Henry James, a photo (1897)
This is not the effete young man, or the tired weary old guarded bland one, but an imposing solid guy, distinctive, intense, modern looking too without being (as he is in another) crumpled. Look at the powerful thigh, the stub of a cigar and flat cap.
Dear friends and readers,
When we finished reading James’s Roderick Hudson on Trollope19thCStudies, two of us had enjoyed ourselves enough to want to go on to read more of James’s works, biographies of James, more criticism. We lit on Fred Kaplan’s biography, The Imagination of Genius, read it through and have now gone on read two short stories, “The Middle Years” (autobiographical) and “The Turn of the Screw” (ghost gothic).
I hope to show that while Kaplan’s lengthy biography is admirable, perceptive, at once rich in so many details and perception, yet it’s still less than satisfying. Its subtitle: “The imagination of genius” is inappropriate. Precisely because Kaplan does not go into the books as art and remains literally on the surface of the letters, his book ultimately fails to convey a sense of a full person. He pretended to (or did believe) James was totally celibate; and — very bad, great lack — he didn’t begin to go into James’s imaginative and travel and critical writing sufficiently.
I also want to show (I’ll do this on Reveries under the sign of Austen) that at the center of The Turn of the Screw is a novella of a young woman forbidden by her employer to seek his aid, who is beset, terrified, harassed by the ghosts and teased by the children: where were we? The theme: the evil moral panic can wreak.
Henry James when young
I began Kaplan’s Henry James: Imagination of Genius this morning and found I could read it, and more, I like it. He’s trying to recreate the inner worlds that James knew as a boy (and presumably as one continues) young man to account for what we find in the novels. Kaplan begins with a large get-together, one with plenty of food. What does it feel like to a young male heir: Kaplan opens with James at age 21, at age 29, and then dying, each as a vignette of what James is contemplating: he wants praise and money at 21; at 29 he’s made his way to Venice, to Italy, and (using quotations again) dreams of a handsome Italian boy rising from Adriatic waters, and then all the burning of stacks and stacks of letters, the nervous breakdown and illness at WW1, stroke.
Many of the vignettes of people remind me of characters in James without Kaplan saying so. We are perhaps expected to see that on our own. So there is Roderick Hudson in Henry James’s senior’s refusal to chain himself down to a business life, and instead his years of drinking heavily, his failure at an art life but success at a personal one.
Immersed in the US until he was 12 and then immersed in Europe, detached from all, not placed inside communities and the mother allowing all this. Bob, one of the two un-literary brothers ended an alcoholic.
That James did not “take to change, especially when it threatened values and ways of life that he believed had permanent value” (p. 5).
Kaplan shows Henry James Senior’s moving was a deliberate and effective method of isolating his children and controlling them. Thus when they did make their way in Newport, finding friends, going to schools, he moved them back to Europe and they were desolate. Newport was acceptable because its middle class was of the gentry fringe type — no successful comparisons in other walks of life to compare to Henry Senior’s. It’s obvious to an intelligent person from the letters what he’s about and Kaplan quotes these. William begged to be able to go to school, to college, and Henry Senior wouldn’t let him; ditto for Henry Junior. On one level, Henry Senior was against the kinds of friends the two older boys were making (aesthetic, painting), but a deeper one was they were developing integrated lives very different from his own.
As to the mother, he apparently simply wiped the floor up with her. Aunt Kate was the only force opposed.
When they got to Europe though the boys were too old to just take it, and while there is no record of this, the failure of the schools there (as it’s said in the letters) drove the father back — probably open complaints. One visitor described quarrels at the table about other things, but there are ever subtexts.
So all returned to Newport where still Henry Senior refusing to pay for college for the older boys, and trying to force patterns he approved of on the younger.
Meanwhile Alice, the girl is left at home — to stew I suppose.
Alice James, much later in life
I’ve read Kaplan’s book on Whitman (also a homosexual writer) and one (but a while back) on the letters between Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning: all three show the same kinds of insights.
