Henry James: The Imagination of Genius, A Biography

Overview

One of the most influential novelists, Henry James led a life that was as rich as his writing. Born into an eccentric and difficult family, he left the United States for Europe, where he quickly became a fixture of the expatriate writing community. Fred Kaplan recreates the world of Henry James: his friendships with Edith Wharton and Joseph Conrad, his love of all things exquisite—including exquisite writing—and his quest for understanding human nature. As James himself advocated and would have wanted, this is an...

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Henry James: The Imagination of Genius, A Biography

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Overview

One of the most influential novelists, Henry James led a life that was as rich as his writing. Born into an eccentric and difficult family, he left the United States for Europe, where he quickly became a fixture of the expatriate writing community. Fred Kaplan recreates the world of Henry James: his friendships with Edith Wharton and Joseph Conrad, his love of all things exquisite—including exquisite writing—and his quest for understanding human nature. As James himself advocated and would have wanted, this is an artful, dramatic biography, placing the chronological narrative of James's life in the historical context of his times.

"The twenty-one-year-old Henry James, Jr., preferred to be a writer rather than a soldier. His motives for writing were clear to himself, and they were not unusual: he desired fame and fortune. Whatever additional enriching complications that were to make him notorious for the complexity of his style and thought, the initial motivation remained constant. Deeply stubborn and persistently willful, he wanted praise and money, the rewards of recognition of what he believed to be his genius, on terms that he himself wanted to establish. The one battle he thought most worth fighting was that of the imagination for artistic expression. The one empire he most coveted, the land that he wanted for his primary home, was the empire of art."—from Henry James: The Imagination of Genius

Johns Hopkins University Press

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Editorial Reviews

New York Times Book Review - Miranda Seymour

A good up-to-date one-volume life of Henry James was long overdue; Fred Kaplan... has done the job splendidly with Henry James: The Imagination of Genius... Here, at last, is a thoughtful, balanced book to give us a consistent and persuasive account of the writer's life and his development as an author.

<I>New York Times Book Review</I>

"A good up-to-date one-volume life of Henry James was long overdue; Fred Kaplan... has done the job splendidly with Henry James: The Imagination of Genius... Here, at last, is a thoughtful, balanced book to give us a consistent and persuasive account of the writer's life and his development as an author."—,

— Miranda Seymour

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780801862717
  • Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
  • Publication date: 11/5/1999
  • Pages: 672
  • Product dimensions: 6.14 (w) x 9.21 (h) x 1.35 (d)

Meet the Author

Fred Kaplan is the author of Miracles of Rare Devices; Dickens and Mesmerism; Thomas Carlyle, A Biography (nominated for the 1983 National Book Critics Circle Award and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize); Sacred Tears; Gore Vidal: A Biography; and Dickens: A Biography, the last available in paperback from Johns Hopkins.

Johns Hopkins University Press

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Read an Excerpt

Henry James

The Imagination of Genius


By Fred Kaplan

OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA

Copyright © 1992 Fred Kaplan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-0978-1



CHAPTER 1

REMEMBERED SCENES

1843–1855


(1)

As the brutal Civil War in America came to an end, a young American, slim, handsome, dark-haired, of medium height, with sharp gray eyes, began to write stories. By the literary standards of his time, he had a plain, direct style. He wrote in the alcove of a yellow-toned sunlit room in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he pretended to study law. He had not fought in the war. His two younger brothers were soldiers, still engaged in the most massive conflict since Napoleon had made Europe his empire. The twenty-one-year-old Henry James, Jr., preferred to be a writer rather than a soldier. His motives for writing were clear to himself, and they were not unusual: He desired fame and fortune. Whatever the additional enriching complications that were to make him notorious for the complexity of his style and thought, the initial motivation remained constant. Deeply stubborn and persistently willful, he wanted praise and money, the rewards of the recognition of what he believed to be his genius, on terms that he himself wanted to establish. The one battle he thought most worth fighting was that of the imagination for artistic expression. The one empire he most coveted, the land that he wanted for his primary home, was the empire of art.


