The Magazine

The Master’s Voices

Henry James gets the scholarly treatment.

Mar 26, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 27 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
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Among the scholarly and critical books that continue to crowd the Henry James shelf in university libraries, this new one by Michael Anesko deserves a significant place. Monopolizing the Master tells the story of what happened to Henry James’s legacy after his death in England in 1916 at the age of 72.

Photo of Jeremy Northam and Uma Thurman in ‘The Golden Bowl’

Jeremy Northam, Uma Thurman in ‘The Golden Bowl’ (2000)

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Not long before he died, he declared that he had long thought of “launching a curse not less explicit than Shakespeare’s own on any such as try to move my bones.” Expressing his “abhorrence” of any biography of himself, and of giving to the world instances of his private correspondence, he destroyed reams of letters from family and friends. Such vigorous disposal activities may have been somewhat health-related, and Anesko describes them in a colorful manner: “At particular moments of medical crisis, plumes of smoke would rise from his chimney or waft from the cottage corner of the garden at Lamb House, where the caretaker could keep a watchful eye on the Master’s epistolary bonfires.” James’s watchful eye was most fully extended to his own work when, in the New York Edition of his writings (1907-09), he oversaw and wrote prefaces to the books of his he thought most worth preserving. The edition was to be, as he put it, “a sort of plea for Criticism, for Discrimination, for Appreciation on other than infantine lines.” But the revision and reissuing of his books also constituted, suggests Anesko, both an artistic and a commercial “attempt to monopolize himself by patenting a style for futurity.” Revised, books would remain longer in copyright, thus making them, in James’s words, some “twenty or thirty years younger.”

As is well-known, the New York Edition, which excluded seven of his novels and half of his stories, was a resounding commercial failure, as suggested by James’s first remittance check from Scribner’s for $35. His attempt to exert control over how a reader should read his works, in the prefaces he wrote for the edition, was part of a larger pattern. He and his family—especially nephew Harry and sister-in-law Alice—tried (in Anesko’s words) “to control the representation of themselves to curious outsiders.” There had been an earlier attempt by Katharine Loring, companion for many years to Henry’s sister Alice, to publish Alice’s diary after her death in 1892; in the face of her brothers’ disapproval, the diary remained unpublished for 40 years. Then, after William’s death (1910), when Henry set about writing the second volume of his memoir, Notes of a Son and Brother, he proceeded to “improve” William’s letters by substituting various “preferred expressions” of his own. Through such rewriting, his brother’s intention might “flower before me as into the only terms that honourably expressed it.” William’s son Harry was appalled, and Henry apologized, promising never again to stray from his “proper work,” although 16 excerpts from the emended letters found their way into the memoir.

James died in 1916, having become a British subject as an act of loyalty to his adopted land and in reproof of America’s not having entered the war. Although he had burned so many of the letters addressed to him, there were thousands of his own extant; for example, Edmund Gosse presented the James family with no less than 400, yet William’s wife and daughter, who had taken on the solicitation of letters, seemed relatively uninterested. Gosse told Edith Wharton that they were upset about James’s English citizenship and wanted to emphasize instead the writer’s American aspect. After complicated machinations, a suitable candidate to edit the letters, the choice of both Wharton and Gosse, was found in the person of Percy Lubbock, one of the Master’s disciples who had written respectfully about James’s American roots.

Some of Anesko’s most interesting pages are devoted to what, in a subheading, he calls “The Queer Case of Percy Lubbock.” Lubbock was one of a circle of more or less closeted homosexuals (Hugh Walpole, Howard Sturgis, A. C. Benson were others) who formed the nucleus of correspondents James wrote to in his later years. Wharton and other “literary” admirers of James feared that family nervousness about the extravagant manner in which the later James addressed younger male correspondents might result in their suppressing or otherwise tampering with the letters. Lubbock could be trusted to be both devoted and discreet about dealing with “ambiguities of sexual orientation” found in James’s over-the-top signings-off (“I feel, my dear boy, my arm around you.  .  .” etc.). Lubbock would go on to initiate a monumental 35 volumes of James’s work published by Macmillan, restoring titles omitted from the New York Edition, and would also write The Craft of Fiction, which presents James as the major exemplar of how to write it. But Lubbock’s relation with Wharton became complicated when she took a dim view of his infatuation with a young painter: “What a queer turn on the wheel,” she wrote to a mutual friend. In turn Lubbock, in his Portrait of Edith Wharton, called her (with reference to James) “herself a novel of his, no doubt in his earlier manner.”