It’s hard to do justice to the compelling brilliance of the third and fourth chapters of Kaplan’s book. It’s not sterile and not suave. For example where Kaplan explains the attraction of Minnie Temple for James (pp. 77-78). The quality of insight, general reach of evaluative critique, choice of quotation from James are stunningly insightful plus give this reader great pleasure in the integrity of outlook Kaplan himself displays. The candor of the chapter on the illness of these four adults and the lack of enough money from the father equally well done.
Still a gap, or a hole begins to emerge. Kaplan offers no real explanation for how these young adults became so fucked-up. Was it keeping them apart? But so many people don’t integrate into society nor their children well at all. This is the dirty little American secret so insistently hidden in popular media (but seen in intelligent blogs and postings and websites seen on the Net at long last).
I take it the father covered his tracks and so did the mother and the James children were brought up so repressed and pious, they couldn’t get themselves literally to write down what was said and done when they were in their adolescence beyond this obvious pragmatic intense control and repression.
Henry escapes — goes abroad in Chapter 4. Henry seems the least maimed of this band of children — William will emerge later once he marries and escapes. I read into the early phases of Henry’s time abroad and how he needed and was dependent on conventional family friends — like the Nortons. By contrast, Trollope went to taverns and bars and so on by himself in his young adult hood in London but then Trollope was a native.
The frankness of Kaplan extends to Henry’s constipation. I feel for him. None of our modern day pills was available to him, no MaxExLax, no docusate calcium.
And the homosexuality or homo-eroticism of the young James and his first stories and interpretations of these connecting to James’s rivalry/love for his brother good too. I did like Flowers seeing how the supposed noble souls in James do much damage (that include Rowland)., but the kind of reverse readings (where female characters stand in for males) and story as metaphor (where the story line is re-morphed into what is going on in James’s life) is not easy to do and to write lucidly on top of it.
In Chapter 5 James forced home for lack of funds; uncertain time, but beginning to make enough money to live on (with a little help from father) and he, his sister, Alice, and their aunt Kate set forth again, this time the rationale Alice’s health. They are mistaken for husband, wife and mother and Henry doesn’t mind. Alice and Kate return, leaving Henry who’s career is slowly growing, as he writes for The Nation and other venues and produces one novel (Watch and Ward, what a mess) and several stories.
I don’t envy these young people. I know they are among the privileged elite of their time, fringe elite, precariously privileged, but well above the driving necessitous lives of most people then — and in the US increasingly now as the middle class is now grindingly beginning to be visibly destroyed. Rather they remind me of my students in this light: the years of our 20s are very hard, because we are trying to find ourselves, and in a way are placed will we, nill we. The horizon at 36 has closed to a large extent for many so the pressure is on. For women this is complicated by a perceived demand we marry — for men too though it’s less for both than it once was. It is scary and it is hard and I feel for my students as who knows what to do, or what choice will matter.
I do see them as maimed. Far from envying, I wonder just what really went on in that household. The mother was either dense or covered her “ass” and manipulative or (one can find different explanations) complicit with the father as not only was it easier but alone in their rooms who knows what kinds of deep unpleasantness he could pull off. I think of Mrs Harlowe in Clarissa — in her complicity. I used the phrase “fucked up” as an allusion — to Larkin’s poem. It has some fame. Perhaps Linda will think it harsh too, but he means to make us look at the raw power of our parents’ terrible hangups and miseries and how they pass them on to us, will they nill they. Here it is:
“This be the Verse” by Larkin
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
By alluding to this I meant to suggest also we cannot know really what the grandfather handed on to Henry Senior — beyond Kaplan’s attempts to show him to have been a driving commercial relentless ruthless man. Of the grandmother we are as usual confronted with silence. Another women not allowed to have a history of her own.
Minnie did die young and while she is presented as cheerful, the paragraphs I pointed to configure an attitude which remind me of Milly in Wings of the dove. I don’t know if Linda has read that one: it ends with the heroine not just near dying but turning her face to the wall rather than see the betrayal and (humiliating) use that has been made of her by Kate and her lover (I forget this male’s name but he is a type repeated in James). The key Kaplan felt was the strong integrity Minnie held to. At the same time Kaplan critiques this ideal as coming out of a stereotyped view of women that represses them sexually, something handed on (as in Larkin’s poem) to Henry junior from his father (again pp. 78-79). Minnie was ever dying in James’s mind and he knew her letters were gallantry.
