Sunday, December 23, 2007
Henry James: Portrait of a Man
There is a new book out on Henry James. The Times featured a cogent review today by David Leavitt, "Henry James: The Young Master." Sheldon M. Novick is the author of the latest Jamesian analysis whose take David Leavitt finds at times lawyerly.
I find Henry James' work seriously gendered, hence the professional interest in it. What strikes me as odd, however, is the intense interest many theorists have in his personal life, particularly his orientation. Often, he is depicted as frustrated and confused. I can't help but think that this frustration and confusion we read of is nothing else but perhaps engendered by the critics themselves. James was interested in experiencing himself fully in the world. He had many relationships and he did not seem to have been a recluse; he was happy to acutely observe how others lived and consequently write about it. He wasn't just textually active. He was generally active.
Previous books on James seem to spend much textual space on his corporeal predilections and romantic choices. Too much literary obsession gone wasted, in my mind.
The new book attempts to depict a James that fuses both the cerebral and the experiential. The reason why his works are so rich in body metaphors and human sensuality could perhaps be a testament to the author's own authentic experiences. As a letter by James has it:
"We must know, as much as possible, in our beautiful art, yours & mine, what we are talking about — & the only way to know it is to have lived & loved & cursed & floundered & enjoyed & suffered — I don’t think I regret a single ‘excess’ of my responsive youth — I only regret, in my chilled age, certain occasions & possibilities I didn’t embrace.”
This letter shows a different James, one who was interested in investigating the human experience fully and participating in life actively.
Leavitt suggests that "Novick’s James was an authentic cosmopolite who led a life as emotionally, sexually and financially complex as those of the characters in his fiction." Again, this depiction varies from conventional analyses of the author which have generally referred to the author as psychologically confused, physically inexperienced, and as a result, very frustrated and shy.
Read more here.