Henry James: The Young Master


As if Henry James himself were guiding us, we visit old Calvinist New York in the mid-nineteenth century, and share the coming-of-age of a young man whose boldness of spirit and profound capacity for affection attract both men and women to him. We journey with James through Italy and France, witness his first love affair in Paris, and settle with him in London at the height of Empire in the Victorian Age. We scale the heights of London society with him, and as the world opens to James we share with him the ...
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Henry James: The Young Master

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As if Henry James himself were guiding us, we visit old Calvinist New York in the mid-nineteenth century, and share the coming-of-age of a young man whose boldness of spirit and profound capacity for affection attract both men and women to him. We journey with James through Italy and France, witness his first love affair in Paris, and settle with him in London at the height of Empire in the Victorian Age. We scale the heights of London society with him, and as the world opens to James we share with him the experience of writing a series of celebrated and successful novels, culminating with Washington Square (on which the play The Heiress is based) and his masterpiece The Portrait of a Lady. The Washington Post Book World notes: “It is no small ambition to write a biography of James that is commensurate with that master, and Sheldon Novick has done it.”

“Splendidly written . . . Novick has aimed to bring James back to life and he has succeeded brilliantly.”
–The Washington Post Book World

“Like a movie of James’s life, as it unfold moment to moment.”
–The New York Times

“Masterful in bringing James and his world to life.”
–San Francisco Examiner-Chronicle

“Beautifully written, with a grace that enables [Sheldon Novick] to weave his subject’s words in and out of his own with a properly Jamesian suavity . . . Novick’s account gives one a profound respect for James’s persistence and power of will.”
–The New Republic

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Opening in self-consciously literary fashion, Novick's life of James takes him into 1881, when he is an expatriate of 38 and The Portrait of a Lady establishes the novelist's transatlantic reputation. Novick (Honorable Justice: The Life of Oliver Wendell Holmes), a law professor, abjures the psychoanalytic approaches of Leon Edel and Fred Kaplan and is more explicit than his predecessors in seeing suggestions in James's fiction of an "audacious" eroticism. To Novick, it may not be merely authorial imagination that generates James's exploitation of the theme of "the moral correctness of a love that may be contrary to convention; and the... immorality of loves that are perfectly conventional." By the close of this first part of a two-volume life, James has focused in his fiction on a "spontaneous moral sense that would be the distinctive American trait in the stories and novels." To give it reality, he developed his formula of the encounter of America with Europe: "the testing of the new type against the older races." Concurrent with the international theme, James himself became a confessed "cosmopolite" comfortable in European capitals and a committed "amiable bachelor." Novick sees these convergences in James's professional and emotional life as leaving the writer confident rather than neurotic, settled rather than imperiled. Not nearly as contrary to Kaplan's 1992 one-volume Henry James as some pages imply, Novick's biography will nevertheless stir controversy about the relationship of James's personality to his creativity. Illustrations not seen by PW. (Oct.)
Library Journal
Young James once wrote to his sister, Alice, "I know what I am about," but it is also true that he had a lifelong habit of secretiveness that made him mysterious to others. In this look at the first part of James's life, covering from birth to age 38, when he had just published Portrait of a Lady (1881), Novick (The Collected Works of Justice Holmes, Univ. of Chicago, 1995) demonstrates a splendid sense of James as an author as well as a private man and how both converged to create his art. James's first published writings brought some criticism, and he subsequently kept his writing hidden, his "secret garden." In time, the characters and situations of his writing came from what he had seen, from family and friends (disguised and gender-reversed), and from memory adorned by imagination. James also loved young men, a penchant he kept private that certainly informed his writing. Novick reveals the whole of the young James, and as a consequence his works are further illuminated. However, Leon Edel's five-volume Henry James (Lippincott, 1953-1972) remains the definitive biography.Robert Kelly, Fort Wayne Community Schs., Ind.
Kirkus Reviews
Novick, who previously dissected the life of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (Honorable Justice, 1989), now examines, in lumbering detail, the childhood and early manhood of Holmes's friend and contemporary, novelist Henry James.

