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HENRY JAMES by Sheldon M. Novick

HENRY JAMES

The Young Master

By Sheldon M. Novick

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0-394-58655-7
Publisher: Random House

 Novick, who previously dissected the life of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (Honorable Justice, 1989), now examines, in lumbering detail, the childhood and early manhood of Holmes's friend and contemporary, novelist Henry James. Two snares await the unwary James biographer. First, how does one compel interest in a subject whose daily routine comprised morning strolls, afternoon teas, and nights at the theater--but little if anything in the way of love affairs or social conflict? Second, how does one portray a writer too reticent even to hint at his innermost heart in his copious correspondence and memoirs? If you're Novick, you fall head-first into the traps, even as you take issue with Leon Edel, R.W.B. Lewis, Alfred Habegger, and other cautious but far more artful James family chroniclers. Novick resorts to a dry, at points day-by-day account of the novelist's social rounds. He argues with Edel et al. for perpetuating the notion that James ``retreated from the terrors of heterosexual rivalry into a world of delicate imagination.'' However, even though Novick's assumption that James was homosexual seems plausible given the latter's aversion to marriage and intense attachment to young men, the biographer also claims to know the date of James's first sexual encounter (the spring of 1865) and even the paramour (Holmes)--suppositions resting on only a maddeningly elusive James journal reference to ``l'initiation premiƤre.'' All this is a shame because Novick can display commendable insight on occasion. For instance, he traces how Henry James Sr. damaged several of his children through capricious choices for their education and careers--and how Henry Jr. escaped this parental suffocation by traveling abroad and by building a secret, inviolate self. This sense of privacy ensured a short-lived career as Paris correspondent for the New York Tribune, but it served him well in his landmark fiction of psychological insight. This volume ends in 1880, with James in full command of his craft. Too bad his biographer can't claim the same. (16 pages b&w photos, not seen)