academy. 

The main story of Henry's friendships, however, is his relationship with Constance Fenimore Woolson, the grandniece of James Fenimore Cooper. As Edel tells it, Woolson, an elderly, deaf novelist was in love with Henry, who was perhaps not conscious of misleading her with his attentions until it was too late. There is no evidence that the relationship was physically intimate, but Henry hid their deep intimacy from his family and friend. The affair organizes, in a sense, the story of Henry's middle years. If the period begins with their introduction to each other, it also ends when Woolson fell--perhaps threw herself--from her apartment, and died. 

The effect on Henry was devastating. Obscurely guilt-ridden, he mourned deeply for her, at a time of his life when he had mourned the death of many family members and friends. More, he was baffled by the way she died, and insisted, quite without basis, that if she killed herself, she must have done so out of temporary insanity. By living, and leaving, her life on her own terms, Woolson denied Henry the easy deployment of her death for his art. Critics have pointed out that the premature death of Henry's childhood friend Minny Temple inspired the death of the young  American heiress Millie Theale in The Wings of the Dove. Edel's valuable addition is to show the significance of Woolson's death for the novel's depiction of the power of the dead to change the life of the living. 


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