Anesko’s tone toward his subject is thoroughly confident, frequently witty, indeed acerb, and always a bit above the fray. He seems especially animated by the “queer” aspects of his story, quoting a letter Lubbock wrote to a sympathetic friend in which he speaks with some relief about “throwing the cupboard-door open for the right one person,” and mentions having received a “simply Gargantuan” letter from James himself, in which the Master insists that “I am to tell him everything when I get back” (Lubbock is spending Christmas in Vienna). Anesko calls the letter “Rabelaisian not only in size but also in its queer (and exquisitely campy) sexual inquisitiveness.” He writes that Lubbock “clucked” to his friends about James, “isn’t he bad & isn’t he lovely!” If Lubbock “clucked,” both Lubbock and Wharton are described, in successive pages, as having “bubbled,” while Wharton at one point seems to have chuckled (hard to imagine Wharton chuckling, but no matter).

In a footnote, Anesko suggests that “the insights of queer theory have encouraged provocative reexaminations of many of James’s titles, especially those of his later years.” As an example he cites Eve Kosovsky Sedgwick’s charting of homosexual panic in James’s late story “The Beast in the Jungle.” Perhaps Anesko doesn’t feel he has time to inquire further, but it would have been good to hear more about how “provocative,” and just how rewarding, he finds such “queer” reexaminations of late James. Might they be thought of as another way of monopolizing the Master?

After a survey of “modernist” responses to James, particularly from T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and R. P. Blackmur, the final two chapters settle into an extensive and unambiguous savaging of Leon Edel, whose five-volume biography and editions of James’s letters and plays constitute an almost unprecedented domination of a writer by a single person. Before Edel, Harvard’s F. O. Matthiessen had produced pioneering work on James, but his suicide in 1950 left the field to Edel. During the 19 years between the first volume of his biography and its completion in 1972, Edel effectively and ruthlessly cut off the James archive at Harvard’s Houghton Library from other hands. For example, Harvard students were denied access to the manuscripts and papers, while anyone who hoped to publish something from the archive had to run the gauntlet of a Harvard faculty committee. Nephew Harry, then his younger brother Billy James, supported the embargo, the latter wishing (he told Edel) “that no one but you were allowed to write about Uncle Henry!” This wish—shared, Anesko tartly notes, by Edel himself—was aggressively substantiated by holding off hopeful admirers of James who possessed letters from him. In particular, the Norwegian-American sculptor Hendrik Andersen, to whom James in his later years wrote many gushing (and boring) letters, was prohibited from his plan to publish them, in important part because Edel planned to make use of them in his narrative of James’s last years, and so didn’t want to be scooped.

That Edel was especially nervous about how to treat James’s sexuality—Anesko writes it as “(homo)sexuality”—is testified to in a lively diary entry from the English writer (and homosexual) Harold Nicolson. During a lunch at New York’s Century Club, Nicolson reports, Edel was perplexed and distressed about how to proceed with the man whom Nicolson calls “a late-flowering bugger” whose “Boston puritanism retarded him until it was too late to get full satisfaction from it.” Nicolson advised Edel to treat it as a matter of course, although his colorful formulation of James’s character could hardly be of use to the biographer worried about the sensibilities of surviving relatives.

Anesko’s final chapter is titled, rather surprisingly, “The Legend of the Bastard.” The allusion is to James’s story about a writer, “The Lesson of the Master,” but also, evidently, to Edel. Other epithets include “the careful Canadian” and “Chairman of the Board,” the latter by way of bringing out Edel’s affinities with hardheaded Harry James, the earlier guardian of the treasure. Himself a candidate for a Harvard doctorate, Anesko was unaware of the longstanding prohibition against graduate students consulting the manuscripts. When the restrictions were finally lifted in 1973, he cautiously approached the librarian at Houghton inquiring whether it was possible to see some of James’s manuscript letters. Replied the librarian, after a pause, “Well, Leon’s done with his book”—so permission was granted. 

Anesko’s final sentence, alluding to the opening of The Wings of the Dove (“She waited, Kate Croy”), he applies with a twist to himself and his frustrated colleagues: “We waited, Leon Edel.”

William H. Pritchard is Henry Clay Folger professor of English at Amherst.