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Henry James: A Life by Leon Edel (Harper & Row: $24.95; 768 pp., illustrated)

November 03, 1985|John Weston | Weston is a novelist and professor of English at Cal State L.A. and

Henry James (1843-1916), that most prolific of American authors, "the writer's writer," a man who seemed more to have observed life than to have lived in it, has provided one of the mainstays to biographer Leon Edel's career.

Besides editing four volumes of James' letters, Prof. Edel published five volumes, "The Life of Henry James," between 1958 and 1972 for which he gleaned deserved prizes and praise. The present new book is a condensation of those five volumes, by Catharine Carver.

While this abridgment suffers from some loss in graceful style that the more leisurely paced original demonstrated, it is still a pertinent biography and is probably plenty to satisfy most readers interested in James' life.

Products of an eccentric, comfortably well-to-do New York family, the James children were educated in a most unusual way, now in America, now in England or France or Switzerland or Germany. It is this rootlessness, this lack of a center or clearly directed education, Edel suggests, that accounts both for Henry James' ability to move about in the world and its languages with ease and his inability to form a lasting, passional connection with anyone, male or female.

James, in his long life, seemed to have known everyone in the literary world--Emerson, Kipling, Turgenev, Zola, Arnold, Oscar Wilde, around whom he felt uncomfortable, Henry Adams, Ford Madox Ford and so on. He quickly enjoyed fame (if not fortune), particularly in England, was much sought after by hostesses (especially elderly ones), fitting easily onto several shelves of society, despite being an American, and recorded most of what he saw and experienced in his stories or his voluminous letters.

It is Edel's own preface to the present volume one finds somewhat rank. Claiming, out of respect to surviving members of the James family, to have glossed over or ignored certain sexual elements in James' character in the previous long study, Edel now asserts that times have changed and therefore the new book sheds light on ". . . his homoerotic component, his transmuted passions, his latent prudery . . . ."

In other words, the reason for "Henry James: A Life," is supposedly to add a degree of prurience to James' guarded private life. This revelation the book does not accomplish--probably because James actually did sublimate ordinary sexual passion to art and thus outwitted his biographers. More to the point, to issue the new abridgment and attempt to tantalize readers by promises of sexual disclosures carries about it an unpleasant odor.

Although James was capable of writing "love letters," of a sort, to men, anything remotely suggestive of lust was absent, buried beneath the avalanche of his prose. Capable, also, of enjoying the company of bright young men who looked upon him as the master, James seldom lacked for cafe society and enthusiastic talk. But so far as this book goes, the sexual body remains buried.

However, this one reservation aside, "Henry James: A Life" remains gracious, generous and sound.

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