Henry James: The Imagination of Genius Henry James

Fred Kaplan

Henry James

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 26)

Fred Kaplan’s biography of the expatriated American novelist bills itself as “the first to be conceived in light of late-twentieth century attitudes about feminism and homosexuality.” A more condensed work than Leon Edel’s magisterial five-volume The Life of Henry James (1953-1972), Kaplan’s work is also more sharply focused on the two levels of James’s life: the emotionally charged atmosphere of the James household, in which a controlling father maintained order even during intense outbreaks of sibling rivalry; and the more rarefied world of James’s artistic and literary acquaintances. Such a context is perfect for a strict Freudian interpretation of the life of Henry James, and Kaplan delivers a readable and often entertaining account of a writer whose interests and fame spread across continents, cultures, and centuries.

Henry James was a descendant of a noteworthy if somewhat unstable New York family. James’s grandfather, William James of Albany, New York, was an Irish immigrant who amassed one of the largest fortunes in the young republic. James’s father, Henry James, Sr., was (for the most part) disinherited by his father after a scandalous career at Union College in Schenectady, New York, which included gambling and heavy drinking. After William James’s death in 1832, Henry James, Sr., successfully challenged the will that penalized both himself and his mother, though the case was not decided until 1843, the year of Henry James, Jr.’s birth. In 1844, Henry James, Sr., experienced a form of mental breakdown that became known in the family as the “vastation”; he eventually found the answer to his problems in the writings of the Swedish mystical theologian Emanuel Swedenborg and in political radicalism. Kaplan finds many of the subjects of Henry James’s later works in what Freud called “infantile experience,” the impressions a child receives in the early years, and in the first component to Freud’s famous method of dream analysis outlined in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900). James soon found himself in competition not only with a strong-willed older brother, William, but also with a quick-witted, though chronically ill, younger sister, Alice, and two impulsive younger brothers, Garth “Wilkie” James and Robertson “Bob” James. Henry adopted the role of the introvert and peacemaker; he was dubbed by his mother as “the angel of the house.”

Kaplan’s best analysis is found in the early chapters, setting the stage for James’s later literary concerns. The James family traveled continuously in both North America and Europe; the children received at best a haphazard education at a number of schools, each utilizing a different progressive approach. Both Henry and William enjoyed the years spent at Newport, Rhode Island, where they delighted in the company of talented young men like themselves and a number of young female cousins, the most notable being the tragically fated Minny Temple, later the model for both Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady (1880-1881) and Milly Theale in The Wings of the Dove (1902). The idyllic Newport existence was shattered by a series of moves brought on by Henry James, Sr.’s wanderlust and by a series of illnesses that Kaplan takes as a sign of a psychically wounded family. Henry suffered from an “obscure hurt” to the lower back incurred while fighting a fire in Newport in 1861. The disability effectively kept him from serving in the Civil War. William experienced a number of bouts with depression and psychologically induced illnesses. Alice’s compensation was in neurological illness, from which she suffered more acutely than any other member of the family. Only Wilkie and Bob suffered actual physical injuries. Wilkie was critically wounded while serving as adjutant to commander Robert Gould Shaw during the attack on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, by the African American Fifty-fourth Massachusetts regiment; Bob became ill while serving with another African American regiment, the Fifty-fifth Massachusetts. The pain of the Civil War served to bring an end to the union of the James family, as the two elder brothers subsequently moved on to careers of their own.

James already had become a short-story writer and an established reviewer of books for The North American Review and the newly founded The Nation by the time he traveled alone to Europe in 1869. Kaplan sees this escape from the family as necessary for James as an aspiring artist. By removing himself from the emotional strain of family life, James was able to redirect his energy into the shaping of his fiction. Kap- lan interprets most of the early fiction as heavily autobiographical, often with Oedipal and homoerotic subject matter. He somewhat predictably reads James’s sensationalistic first novel-length fiction, Watch and Ward (serialized in...

(The entire section is 1991 words.)