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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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.