We are told that with Fanny Kemble he developed an “intimate friendship”. Kemble wrote two long autobiographies, a powerful book on slavery as she experienced as a mistress of an adulterous cruel master-type, many poems and once she divorced this man and was forced to give up her children to do it, lived an unconventional life — she couldn’t manage the stage so performed privately pieces from Shakespeare, in many ways a much harder way to survive (rather like Kate Field’s lecture-performances).
I was touched by his friendship and intense liking for Fanny Kemble. Me too
“To Mrs Norton”
I never shall forget thee — ’tis a word
Thou oft must hear, for surely there be none
On whom thy wondrous eyes have ever shone
But for a moment, or who e’er have heard
Thy voice’s deep impassioned melody,
Can lose the memory of that look or tone.
But, not as these, do I say unto thee,
I never shall forget thee: — in thine eyes,
Whose light, like sunshine, makes the world rejoice,
A stream of sad and solemn splendour lies;
And there is sorrow in thy gentle voice.
Thou art not like the scenes in which I found thee,
Thou are not like the beings that surround thee;
To me thou art a dream of hope and fear;
Yet why of fear? — oh sure! the Power that lent
Such gifts, to make thee fair, and excellent;
Still watches one whom it has deigned to bless
With such a dower of grace and loveliness;
Over the dangerous waves ’twill surely steer
The richly freighted bark, through storm and blast,
And guide it safely to the port at last.
Such is my prayer; ’tis warm as ever fell
From off my lips: accept it, and farewell!
And though in this strange world, where first I met thee,
We meet no more — I never shall forget thee.
—– Fanny Kemble
Chs 5-7: the career and life style begins to emerge
DeVere Gardens, London — it took a long time before James could afford to rent an apartment in this place, but eventually he did and lived there
In these chapters James moves from Paris to London, partly because he could not “break” into Parisian society. We see him do just that in London, and as he does so, his career and life style begin to emerge. He is writing for the Tribune, for Howells, and others, and (as will continue) his work is not sufficiently appreciated — yes, for an elite taste, but it doesn’t sell widely enough, and he finds he needs his father’s letter of credit more than he wants to. He remains thinking of himself as an American abroad. The chapters also take you through the writing of Roderick Hudson and The American and in quick thumbnail sketches they are somewhat attached to James’s life.
I say somewhat because not only in both cases but in Kaplan’s discussion of James’s life there is a real silence about his homosexuailty. Kaplan was openly able to translate the earlier stories into parables connected to James’s life but not these two books. This discretion makes the book duller and with less insight much less when it comes to Roderick Hudson. For the American Kaplan allows himself “Henry wanted to assert strongly that the individual was more important than the family, that personal achievement should have priority over social inheritance or structure” (p. 163). I did like Kaplan’s insight into James’s fantasies of forgiveness: Kaplan finds in Jame’s fiction “a deeply restrained anger.” On the surface this unreal adherence to believing his family really thought of him as an “angel” and people really forgive one another but below the rage not confronted. Kaplan feels James moves away from seeing how power to be felt and enjoyed must be exerted. I wonder about that myself. Must it? If so, then action must be cruel to satisfy people? Does that explain why continually in the political world we see the powerful trying to axe the powerless even when whatever it is is no skin off their backs? But I do think James does show lurches for power: what else is Rowland spending his money for but to work Roderick as a puppet. That’s put harshly but it has accuracy.
We are told James fell in love briefly with Paul Joukowsky and get two franker pages (pp. 171-72). It’s apparent that James continues to buy into seeing a lived-out free homosexual life as disgusting and offensive, and this can to some extent justify Kaplan’s reticence (as James was reticent), but not discussing this in terms of the fiction or his moods and tones in the fiction or his life. His mother describes his life as reclusive and that’s not contradicted by Kaplan. My comment is the ironic one that even so (as I said) I found the academic reviewers excoriating him.
James’s not so kind comments about Anthony Trollope are quoted Trollope kept a strong carapace in public himself. I note how much James liked Turgenev. I’ve read very little of Turgenev’s fiction — this past year a story or so, late at night, very dark indeed.
