Sunday, August 14, 2022

The Real Right Thing

Henry James (1843–1916)
From Henry James: Complete Stories 1898–1910

The Angel of Grief Weeping Over the Dismantled Altar of Life, 1894, gravestone by American artist William Wetmore Story (1819–1895) for his wife, Emelyn, in the Protestant Cemetery, Rome. “The end was already almost there by the time he had produced the only work that occupied him after the death of his wife,” wrote Henry James in his biography of Story. “The figure thus produced, [is] unsurpassed, in all his work, for intensity of expression.” (Photograph by Einar Einarsson Kvaran / Carptrash, via Wikimedia Commons)
“My sole wish is to frustrate as utterly as possible the post mortem exploiter—which, I know, is but so imperfectly possible,” Henry James wrote to his nephew Henry (“Harry”) James III in 1914. Designated as James’s executor, Harry had written inquiring about his “literary remains” at a time when the author had been concerned about his “liability to the invading chronicler.” James continued:
Your question determines me definitely to advert to the matter in my will—that is to declare my utter and absolute abhorrence of any attempted biography or the giving to the world by “the family,” or by any person for whom my disapproval has any sanctity, of any part or parts of my private correspondence. One can discredit and dishonour such enterprises even if one can’t prevent them, and as you are my sole and exclusive literary heir and executor you will doubtless be able to serve in some degree as a check and a frustrator.
During the last few years of his life, James destroyed more than four decades’ worth of correspondence, but, of course, he could only destroy the personal letters he received—not the ones he wrote.

Henry James’s feelings about biographies (and biographers) were nuanced, complicated, and sometimes contradictory. He often read them, and he even praised numerous biographies in his reviews, but he also felt that books in the genre had become commonplace and often unnecessary. In late 1902, the editors of Houghton, Mifflin asked James if he might be willing to write a biography of the poet and critic James Russell Lowell. He declined because he regarded Lowell as unworthy of the full biographical treatment. “If a man has had a quiet life, but a great mind, one may do something with him; as one may also do something with him even if he has had a small mind and great adventures,” he responded. “But when he has had neither adventures nor intellectual, spiritual, or whatever inward, history, then one’s case is hard.”

One of James’s primary objections to biographers was their inclination to scour private correspondence and diaries in search of what he condemned as “revelations.” James expressed his displeasure, for example, when the younger brother of the French novelist Alphonse Daudet published a book in 1882 about their family life. “Alphonse Daudet is living, and very living; that is his great attraction,” James wrote. “We hold, all the same, that there is little to please us in the growing taste of the age for revelations about the private life of the persons in whose works it is good enough to be interested. In our opinion, the life and the works are two very different matters, and an intimate knowledge of the one is not at all necessary for a genial enjoyment of the other.”

There is, however, the occasional subject whose public life is so informed by matters usually considered “private” that it becomes impossible for the honest biographer to avoid them. In 1895, Horatio Brown’s two-volume life of the cultural historian John Addington Symonds appeared. When James’s close friend Ariana Curtis, who had been Symonds’s neighbor in Venice, suggested that James write a review essay about the biography, he responded:
There was in Symonds a whole side—tout un côté—that was strangely morbid & hysterical & which toward the end of his life coloured all his work & utterance. To write of him without dealing with it, or at least looking at it, would be an affectation; & yet to deal with it either ironically or explicitly would be a Problem—a problem beyond me. . . . Yet, there are also in him—in his work—there were in him things I utterly don’t understand; & the idea of taking the public into his intimissima confidence which seems to me to have been almost insane.
The ”Problem” James is referring to here is the increasingly public awareness of Symonds’s homosexuality—a subject a little too close to home for James himself. Although Symonds and James had met briefly only once, in 1877, they had kept tabs on each other through a mutual friend, Edmund Gosse, until Symonds’s death in 1893. James absorbed and admired nearly everything written by Symonds, who in turn didn’t think much of James’s fiction—which the novelist apparently never knew. Symonds, who was married with four daughters and whose wife disapproved of his books, served as the model for the main character in James’s tragic story, “The Author of ‘Beltraffio,’” about a writer of novels his wife deems immoral.

In his historical works, Symonds dealt with same-sex love in the ancient world far more directly than had previous writers in English, and he privately printed two essays, A Problem in Greek Ethics and A Problem in Modern Ethics, that were more explicitly defenses of “Greek love.” Through Gosse, James received and read the Problem pamphlets, as well as a stack of Symonds’s most personal letters, which James described as “fond outpourings.” James, according to his biographer Leon Edel, affected to be neutral toward yet intrigued by Symonds’s “passionate crusade” in the treatises; “what seems to have bothered him was Symonds’s desire for public display in matters James deemed wholly private.”

At the end of the century, James was ensnared in a literary challenge similar to the one depicted in his story “The Real Right Thing” (1899): he had reluctantly agreed to become a “post mortem exploiter” and write a biography of the American sculptor William Wetmore Story, who had died in 1895. To make matters worse, James didn’t think much of Story’s sculptures. Yet he was friends with his son and daughter-in-law, who had managed to convince him to write the book, and they sent him “a boxful of old papers, personal records and relics all.” He delayed work on the project for as long as he could; when he finally turned his full attention to it in 1903, he wrote in frustration to William Dean Howells: “There is no subject—there is nothing in the man himself to write about. There is nothing for me but to do a tour de force, or try to—leave poor dear W.W.S. out.” The result, William Wetmore Story and His Friends, was less a biography than a travel book disguised as a group portrait of Story’s social circle—the American and British artists who populated Italy, and especially Rome, earlier in the century.

And so, in “The Real Right Thing,” a would-be biographer becomes absorbed in, then haunted (or stymied) by the life of his subject. When Edel mentions the story in his five-volume life of Henry James, he remarks, “It was as if James, about to join the ranks of biographers, wondered whether this was the real right thing for a novelist to be doing.”

Willie Tolliver’s book, Henry James as a Biographer: A Self Among Others (2000), proved to be an invaluable resource for tracking down several of the above quotes.

Notes: James refers to two pairs of biographers and their subjects by their last names: James Boswell and the writer Samuel Johnson, and John Gibson Lockhart and his father-in-law, the novelist Walter Scott.

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When, after the death of Ashton Doyne—but three months after—George Withermore was approached, as the phrase is, on the subject of a 'volume,' the communication came straight from his publishers, who had been, and indeed much more, Doyne's own. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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