(2)

On a summer day in 1872, "when the shadows began to lengthen and the light to glow," twenty-nine-year-old Henry James, Jr., now bearded and full-figured, returned to Venice for his second visit. Italy had become the home of his imagination, the place where he could most be himself. The sensual richness of what seemed to him the sweetest place in the world cast its melting warmth on the frozen coldness of his New York and New England childhood and youth. As he entered the city of soft watery wonders, he made his way to the little square at Torcello. Half a dozen young boys played in the delicious silence. They seemed "the handsomest little brats in the world, and each was furnished with a pair of eyes that could only have signified the protest of nature against the meanness of fortune. They were very nearly as naked as savages." One small boy seemed "the most expressively beautiful creature I had ever looked upon. He had a smile to make Correggio sigh in his grave.... Verily nature is still at odds with propriety.... I shall always remember with infinite tender conjecture, as the years roll by, this little unlettered Eros of the Adriatic strand." It was as if Eros had risen from the Adriatic waters in the immaculate form of a handsome Italian boy.


(3)

In December 1915, an elderly, thick-figured, clean-shaven Henry James lay on his deathbed in his apartment in London. The cannons of war had exploded in his consciousness the previous year with the devastating force of memory and betrayal. The beautiful young men of his English world were being obliterated on the battlefields and in the trenches. The flames exploding from the artillery's percussion flared also with the glow of "the rocket's red glare" of his American childhood. Various fires, some public, some personal, possessed much of the past and the present: the fire of his father's burning leg in a childhood accident; the fire in Newport during the Civil War, when, as a volunteer fireman, he had wrenched his back so badly that the pain became for him a representation of his own need to have a wound; the flames of the night in 1863 when one of his younger brothers had been wounded in the assault on Fort Wagner; the steady, stubborn fire within himself that expressed his ambition for fame and money; the conflagrations in his fiction, especially the burning of the "spoils" of Poynton, anticipating what the fires of war were to destroy fifteen years later; and the small domestic fires at Lamb House, his home in Rye, on the grate of which he had periodically over the years burned stacks of all the personal letters he had received.

Six years of frequent illness had pushed him into nervous and physical collapse. A stroke now partly paralyzed him. He had had a nervous breakdown in early 1910, a year after he had made his final visit to Italy. The death of his brother William in August 1910 had been a painful disaster that had left a gaping hole of disconnection in his life and memory. The man who had prided himself on taking possession of many things was now being taken possession of. As he lay dying in a London winter, his mind wandered into increasing incoherence. He called for his secretary to take dictation. He had writing he wanted to do, significant hallucinations he wanted to express. He would still "discover plenty of fresh worlds to conquer, even if I am to be cheated of the amusement of them." As his secretary took his dictation, he imagined himself Napoleon, with his parents and siblings as the royal family of talent spun off by the brilliance of his own genius. With an imaginary imperial eagle in his hand, he attempted still to extend the empire of art.


(4)

The son of a loving, realistic mother and a talented, impulsive father, Henry James, Jr., was born in Greenwich Village on April 15, 1843. New York was the city of his childhood. Later, vastly transformed, it became one of the sometimes attractive but always fearful cities of his imagination. For him, the city's transformation epitomized the change from the mid-Victorian era of his childhood to the modern world of his adult years. He was to remember it with affection and pleasure. These accelerating changes to New York and to the rest of what he thought of as the civilized world occasioned his regret and sometimes his deep pain. He did not easily take to change, especially when it threatened values and ways of life that he believed had permanent value.

He was born into a Presbyterian family that had been for generations committed to Calvinism and to business. His mother's maternal grandfather, Alexander Robertson, left Reading Parish, near Edinburgh, for New York City in the mid-eighteenth century. His mother's paternal grandfather, Hugh Walsh, emigrated about 1770 from Killingsley, County Down, Ireland, to Philadelphia and then to Newburgh, New York. Her mother, born in 1781, was named Elizabeth, the tenth child of Mary and Alexander Robertson. She married James Walsh, a marriage that produced six children, four sons—the young Henry's maternal uncles—and two daughters: Mary, Henry's mother, born in 1810; and Catherine, his much-loved Aunt Kate. On the paternal side, the record is less defined. His grandmother's parents were John and Janet Rhea Barber from County Longford. His grandfather's parents, who provided the commonplace James name, were farmers from Bailie-borough in County Caven, about fifty miles northwest of Dublin.