James then writes a series of masterpieces: Europeans, The Portrait of a Lady are two.
Ralph Touchett (Martin Donovan), Jane Campion and Laura Jones’s 1986 The Portrait of a Lady, produced by Steve Golin
Kaplan has situated and described the circumstances and (in his discreet way) the personal life James was living while writing his earlier distinguished non-fiction — the essays on French literature, French poetry, the book on Hawthorne, early travel pieces.
I was struck by how Daisy Miller sold precisely because it was misunderstood and the conversation about it then is the same one I’ve heard today here on the Net and among students. Did Daisy have sex with her cavaliere servente. If we go on to read further fictions by James we should remember his comment that he wrote so as not to be understood too well as “it would be dangerous” — as well as cut his sales even more drastically.
I love the choice of utterances, sentences and longer passages Kaplan makes. They bring before me on the page the sensibility that I am so drawn to in James. Kaplan unerringly quotes James’s finest humane moments — as well as the ironic ones. It’s funny how bad he finds the actors and actresses still cried up today.
I admire James so for soldiering on – he is making no or such painfully small sums. He write a masterpiece on American literature and culture and Hawthorne, called Hawthorne and is excoriated. He is underpaid; when a book sells, he has lost the copyright. I don’t blame him for not getting an agent. I have dealt with agents for other things on occasion, enough to corrode the soul for months. The rivalry between William and Henry bad. Constance Fennimore Cooper relationship develops and means deeply to both of them.
Occasionally Kaplan shows real limitations: in his reading of Washington Square he talks of the father as sincere, intelligent, &c — identifying with the father (who hates the girl) he misses the whole point. But also occasionally he is willing to bring in James’s homosexuality in a reading and the text is made sense of (p. 214, “Confidences”).
He carries on quoting aptly: James: “I should pretend to think just a little better of life than I really do.” (p. 228)
Henry James may seem and is doing very well with 7/8s of the population around him, but that’s not how he feels. People see themselves in comparison, and while it’s clear he sees and registers the abysmal poverty of the streets in Italy and London, he compares himself with his fellow writers and people of his class. Kaplan offers many stories, sets of pages and quotation after quotation and example after example of James being paid much less than he felt he should have gotten and saw as meagre sums. One example (pp. 216-18). Or when he was galled to find he has sold the copyright of a book which did after all sell very well and he got nothing in comparison to what he should have gotten. We are told how he leaned on the letter of credit from his father and how he had to write his mother for more.
There’s a biography of Trollope by R.H. Super where Super argues that Trollope had a good childhood and is himself seeing the things black. But if that’s how Trollope experienced it and that were his memories, that’s what counts.
I don’t see James as a loner so much as we have no record of what he did when not writing and not out to dinner. For good reason. He”s in love with this man Paul Joukowsky but we are not told how they meet or what they did; all that exists is an indirect passage in a letter where James recorded his moral distaste for the debauched groups of people Paul surrounds himself by — I take this as code for homosexuality. James was there and he wanted it all to be in good taste I assume. Rather like Rowland — people should control themselves in public too. At the end of Chapter 7 we are told he had fallen desperately in love — with Paris.
I don’t feel I’m getting to know James well enough. His statements are often vexed, disappointed, and hurt; there is much dark, sad desperateness which can explain why he said he has an “imagination” which dwelt on the “sinister” when it comes to the nature of human life at the same time (for him to marry would be to “pretend to think just a little better of life than I really do” — a typical utterance as he writes in high ecstasy of physical beauty in the places he visits. He seems to look to art for intense compensation.
I do miss more discussion of art: we are given thumbnail interpretations of some of the novels and short stories but only some. The talk is much more about the social circumstances of composition — very typical for modern biographers. And there is nothing about his essays on poetry or travel books. That would be lovely and probably make the book more cheerful.
