Who Owns Henry James?
BOSWELL STARTED IT ALL. Ever since the canny Scot earned himself a niche in history by taking over Dr. Johnson, scholars have been trying to identify themselves with one literary personality big enough to make their reputations. The best and easiest way to own a famous figure is to find or obtain title to his private papers and write the definitive biography. With authority (and possession) thus established, it is relatively easy to mine and remine the slag heap, bringing out successive editions of his major works, followed by volumes of letters or previously (and perhaps wisely) unpublished fragments of his early work.
In the old days, once a biographer-critic got on top of a really big writing name he was likely to stay there for a lifetime. But today, scholarly competition is cutthroat, and the great writers of the past are likely to be swarmed over as an elephant carcass is swarmed over by ants, each one fruitfully busy but no one bigger than the next. Nevertheless, some hardy scholars can justly lay claim to authoritative possession of one literary giant or near giant, by virtue of either a brilliant critical study that makes rivals obsolete or research of such exhaustive thoroughness that it discourages competitors. Among them: Edgar Johnson, of New York's City College, who owns Charles Dickens; Ernest J. Simmons, who took over Tolstoy with a whopping biography in 1946, recently became a two-man proprietor when his massive study of Chekhov (TIME, Oct. 19) came out; Harvard's Douglas Bush, who has monopolized Milton since 1945 and may set the 20th century endurance record as titleholder, a triumph only slightly tarnished by the fact that Milton can hardly be described as a hotly pursued property. Ex-Proprietor Boswell is himself now possessed by Yale's renowned scholar Frederick A. Pottle. Yale, in fact, has enough Johnson-Boswelliana to fill Yale Bowl, is probably the only college brash enough to claim a whole literary century—the 18th in England—as its very own.
Squatters and Stampedes. In the slender roster of modern American greats, Scott Fitzgerald was once the property of Arthur Mizener, who helped bring his writings to a new prominence (TIME, Jan. 29, 1951). But Fitzgerald is now a contested figure, suspended between Mizener and Andrew Turnbull, author of the recent biographical bestseller (TIME, March 30). Several critics are even now trying to assert squatters' rights in the late William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, but what will become of their rivalry nobody is likely to know for years. Hemingway had no one dominant fan in life. After his death, a stampede of scholars for the right to use his private papers might have been expected. But the great plum was swiftly awarded by his widow to Princeton's Carlos Baker. As sure as footnotes are footnotes, Baker, now at work on a definitive biography, will be "the Hemingway man."
Nobody has to ask "Who owns Henry James?" A professor at New York University named Leon Edel has for years. Judging from the quality of the recently issued second and third volumes of his proposed four-volume biography, he may do so for decades more. The achieved promise of a man who began working on James in 1927, when the rarefied writer was scarcely thought a judicious subject even for a Ph.D. thesis, the two volumes are a most unusual combination: the most massive piece of biographical scholarship ever lavished on an American author, written as gracefully as a mannered memoir.
Picking James up at age 27 in 1870, where Volume I (issued in 1953) left off, Edel carries the self-exiled author to the eve of the calamitous London production of James's second play, Guy Domville, in 1895. Nothing is left out, from James's minutest observations (ladies at fashionable Saratoga are "a hundred rustling beauties whose rustle is their sole occupation") to the heretofore unknown existence of a long relationship between James and U.S. Writer Constance Fenimore Woolson. James kept her at a distance—where he kept nearly everyone—but when she committed suicide, he hastily destroyed his letters to her.
Masks and Tragedy. Instead of that benumbing, step-by-step chronology to which so many earnest biographers undiscriminatingly consign everything from laundry bills to emotional crises, Edel weaves back and forth in time and subject like a novelist. Predictably, Edel believes James deserves a place among the very greatest novelists. Some critics may boggle at this, but there can be little argument that James was a perceptive prober of human emotions, a tireless experimenter who freed the novel from the thralldom of moralistic comment and told his stories through a series of psychological masks.
The author of Daisy Miller is, of course, not every reader's cup of tea—or rather he is too much like tea in a world which has mistakenly come to believe that where there is no whisky and no cyanide there can be no seriousness. When he was asked what he thought of Henry James, the late William Faulkner replied, "One of the nicest old ladies I ever met," and so summed up this point of view once and for all. Anyone who agrees with Faulkner is not likely to cotton to James's stable of characters—elegant expatriates, comme-il-faut papas with charming daughters, gloved grandees of the Old World and the New. But James's works were based on the classical belief that high tragedy seldom involves the outer concerns of realism—the struggle to get a job, the fear of starving. It can be found rather in the failed aspirations of those who are free to live by a code and have no realistic excuses for their own failure. The tea leavings of many a sophisticated lifetime are bitter enough for anyone expert enough to read them. As an expert, Henry James was sometimes interminable. But he was never frivolous.