Kirkus Reviews QR Code
HENRY JAMES by Fred Kaplan

HENRY JAMES

The Imagination of Genius

By Fred Kaplan

Pub Date: Oct. 16th, 1992
ISBN: 0-688-09021-4
Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

 Subtle, complex, elusive Henry James--a writer who saw life as a history of changing perceptions and changing masks--demands all the formidable scholarly skills and narrative art that Kaplan demonstrated in his biographies of two other monumental 19th- century figures, Charles Dickens (1988) and Thomas Carlyle (1983). More intimate than Leon Edel's magisterial Henry James (1985), this version of the novelist's life is implicitly Freudian: Flawed (a sexually nonfunctioning, hypochondriacal stammerer) but talented, James compensated through his art for his personal failings, seeking (and luckily finding) love, fame, wealth, and power through publication--though at great personal cost. After a rootless childhood, a random education, and a bewildering set of religious beliefs derived from his father, James spent his life travelling for his health and his fiction. He moved repeatedly from New York to London, Paris, Switzerland, Rome, and Venice, avoiding intimate connections, the lure of young men especially, and inventing himself as a writer among the writers he met: William Morris, George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, Stephen Crane, Joseph Conrad, Edith Wharton--to whom, in a memorable scene here, James reads Walt Whitman's poetry. Known to his family as the ``angel in the house,'' sentimental and emotional toward his male friends (at least in letters), James was rigid and artificial in public, his accent and manners an odd combination of the European culture he admired and the American values he claimed to believe in. Intensely private and self-controlled, his life was a quest for refinement and nuance, undermined by his own excess, the afflictions of his ``bowels and his back,'' and his immense hungers. Kaplan has a fine sense of scene: James trying to drown the dresses of a deceased friend, or looking at himself in the mirror. And it's as a mirror--a very Jamesian one, with its center of consciousness and unobtrusive narrator--that this fine and readable biography functions. (Twenty-four pages of b&w photographs--not seen.)