Chapter 8: Felt triumph
Villa Brichieri, Florence (where James stayed and wrote)
His book Portrait of a Lady really appreciated, and he makes good money on it, indeed (Kaplan points out that James does not say this but he could have been seeing it) more than his father would take from his unearned property-income in a given year. He goes home on the wave of this success. He is in fact a man of letters, known across those parts of Europe his family and he understand and so care about, respected as a brilliant mind, fine writer. One of the reviews I sent yesterday summarized one chapter on the periodicals where it was said that James’s erudite small-audience kind of prose was a “plus” for those periodicals seeking to present themselves and make a place for themselves as belonging to finer literature and art.
When he looks about (comparisons again), he cannot help but see that he is succeeding at least as well as William and far better than Alice (who though has a woman companion-lover Katherine Loring) or the two younger brothers, one desperately depressed, the other now an alcoholic. And Henry could not have stood William’s kind of happiness, the last thing in the world that would sustain him is this heterosexual marriage with a conventional woman and children. He looks at his parents and sees them not as powerhouses any more: the mother shrunken, and now the father not all powerful at all. He’s growing up, freeing himself, a little.
There is such reticence in James that we feel this — we have a picture of a man who goes to his club for breakfast, dawdles about, then gets down to writing and in the evening socializes. Many details about this but it’s like a hole at the center. Not that I really think he was endlessly debauching himself; it seems that in fact he was super-discreet to the point that whatever sexual or private relationships beyond his business and social life and family he had were kept to a minimum, fleeting.
Some of this silence can be seen in the almost crazy worshipful way the mother was treated after death, like some kind of saint. Hardly likely. The father then starves himself to death for a year and leaves an unfair will — apparently partly through the influence of this Aunt Kate. I begin to wonder about some of these older dominating aunts we find in James’s fiction. Henry is the executor and has to fight William to get him to agree to fair distribution. The whole sordid spectacle is before us, but notably only general kinds of bleak pessimistic statements are uttered by Henry. That he did not admit his homosexuality is seen in letters quoted where he is explaining to someone why he doesn’t marry.
Among other things he could say he hasn’t the money for it. Again he is surviving by his pen, but he is endlessly being he feels cheated this and that way through his own bad guesses, business softness (or incompetence some would call it). We see these attempts to write plays and how they failed and general statements about how appalling was his meeting with this or that manager. The comparison of this with “Henry James Leaves Home” by Colm Toibin brings out the comparison between the two kinds of texts and the living person fully brought out in incomparably in Toibin’s favor.
Not that I’m not learning a lot: for example how James came to write A Tour in France, the circumstances, the money, what he enjoyed and what was so ennui to him. But it’s something beyond one desires in biographical art.
Genius, Chapter 9
James’s close friendship with Edith Wharton came later in life
Not much to say as I didn’t get much further (just a bit): only that I feel the book’s spirits lifting as James’s spirits lift. He is still making painfully small sums in comparison to what he sees others of his caliber and reach make, still then using his inheritance, but he is now it seems free. He has at least freed himself because of his parents’ death and the settlement of the estate.
Wilky dies but he doesn’t get there. Still of the five children he does seem to have become the most responsible. It’s true monetarily and as far as respect and achievement goes, William is catching up or has, but I am impressed by Henry James’s real decency in divvying up the property and his friendships. He seems to me becoming a figure of honesty and integrity — how it must’ve hurt to have to despise his own sexuality and keep it a secret. We cannot fathom it until we begin to imagine analogous experiences of our own … Then one understands aspects of his fiction better too.
How generous are the photos, and how many and how revealing. James not only lived into the photo era, he was a member of groups who took camera pictures of themselves. Kaplan says he didn’t like how he looked, but he did let people photograph him. Also the other people, the places — they are well chosen. It’s worth it to slowly linger through them — like a story.
It’s the same story still. Kaplan has the eternal problem of the biographer: he is hampered by the letters or can’t readily go beyond them, and they are apparently filled with talk about the money James is not getting and what he got, and how he was not treated right and so on. He sticks with the American versus British (Europe v US) contrast and it comes home to him all the more because he gets caught (stuck) by the way the publishers on two sides of the ocean take advantage. Happily though he has enough to settle into his first home, an apartment of his own at De Vere Gardens, London, with a good view (ahem) and is very cheered: “a moment of euphoria and fulfillment — the lifelong wanderer with a place of personal rest” (p 297)
Not so about the continual failure of his books to please a wide audience. He makes his money on short stories. It’s true the way Kaplan describes the book (Bostonians) makes them not very likable. They do have some real politics about socialism, and even James doesn’t discuss it in his letters, it is there — especially The Princess Casamassima which I remember.