The Irish and Scotch ancestry is definitive. There seems not to have been a drop of English blood in the families. Nor of artistic blood. The Robertson and the James families directed themselves to business, particularly to trade and real estate. The emigrations from Scotland and Ireland had been motivated mostly by the economic fluctuations that periodically brought recession and depression to the linen trade and to agriculture. The collapse in the market for Irish linen had sent Alexander Robertson to New York, where he flourished as a merchant, his business and his home in lower Manhattan. Combining patriotism with profits, Hugh Walsh had first prospered through contracts to sell provisions to the Continental Army, and then as a general merchant and ship-line owner. But the Robertson and the Walsh fortunes were modest, especially since the patriarchs had eleven and nine children respectively. Mary Robertson Walsh James inherited a minor amount, which had been reduced to even less by the time of her death in 1881. The Barber family seems to have prospered also, Catherine's father "a farmer of great respectability and considerable substance." It was their son-in-law, though, who became such a phenomenon of commercial success that he provided his family with one of the first great American fortunes.

In 1789, the year in which the American Constitution was created, William James emigrated from County Caven, where he had been born in 1770. For the ambitious young businessman, America was a land where Irish antagonism to England made it easy to be a patriot. The revolutionary war forged a national consciousness that he could immediately share. Opportunities readily repaid ingenuity and hard work. William James traveled northward up the Hudson Valley to Albany, where he worked for two years as a merchant's clerk. With his own stake, he became a tobacco merchant on a small scale; then he expanded into produce. By 1800, he had opened two more stores. Then he bought ships to move his produce up and down the river. He devoted himself to business, as high a calling in his own eyes as it was in the eyes of his community, and of his Presbyterian God.

Marrying in 1796, his first wife died within a few months of giving birth, in the spring of 1797, to twin sons. William married again, in 1798, this time to the daughter of a wealthy Irish Catholic landowner. His second wife gave birth to a daughter the next year and died soon afterward. In 1803, he married twenty-one-year-old Catherine Barber. They had ten children—Henry's paternal aunts and uncles, and, of course, his father, born in 1811. Resolutely proceeding with his own manifest destiny, William James became the premier business citizen of Albany, an influence in state politics, a money and power broker to be reckoned with, a successful advocate, beginning about 1815, of the project to build the Erie Canal, and then a heavy investor in land along the canal and in the western states that he expected the canal to be the first step toward opening. In Syracuse, he was the major landowner, his holdings including the valuable salt pits. He owned forty thousand undeveloped acres in Illinois and land in Michigan. At his death in 1832, his estate was probated at a value of about three million dollars, reputedly the second largest private fortune in New York State, by modern standards an immense amount of money at a time when there were no estate and income taxes.

What happened to the money, "the admirable three millions," the loss of which was a "haunting wonder" to Henry James, Jr? His grandfather had had a genius for earning and investing money, but his children had a talent only for dissipating what he left them. Like many nineteenth-century millionaires, William James made children with the same regularity with which he made money. At his death, there were twelve major heirs. Through death and voluntary exclusion, he had no heirs with an interest in business. Neglect and incompetence resulted in the investments not being protected effectively. The heirs all lived on the interest of the inherited capital, and often enough on the capital itself. "The rupture with my grandfather's tradition and attitude was complete," his grandson was to write toward the end of his life, trying to make sense of what had happened to the family money. "We were never in a single case ... for two generations, guilty of a stroke of business." In a volatile economic world, money that did not grow, shrank.


(5)

The small boy who opened his eyes in April 1843 to the world of his parents' three-story brick home at 21 Washington Place learned throughout his lifetime only some of the special features of his father's early life. He was to discover little to nothing about Henry senior's struggle with his own father, a conflict for money and self-assertion that extended beyond old William James's grave. "Our dear parent," Henry junior wrote in his old age, "we were later quite to feel, could have told us very little, in all probability, under whatever pressure, what had become of anything." On the contrary, the father could have told his children exactly what had happened to the three million, and precisely enough the story of the gradual reduction of his own portion of the inheritance. These matters were not, however, discussed in the James family, and the attenuated distress that Henry junior felt concerning them reflected his partial awareness of his father's pain, and his own vivid distress at the fact that he and his three brothers had to struggle to earn their livings.