Two snares await the unwary James biographer. First, how does one compel interest in a subject whose daily routine comprised morning strolls, afternoon teas, and nights at the theater—but little if anything in the way of love affairs or social conflict? Second, how does one portray a writer too reticent even to hint at his innermost heart in his copious correspondence and memoirs? If you're Novick, you fall head-first into the traps, even as you take issue with Leon Edel, R.W.B. Lewis, Alfred Habegger, and other cautious but far more artful James family chroniclers. Novick resorts to a dry, at points day-by-day account of the novelist's social rounds. He argues with Edel et al. for perpetuating the notion that James "retreated from the terrors of heterosexual rivalry into a world of delicate imagination." However, even though Novick's assumption that James was homosexual seems plausible given the latter's aversion to marriage and intense attachment to young men, the biographer also claims to know the date of James's first sexual encounter (the spring of 1865) and even the paramour (Holmes)—suppositions resting on only a maddeningly elusive James journal reference to "l'initiation première." All this is a shame because Novick can display commendable insight on occasion. For instance, he traces how Henry James Sr. damaged several of his children through capricious choices for their education and careers—and how Henry Jr. escaped this parental suffocation by traveling abroad and by building a secret, inviolate self. This sense of privacy ensured a short-lived career as Paris correspondent for the New York Tribune, but it served him well in his landmark fiction of psychological insight.

This volume ends in 1880, with James in full command of his craft. Too bad his biographer can't claim the same.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780394586557
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/8/1996
  • Edition description: 1st Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 550
  • Product dimensions: 6.49 (w) x 9.65 (h) x 1.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Sheldon M. Novick was born and grew up in New York City.  He has been a writer and lawyer through most of his adult life.  His first biography was Honorable Justice: The Life of Oliver Wendell Holmes, published in 1989, and he is editing Holmess collected works.  He lives in Vermont, teaches constitutional law and history at Vermont Law School and is the proprietor of the South Strafford Cafe.
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Read an Excerpt


He had long lived in the country, in an old brick house on the south coast of England, where atmospheric conditions sometimes produced a quivering mirage of his beloved France, just over the horizon. But now that he had grown old and ill, the dark and solitary country winters were too oppressive to be borne, and he had taken a flat in London, or rather in Chelsea, which was like a little riverside village loosely attached to the metropolis, and where the light, movement, and companionship helped him to ward off the depression that always threatened to descend upon him in the winter. His flat was in a spanking new and bright red-brick building, with an elevator! He had been ill, and the elevator was a wonderful innovation. He who had thought nothing of twenty-mile walks had even allowed little Noakes to push him along the Embankment in a Bath chair, enjoying the sense of space and of passersby, a delicious mixture of privacy and publicity. The flat's windows looked southward over the treetops on the Embankment
to the river that flowed past with massive opacity.

In that spring of 1913, when he was seventy years old, it was almost ten years since he had published a new novel; he met a woman who was surprised to find that he was still alive. He had been engaged for the past two years, since shortly after the death of his older brother, William, in writing about their shared childhood. As the last survivor of the family, he felt it was his duty to record his memories of his celebrated brother and their once celebrated but now all but forgotten father.

The new flat was a wonderful place to work in. He had turned a sunny,south-facing front room that in years past would have been his bedroom into a large and comfortable office. His Remington typewriter was solidly placed on a desk, and before it sat erectly Theodora Bosanquet, whom he called his "literary secretary," with her slender fingers on the keys. James had spent an hour or two that morning refreshing his memory with old letters, composing his thoughts; now he was dictating the text of the memoir, and Miss Bosanquet was transcribing his dictation directly on the typewriter.

How complex is even the simplest relation between friends. Between Henry James and Miss Bosanquet, for instance: Like every genuine friendship it had its open, physical expression. She sat quite still, except that her fingers played on the keys of the typewriter. He stood at the window, looking out over the river, or paced the room, gesturing with his head, eyes, and hands, dictating; or he would collapse on the mantel with a groan, audibly searching for the word that they both awaited. Miss Bosanquet has described him for us, as he appeared to her in the early months of their friendship:

"He was much more massive than I had expected, much broader and stouter and stronger. I remembered that someone had told me he used to be taken for a sea-captain when he wore a beard, but it was clear that now, with the beard shaved away, he would hardly have passed for, say, an admiral, in spite of the keen grey eyes set in a face burned to a colorable sea-faring brown by the Italian sun. No successful naval officer could have afforded to keep that sensitive mobile mouth . . . he might perhaps have been an eminent cardinal in mufti, or even a Roman senator amusing himself by playing the part of a Sussex squire. The observer could at least have guessed that any part he chose to assume would be finely conceived and generously played, for his features were all cast in the classical mode of greatness. He might very well have been a merciful Caesar or a benevolent Napoleon . . ."