I like Stevenson and am glad to see Kaplan show their friendship and shared concern with art (p. 276-77). But Stevenson couldn’t stay put, a wanderer who really did wander.
Kaplan comes out on the side of James as repressed: he did not act out his homosexuality nor did he think of himself as a homosexual. We have to remember the word comes in the 1890s in a medical sex book (I think it was). We have a different vocabulary, much more secularized (we don’t include damning people through Biblical connotations as in the world “harlot”) I was struck by this when reading James’s thoughts about Wilde (p. 301) and also how Kaplan describes the strong homo-eroticism of the tales of this era — very like Roderick Hudson apparently. Kaplan will describe a short story in terms that allegorize (interpret) it as homoerotic or sexual and then back off to tell us how James distanced himself — often by making a gender change so the person he’s identifying with is a woman.
The way Kaplan described “The Pupil” gave me pause. A young boy dies at the end; this is what happens in Turn of the Screw. I can’t find it now but the sense of the passage was James was expressing his deep sympathy with this boy out of an outsider sexual orientation. Was this what happened in Turn of the Screw? Are we to see the boy punished for having had sex with Quint and how unfair that is? (that he should have been exploited, expelled and then die of a heart attack). Then we get the humane use of language about his sister, Alice; he is telling the aunt maybe even if it’s not “so good for Alice” to have Katherine with her; there is no such thing as the long run. What nonsense to have to talk this way in the first place (p. 277). There were two in the family who were GLBT.
His attempt to break into the theater
Guy Domville (Act III, Marion Terry and George Alexander)
These chapters are on James’s attempt to succeed on stage and deaths, many deaths. They are very moving. I think perhaps Kaplan in repeating the idea that James’s problem was he was determined to write down is misguided. James may have said that but it seems to me he was determined to write differently because he know the angle at which he pitched his fiction was not external; he didn’t write Ibsen plays because his point of view was not modern in Ibsen’s way at all — he is anything but for women’s liberation. Guy Domville shows a man writing autobiographically about what is near his heart and using metaphors that draw from learned reading.
Clearly James had enough money but he didn’t think so; what a throwing away of himself one might say. I wonder if he was intensely stirred by the social interaction.
From death to death, and the portraits of each of the people (Browning, Stevenson, Fanny Kemble, Alice James, and finally Constance Fennimore). In each case I’d like to make the point that what’s so stirring is Kaplan’s presence his voice.
We haven’t been talking enough about the biography as art. In the biographies I wrote about over the last couple of years (Nokes’s, Sutherland’s, McCarthy’s, Plessix-Grey) I stress the biographer and the interaction for that’s what makes the book. Nick tells me he’s reading Glendining on Trollope: what makes her book singularly interesting is her take, her prose, her world view interacting and impinged upon.
We’ve been talking as if this is somehow coming at us from some impersonal place. I do this because 1) I don’t know enough about Kaplan to have a sense of him (as I did Nokes and Sutherland) or the subject (as I do of Trollope, Scott, Anna Barbauld) and this is deep stuff — unlike Plessix-Grey who on the face of her book was clearly inadequate, shallow.
And 2) Kaplan piles so much in. This is a hard-worked book so every sentence is thick with James’s wonderful quotations. So Kaplan keeps himself the shaper who is more silent.
Still he came out in these chapters. Death brings out the commemorator and celebrator in him. He gives us a sense of each person as so precious and how terrible to lose them. Like James, he has no sense of an afterlife — and he has James thinking this way.
I don’t know that I’m getting a lot about the fiction in this book. Probably not. I do know that the egregious reviews which castigated it as making James a gay man (and how they couldn’t stand this) are absurd and misrepresenting the book. James is not all that different in activity thus far than Edel had him. It’s only that Kaplan continually leaves rooms for what we have no documentation for and a wanderer whose sexual orientation is so different and his dreams; for Kaplan though the sex is only one aspect of what made James a man alone amid so many friends, associates, people who respected him (rightly).
