HENRY JAMES: A Life in Letters

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In composing a biography largely from Henry James’s correspondence, Horne is experimenting with a discredited form—the Victorian life and letters of an eminent person. In those tomes, the subject generally got the first and the last word, with the biographer acting as a discreet valet, making sure the old gentleman’s linen was clean and brushing him up for public inspection. In the modern biographies that have displaced them, by contrast, the interpreter seizes control of the text, quotes much less from letters, and often feels compelled to expose the subject’s flaws.

This revival and revision of the Victorian model allows James (1843–1916) to dominate, but it also permits Horne, who teaches English literature at University College, London, to enlarge on and sometimes contest the writer’s account through headnotes. We read James’s life as though he had written it in the vivid private language reserved for his inner circle, but with subtitles that grant us access and also correct misunderstandings. Horne’s deep knowledge of James and his world illuminates the life without seeming to interpret it. "Edited by" suggests that he is not the real author of the volume.

And yet Horne’s subtitle, "A Life in Letters," can be construed another way—as an account of James’s professional career. His is not the first edition of James’s letters, nor is it the fullest. James’s biographer Leon Edel produced a four-volume Letters (1974–84) that included 1,100 of them. More specialized collections have since appeared, such as the wonderful exchanges between James and Edith Wharton, and those between Henry and his brother William. Even so, half of the roughly 300 letters in Horne’s book have never been published before. Thousands of James letters survive, so that interpreters can create an image of their own choosing through selection.

The James that emerges from Horne’s choices is primarily (though not exclusively) an ambitious, disciplined professional writer, advancing his career, vigorously negotiating with editors, publishers, and literary agents. He aims both to secure his long-term reputation as a serious novelist and to generate the income to devote himself to such work. It is a constant struggle. What he hopes to write (long, complex, often disturbing fiction) is, after his early successes, at odds with what the market wants (shorter, simpler, reassuring novels and stories), and many of the newly published letters record this impasse.

Far from suggesting a confident writer with no reason to worry about money or fame, this volume depicts a tenacious, at times desperate attempt to win the promised rewards. James is convinced that his works will crumble into dust. He would have been amazed that almost every published word he wrote remains in print on the brink of the 21st century, and that the large, discriminating audience he despaired of finding is reading them. And though he feared biographers (see his story "The Aspern Papers," with its "publishing scoundrel" looking for secreted letters), he might have been grateful that one of them has chosen to concentrate on his struggles to make his name rather than on the intensely private world he hid even from his intimates. For readers with similar priorities, Horne’s book is an ideal introduction.

—Alex Zwerdling


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