A new study of Henry James draws attention to his art and his social life

November 22, 1992|By Eve Ottenberg Stone



Fred Kaplan.


620 pages. $25.

It is always nice to have a second chance to look at the life of a great writer, but after the publication of Leon Edel's definitive and encyclopedic biography of Henry James, it did not seem that such a chance would be forthcoming in the near future (his biography was five volumes, published over 18 years). Fred Kaplan's new study has contradicted that expectation, however. With its analysis of James' oeuvre, piece by piece, and of the homoerotic nature of some of James' friendships, it provides an interesting, if not always convincing portrait of the master.

This biography is a dizzying round of social engagements; it reads, in fact, like a madly condensed James novel. But that is no defect. It enables Mr. Kaplan to highlight such themes as James' financial struggles, his often overwhelming loneliness and sense of isolation, the conflict between artistic work and social life, his intense relationship with his family and his life in the literary community.

Specifically, it touches on his relations with Browning, Dickens, Tennyson, Thackeray, Hawthorne, Howells, George Eliot, Turgenev, Flaubert, Zola, Matthew Arnold, Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, Crane, Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, Henry Adams, Twain, Wharton, Wilde and others. Although two key Jamesian terms, style and point of view, scarcely make their appearance in this book, perhaps Mr. Kaplan thought that would belabor the obvious.

On politics, Mr. Kaplan contradicts James' extremely apolitical image, showing him to have been "a deeply conservative liberal," one who was horrified by imperial expansion and plunder -- be it that of a declining British empire or a rising American one. With the advent of the Spanish-American War, James felt that his native United States had lost its edge of moral superiority.

Literature, he wrote, "goes more than ever to the wall. . . . I am all on the side, now, of the small countries. They are the only honest ones left." James had no use for Teddy Roosevelt, with whom he dined at the White House; found blacks in Charleston, S.C., more interesting than whites, and hoped that the melting pot of New York's Lower East Side would yield a new American language that he called the "Accent of the Future."

One of the strengths of this biography is Mr. Kaplan's depiction of James' miserable failure as a playwright, as well as the fantasies and self-deceptions that kept him going for so long when any other sanely self-protecting writer would have quit. There is also the picture, once James had given up, of his optimism, finding success in failure: "Oh yes -- the weary, woeful time has done something for me, has had . . . an intense little lesson and direction."

The "little lesson," James believed, was good for his fiction. But Mr. Kaplan questions that, lucidly observing that very possibly his fiction might not have been so different without his venture into the theater. It was a fiasco made all the worse by James' conviction that he had to write down to his audience, indeed had to write down to the lowest possible level -- something he had never done with fiction.

But then, he was never happy with the theater. Mr. Kaplan cites James' well-known distaste for the concessions he had to make to an audience that demands that the evening's "business be limited by the time between dinner and the suburban train." The play was one literary form in which success eluded him, and Mr. Kaplan shows that how it did so only demonstrated all the more that James was a fiction writer down to the bone.

This biography also has its share of wild anecdotes, such as the case of James' intimate friendship with the writer Constance Woolson, and the moving story of his attempt to get rid of her many black dresses after her suicide.

Mr. Kaplan writes: "For some bizarre reason, he thought that he could best get rid of them by drowning them. 'He threw them in the water and they came up like balloons all around him, and the more he tried to throw them down, they got all this air, the more they came up and he was surrounded by these horrible black balloons.' Again and again 'he tried to beat these horrible black things down and up they came again and he was surrounded by them.' "

Then there are James' peculiarities with regard to food, from his aunt's advising him that probably all his health problems were due to his not knowing that "the skins of grapes are very constipating," to his conversion, later in life, to "Fletcherizing." This, evidently, was a nutritionist philosophy whereby intense mastication of food was regarded as a panacea for all ailments.

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