Henry senior had a restless, rebellious insistence on contention and self-assertion from an early age. From his father he wanted unquestioning, unqualified love. He both feared him and hated his fear. Ultimate things were involved, since his father on earth identified himself closely with, and was identified in the minds of his children with, the Father in heaven. Theirs was a Presbyterian deity who insisted that merit had to be demonstrated through discipline, obedience, and hard work. Salvation was a gift of grace. Some would be given the gift and others, not. William James soon suspected that Henry senior was not one of the fortunate. He probably also sometimes had in mind the parable of the Prodigal Son and the hope that a small sinner might become a small saint. His son's early sins were ordinary. He was an indifferent student. He was not interested in his father's business. He had a sharp, argumentative tongue. He stole change from his parents to pay for candy. He developed, at ten years of age, a liking for "raw gin and brandy." His sins, he later explained, expressed an irrepressible natural energy, a delight in the things of this world, and a visceral protest against a God whose insistence on the taint of Original Sin put human beings at war with nature and their natural selves. If God were indeed such a son of a bitch, he would defy him.

In 1824, at the age of thirteen, Henry senior's life was radically changed. As part of an outdoor chemistry experiment at Albany Academy, the boys ignited small paper balloons, fueled by burning turpentine, to demonstrate that the balloons would fly if the air inside were heated. Balloon after balloon lofted into the sky in an ascension that was both joyous game and serious lesson. When one of the balloons errantly drifted into a hayloft, the high-spirited Henry senior impulsively pursued it. As he attempted to stamp out the flames, first his trouser legs, and then his flesh caught on fire. His right leg had to be amputated beneath the knee. His mother sat frequently by his bedside. He remembered that in her sleepwalking she would come to his bed and adjust the covers. His silent but deeply pained father signaled his misery. Unfortunately, the stump refused to heal. His confinement went on for three years. "Henry's leg," his sister reported, "is not as well as it was.... Instead of progressing it goes back and there is a greater space to heal now than there was before." At the beginning of May 1828, since gangrene seemed likely, "Henry's leg was ... amputated ... some distance above the knee. The operation lasted ... about six minutes, but the most painful part was the securing the arterys, tendons, cords &c. He is now thank God safely through it." Thereafter he stumped through life on a wooden leg.

After a fourth bedridden year, the seventeen-year-old Henry senior reluctantly agreed to attend Union College in nearby Schenectady. As the major financial supporter of the small college, William James expected his son to do honor to the family name and train to become a lawyer. Henry did neither. An energetic cripple, he gambled, drank heavily, spent whatever money came his way, and ran up large bills, using his father's credit as security. The president of the college, who had been the minister of the First Presbyterian Church in Albany where the James family worshiped, tried to help the son of the man to whom Union College owed about seventy-one thousand dollars, secured by mortgages on its land and buildings. One of his father's surrogates warned him that you are "on the edge of ruin ... that if you do not without delay stop short in the career of folly that you have for a time indulged in ... you are lost to the world.... Convince your father ... that you repent of the past, and that you determine to act entirely conformable to his advice and wishes.... If you do not, you will lose all...." Henry responded by fleeing to Boston, leaving his bills unpaid. "His mind ... being given to such low pursuit I fear there is no hope for him," his father lamented. With the usual parental pain and surprise, he remarked accurately that his son had been "reared not only by anxiety and prayer but with liberality to profusion."


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Henry James by Fred Kaplan. Copyright © 1992 Fred Kaplan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Illustrations ix
Chapter 1 Remembered Scenes, 1843-1855 3
Chapter 2 Belonging, 1855-1860 27
Chapter 3 "Garlands and Lights," 1860-1867 46
Chapter 4 "An Absolute Remedy," 1867-1870 79
Chapter 5 "Cats and Monkeys," 1870-1875 118
Chapter 6 "Permanent Headquarters," 1875-1878 158
Chapter 7 "The Sentimental Traveller," 1878-1881 195
Chapter 8 "Never to Return," 1881-1883 231
Chapter 9 "The Great Money-Question," 1883-1888 265
Chapter 10 "Miss Grief," 1886-1891 305
Chapter 11 "The Dark Abyss," 1888-1895 346
Chapter 12 Passionate Friendships, 1894-1900 387
Chapter 13 The New Century, 1900-1904 430
Chapter 14 "Closing the Gates," 1904-1910 478
Chapter 15 The Imperial Eagle, 1910-1916 522
Notes 567
Acknowledgments 597
Index 599
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