He dictated slowly, unreeling the sentences that formed themselves in his mind, his deliberate speech occasionally interrupted by the shadow of a stutter that sometimes obstructed the flow of words; but for the most part he spoke smoothly, in a beautiful voice, without the slightest hesitation and with punctuation carefully stated, every new proper noun spelled out.

With occasional pauses, the clatter of the Remington machine answered him in a rhythm that he and the young woman had established, and that would be audible in the style of the finished work. They were performing a little dignified and highly accomplished dance to a shared music; and just as an actor or a painter's model intimately collaborates in the performance of a work of art, and sometimes confers upon it its inner quality, so Miss Bosanquet joined Henry James in the production of his last and greatest works. Their vast and intricate score for light and sound passed through her strong, boyish fingers, and what we read and see and hear now is this shared performance. James inscribed a copy of a novel to his typist, "from your collaborator"--a truth as well as a delicate compliment.

Those last works were experiments in the re-creation of memory itself. Just as the brushstrokes of the Impressionist painters were meant to fuse in the eye, combining to reproduce the sensation of light, Henry James's phrases and sentences magically coalesced in the listener's ear into an image of a person, of a situation; the memory itself was re-created and performed on the blank screen of the listener's imagination, a kind of hologram.

At the age of twenty-seven, Miss Bosanquet had eagerly sought the position with Mr. James, and at thirty she was now his practiced accompanist; his work was more intimately familiar to her than perhaps to any other person except James himself. Yet she herself was always something of a mystery to him.

His first stenotypist, twenty years earlier, had been William MacAlpine, a wiry young Scot with whom he had formed a household. James was still living in London then, and MacAlpine was a sort of spouse. They traveled and paid calls together, and MacAlpine was in a sense a protégé. But when James moved to the country, in 1898, MacAlpine remained in London, and James arranged with the improbably named Miss Petherbridge's Secretarial Bureau for a female stenotypist to be sent to him. A female secretary was an innovation, like an elevator or a telephone, and James was a little clumsy getting used to it. The first, Miss Mary Weld, was a cheerful and plain little creature, skillful and uncomprehending. She added the cheerful rhythm of her typing to the master's dictations, and every Christmas he gave her a bonus and a little decorated box, the sort of gift one gave a servant. He arranged for her to learn bookbinding, which seemed to him a suitable profession for a young woman of the middle class. She
stayed six years, and then married and left him.

Miss Bosanquet was an altogether different person. Dark-haired, intelligent, handsome, well educated, and despite her youth a confirmed spinster, as James was a bachelor; she shared her apartment with a companion, but she entered into the inner life of James's work. It is curious to think of James striding about the Chelsea flat evoking for her powerfully sensuous images, and at the last, when he was close to death, dictating The Ivory Tower, an intricately constructed phallus around which he set his characters dancing to Miss Bosanquet's music.

Intimate as their intellectual relation was, however, James was growing old and his magnificent receptivity had begun to fail him. He gave Miss Bosanquet, as he had Miss Weld, a little decorated glue box each Christmas. He did not quite understand her position and her pride in it; to him it would have been a cage to be escaped. At first it did not occur to him that he needn't spell out the hard words for her. It would have been better if he had set aside his generosity and his duty toward her--toward us--more often, or entirely, and simply explored and enjoyed their collaboration.

But at the moment we have looked in on them, it is the early summer of 1913, and there is a peculiar richness in their work together. As the memoirs of his childhood with his father and older brother unfold, the grandmothers, mother, sister, sisters-in-law, little brothers, and cousins who occupied the space of his early life began to enter and to fill the little sun-washed flat in Chelsea, like little naked angels filling the heavens of an old Italian painting with their plump limbs. These were ghosts, they were nearly all dead, now; James had been left in all but intolerable solitude.

He is dictating, now: he has taken hold of himself and caught up his typist and his readers in the gigantic effort not only to see his life and work as a whole but to lift her up, to lift us all up, by the strings of our curiosity to the frightening heights to which he himself has climbed.
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