HENRY JAMES: A Life by Leon Edel


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This thoroughly successful condensation of Edel's massive five-volume biography incorporates new material on James' youth, and also has been revised to be more forthcoming about his sexual dilemma. The modish new veneer of psychological speculation (Why was James celibate? How serious were his early flirtations? Did he love Minnie Temple best after she was safely dead?) is tactfully applied. But Edel is still an old fashioned biographer at heart and this one-volume abridgement is still a broad-canvas work, designed to render a portrait of an era and a family as well as of a complex individual. Edel begins with James' ancestors, offering a particularly absorbing account of the novelist's father, with the spiritual doubts and physical struggles (Henry Sr. was an amputee) that shaped him. Among Edel's stronger achievements is the complex rendering of the relationship between Henry, Jr. and his elder brother William, reared as twins despite an age difference of 16 months: each brother knew he was destined for greatness--and each strove mightily to get there first. Among Edel's most intriguing speculations is that the brilliant but ruthless Dr. Sloper in Washington Square was ""yet another"" of Henry's portraits of his energetic, medically-trained, often caustic brother--and that the view of Sloper is critical because William James had just ""betrayed"" Henry by getting married. A few of the readings of James' life into his novels seem unnecessarily literal, but on the whole, the references to James' works are just as interesting as the facts that emerge about his life. Indeed, to learn that Henry was called ""Angel"" by his relatives is enough to transform anyone's sense both of his life and his art! The condensation is seamless and smooth, and the three-dimensional solidity of the Henry James who emerges makes this an extraordinary achievement, sure to appeal to a broader audience than the fuller but more intimidating five-volume version.

Pub Date: Nov. 13th, 1985
Publisher: Harper & Row