If I’m liking James, it’s Kaplan that’s doing it.
Constance Fennimore Woolson
I’ve gotten into 13 and found myself a wee bit put off by James’s reiteration of how little money he makes — yes from books, but he’s got a fine income if he can purchase Lamb House in Rye, a central house in the area, built 1723, place for long established upper class people to live.
I was struck by James’s intense grief over Woolston’s death and how he rowed out into the middle of the lagoon and threw her black dresses into the water and they all came up to the surface and bobbed about him. He was doing public penance. It was a ritual public humiliation and how he hated these black dresses. The account of her independent but lonely life was moving: she must not have been sane at the end, though.
I am myself sceptical about James’s celibacy. I see there’s no evidence for sexual interaction but by the nature of the case there would not be. I’m impressed by how he got hold of and burnt all his letters to Woolston, how he burns others. There young men come to live at Lamb house for extended periods.
Hendrik and Andreas Anderson (painted by the latter): Hendrik was one of a group of young male friends of James’s
The nights are long and silent and tell nothing. He keeps the Smith couple despite their alcoholism and negligent ways. There’s one photo of James where he sits in a chair so crumpled: to me that’s a man returned from a tour of the streets.
I had not thought that James’s behavior in that lagoon might make some people laugh at him. It becomes even more painful to me to contemplate then. That moment in the theater when he (innocent still) came out on stage after the playing of Guy Domville to be hooted and jeered and the target of catcalls — at the same moment as other groups in the house frantically applauded, stomped and so on — I imagine it never left his consciousness quite, burnt into his brain. So too perhaps this scene which he engineered himself.
I had not thought of Kaplan’s interpretation of the Turn of the Screw at all. Henry is the little girl, and William Miles; Miles is (as I thought) expelled for homoerotic adventures with other boys, having been taught by Quint. The governess Aunt Kate. It’s too pat. Nor do I see Homosexual panic in it — rather it’s a defense of pederasty and of boys having sex. I see James identifying with the governess in her repression (so that is the side he writes the letters out of where he decries open debauchery) but also with those the governess is so appalled and horrified by, the stud Quint (having sex with Miss Jessel who killed herself) and the master and Miles too. He got around. Quint is the Stanley Kowalski from Streetcar that Tennesse Williams so loathed and feared first created by James: the man who would destroy him. In that sense homosexual panic.
I had thought Maisie knew all.
I thought I’d begin with this line, as indicative of so many passages paraphrased by Kaplan so one can see how the book is an interaction of Kaplan and James:
“He could think of nothing more wasteful, more brutal, more detestable, more personally soul-shaking than people killing one another in an organized way.” p 432
On politics this is James utterance; “The crudity of the struggle for place is … mainly what strikes me. It isn’t pretty.” p 432
I mentioned how two of the reviews online available to me (there were not that many) excoriated this book for its flagrant “making up” (mandarin words for this) of James’s homosexuality. I’m still thinking about this as I read paragraphs where Kaplan has written comments like “In various forms, many of them disguises, such a retreat frmo overt sexuality had been central to James’s life …” Kaplan insists — to me improbably — that weeks of visits from people like the very sensual sexy Hendrik Anderson results in no physical sex (for example, p 452). Of course we have no photos, of course they didn’t write it down. Rather I imagine something painful like having sex very quietly at night and then returning to separate rooms and never ever discussing it. So I am guessing that the reviewers who were so offended had the reaction I’m having: Kaplan is pretending to assume celibacy to sell widely all the while giving us huge skeins of evidence which suggest otherwise. Not wild debauches, but covert sexuality – and alas self-hatred.
Which leads me to say I have never been able to understand why the hatred of sexual interaction between people of the same sex. So what? Biblical and other injunctions are the outside rationales for gut fears but there are other fears — like of the dead which result in myths about vampires and of old women which result in burning old women as witches. This one lives on. Statistics show repeatedly that say anal intercourse occurs frequently between heterosexuals as do other forms of sex. One might argue that the only difference is the cultural deformations imposed by large groups of people in various places.
