Leon (Joseph) Edel Alfred Kazin - Essay

Alfred Kazin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Leon Edel has come to be recognized as the prime authority on the life of Henry James. And at a time when James has been made the subject of so many appreciative but highly theoretical essays, we have been waiting on Mr. Edel to give us … an authentic and definitive biography. Now, with the first volume of this long-expected work ["Henry James: The Untried Years, 1843–1870"], we can see that Mr. Edel has been aiming not only to get at all the facts, but to enter so deeply into the spirit of his subject that his book would have the ease and naturalness and shape of a work of art. And in this he has succeeded—brilliantly and movingly. One can criticise him for being almost too sympathetic with Henry, and he does tend to see the other Jameses entirely too much through Henry's eyes. But a few criticisms aside, the book is important and beautiful….

When Mr. Edel began his patient and exhaustive labors more than twenty years ago, there was still some question whether James belonged to American literature. And despite the current fashion in his favor, much of what is written about him suggests an alchemist inhumanly mixing great novels together only for the sake of "form," rather than the touching, limited, and insatiable writer who is so American in his travels, his international scene, his too clear-cut morality. James brings home to us the amazing personal vision that is the lonely strength of American literature. Perhaps it is because we have never really seen James in his own time and place—in all those native places of the heart he occupied wherever he lived—that we have never really had a biography until now….

Mr. Edel has understood that with so peculiarly sensitive a novelist for his subject, it was essential to "melt down" his materials into an organic narrative that would not only record, but directly portray, Henry moving, reading, dreaming, and at last beginning to write.

What Mr. Edel has done is to give us that long-buried world of James's childhood and youth…. He has restored to us the extremely vulnerable, shy, and ambitious person James was,...

(The entire section is 876 words.)