I finished the book in the early hours of this morning. As I think about it, I find it a dissatisfying or frustrating book. I honestly don’t think the general outline Edel erected years ago is changed. More pieces are put into the puzzle: we are told the names of James’s young male lovers/friends, how often they stayed; we are told more of his moving about, and I dare say a much better choice of passages by James, much better maybe – this book is packed with quotations, some pages are sheer pastiche.
The choice really gives us a sense of an acutely alive person. When he died, I felt his agony at this annihilation made its progress across his body, then mind, and then whole being. But repeatedly there are lines in the quotations totally at odds with the general sense of the man at the given point offered by Kaplan. So we have these long passages practically chortling with joy as James visits friends in the US and travels; they register so beautifully (to allude to one of his favorite ironic words in the novels) the quality of his experiences, the details of what he perceives physically, viscerally, his deep ethical horror at much in human life (e.g., the war). But then there’s this line about his ‘deep bitterness’ out of nowhere, unexplained and out of kilter with the rest. This happened repeatedly.
Also Kaplan’s discussions of James’s writing are short and really most of the time are simply read autobiographically. If he did this to save space and write a compact book or because he knows that “lit crit” is not what sells and not what publishers want, it leaves a huge hole in his book. Why are we interested in James if not what he says to us generally too? Why his books are beautiful? What he thought of other authors, art.
So on the whole while this may at this point be the best on offer that’s concise, and miles better than the Plessix-Grey sort of thing. It’s not cant, Kaplan has not produced a book of cant or stupidities and has not himself written on behalf of or out of the perspective of the privileged order to which James belonged as if it were reality for us all. But it’s not a satisfying book. When you finish a book on Austen and feel you are no closer, well the papers have been destroyed most of them and she produced but 6 novels and all of them censored to be a lady’s books and not displease her family on whom she was dependent.
But this is not the case with James at all. We’ll rely on HD TV.
I find it moving that at the end of his life Jame is finally saying to hell with a wide audience and writing the last three masterpiece novels. How he hurried back to Lamb House and the depiction of him on, writing long letters with “his little dog breathing softly by his side.” And “He found the world an increasingly brutal, violent place. He often felt lonely.”
I was struck in these last chapters how much Henry James relied on people who were not his family members; how uneasy and miserable his brothers at the close made him, and how his brother’s wife took over his existence and body to the point of removing a faithful long time servant who when Henry James was able to exert his own consciousness was close to him. William’s wife thought she owned him, body and all, to the point of disobeying his last desires and returning his ashes to the US. James’s relationships with a group of young men were all intimate in the letters in what they reveal of their souls and emotions to one another and they were a great solace for this man in his later years. Not enough. No, for they too were caught up in the same order of scorn. I do agree on how James loathed what humanity did in WW1. His friend, Edith Wharton, too and she worked hard to relieve suffering with her huge amounts of money.
This is an admirable but unsatisfying biography. After I wrote my last last week I thought to myself the title is inappropriate: it’s precisely that Kaplan does not go into the books as art and remains literally on the surface of the letters that the problem with the book lies.
People were not ontologically different from today nor did they withhold themselves from having sex any more than they do today. They wrote it down much less; it was far more dangerous. As today in public people tell many lies and present guarded versions of their lives so then even more so. Also that there no general mind (or will) at any time. Of course there is no documentation of what literal sex life and what James did with many of his hours; it would be deeply against his interests to write this stuff down clearly. What is astonishing is how much there is. Sedgwick credits James with beginning homosexual literature. Oh yes before him we do during freer period find poems by men to others they love (Shakespeare, Michelangelo), from the Renaissance on pornography begins to last (Aretino), the later 17th century is rich in documentation of lesbianism as reflected in conventionalized poetry too, but nothing as realistic or aware of the pain of being despised as James. That’s what’s so new, the self-reflexivity of placing the self against the conventional society — Shakespeare doesn’t do that nor Aphra Behn (who writes lesbian poems). Roderick Hudson is an important landmark first in this.
James late in life, in front of Lamb House, Rye, Sussex
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