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Henry James: The Mature Master
"Novick's ambition...has been to see James afresh, to replace the 'querulous old maid' of Leon Edel's five-volume biography...with 'the active, passionate, engaged man his contemporaries knew.. Like many such revisions, this entails a drastic caricature of the earlier work...and a somewhat wishful or idealized notion of what is replacing it." Alan Hollinghurst, The New York Review of Books (read the entire New York Review of Books review)
Synopses & Reviews
The New York Times compared Sheldon M. Novick’s Henry James: The Young Master to “a movie of James’s life, as it unfolds, moment to moment, lending the book a powerful immediacy.” Now, in Henry James: The Mature Master, Novick completes his super, revelatory two-volume account of one of the world’s most gifted and least understood authors, and of a vanished world of aristocrats and commoners.
Using hundreds of letters only recently made available and taking a fresh look at primary materials, Novick reveals a man utterly unlike the passive, repressed, and privileged observer painted by other biographers. Henry James is seen anew, as a passionate and engaged man of his times, driven to achieve greatness and fame, drawn to the company of other men, able to write with sensitivity about women as he shared their experiences of love and family responsibility.
James, age thirty-eight as the volume begins, basking in the success of his first major novel, The Portrait of a Lady, is a literary lion in danger of being submerged by celebrity. As his finances ebb and flow he turns to the more lucrative world of the stage–with far more success than he has generally been credited with. Ironically, while struggling to excel in the theatre, James writes such prose masterpieces as The Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl.
Through an astonishingly prolific life, James still finds time for profound friendships and intense rivalries. Henry James: The Mature Master features vivid new portraits of James’s famous peers, including Edith Wharton, Oscar Wilde, and Robert Louis Stevenson; his close and loving siblings Alice and William; and the many compelling young men, among them Hugh Walpole and Howard Sturgis, with whom James exchanges professions of love and among whom he thrives. We see a master converting the materials of an active life into great art.
Here, too, as one century ends and another begins, is James’s participation in the public events of his native America and adopted England. As the still-feudal European world is shaken by democracy and as America sees itself endangered by a wave of Jewish and Italian immigrants, a troubled James wrestles with his own racial prejudices and his desire for justice. With the coming of world war all other considerations are set aside, and James enlists in the cause of civilization, leaving his greatest final works unwritten.
Hailed as a genius and a warm and charitable man–and derided by enemies as false, effeminate, and self-infatuated–Henry James emerges here as a major and complex figure, a determined and ambitious artist who was planning a new novel even on his deathbed. In Henry James: The Mature Master, he is at last seen in full; along with its predecessor volume, this book is bound to become the definitive biography.
"This second and final volume (after Henry James: The Young Master) of Novick's epic James biography covers the period beginning immediately following the 1881 publication of The Portrait of a Lady and ends with James's extended final illness and death in 1916. In between, James's personal and literary life is exhaustively chronicled in a meticulous fashion. Novick's goal is to show James as an 'active, passionate, engaged' man of his time, rather than as the repressed, passive man of literary myth, and he achieves this goal resoundingly by allowing the reader access to James on almost a daily level, often through his frequent letters to friends and family. Novick's first volume caused a small stir through its elucidation of James's romantic feelings toward Oliver Wendell Holmes, and this conclusion offers a similar opinion of his 'romantic friendship' with the poet Arthur Benson. Despite the occasional dramatic flareups, however, including the recounting of a literary rivalry with Oscar Wilde and James's pledge of loyalty to the king of England during WWI, the book is most concerned with the day-to-day politics and publishing practices of James's lifetime, and any reader interested in the master's political development or prolific working methods would do well to turn to this definitive work." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"The faintly redundant subtitle is easily explained: The fifth and last volume of Leon Edel's classic Henry James biography was called simply 'The Master,' echoing the honorific conferred on the great storyteller by his friends. James has remained 'The Master,' and Edel's biography (1953-1972) is among the greatest in the language. Nonetheless, the short verdict on this concluding volume of Sheldon... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) M. Novick's two-part biography (the first, 'The Young Master,' appeared a decade ago) is that it weathers the Edel test. It is fluent, confident, informed (at times excessively so, since Novick burdens it with many relatively inconsequential James letters), and it is also perceptive and sensible. Good sense is a quality that too much writing about James lacks. The fatuity of some recent portraiture may be seen in a tall tale of which Novick is properly skeptical. James was close friends with the novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson, whose 1894 death in Venice, perhaps by suicide, deeply disturbed him. Decades after her death, James' devoted attentions to her memory gave rise to the bizarre story that James had himself rowed out into the Venetian lagoon and there attempted to 'sink' Miss Woolson's dresses, only to see them bob stubbornly to the surface. The tale rests on the recollection of an elderly Italian lady, 62 years later, who said (in a BBC broadcast) that she heard it from James. It has been catnip for credulous biographers, so that James, a man of sane and settled habits, emerges as the weirdest of eccentrics. Novick calls the tale 'improbable,' and he is right. The story of the unsinkable dresses is, however, typical of Jamesian apocrypha on which barrels of ink are regularly squandered — along with the propensity of some critics to lock him in an ivory tower that belies James' humanity. Given these hazards, any volume that treats the writer's middle to late years (roughly 1881 to his death of congestive heart failure in 1916) must confront certain well-worn issues, among which two are paramount: one personal, the other literary. On the personal side, what about his sexual life? And on the literary side, what about the alleged obscurity of his 'late style,' the experimental narrative manner he developed following his disappointed efforts as a playwright in the 1890s? The issue of James' sexuality suggests why many great writers, including James, have taken a dim view of literary biography in which, so often, the body of work takes a back seat to prurient curiosity about the writer's private life. The preoccupation with James' sex life may be traced to the second thoughts Edel expressed in a 1985 abridged edition of his five-volume work. Edel observed that times and manners had changed, and he had 'discard(ed) certain former reticences. ... No biographer can tell "everything," (but) we are able to offer a more forthright record of personal relations, of deeper emotions and sexual fantasies.' What Edel cautiously intimated, bumptious successors have made into an obsessive focus. Novick, writing on the heels of attempts to join James to gay-lib ideology, deals with this delicate issue by implication. His treatment is muted and insinuating, since there are no certainties. For those persuaded, as Novick seems to be, that James led a secret homosexual life, such evidence as he presents lies in gushing letters to young male friends that speak of enfolding arms and other endearments. To our ears, such figures may hint at carnal passion, although the Victorian implications may well have been more conventional. But writers live mainly in their work, and in James' case the question of sexuality is neither more nor less relevant than it is in, say, Shakespeare's explicitly androgynous sonnets. As for James' late style, of which Novick writes with sympathy and perception, it often provokes the charge of obscurity that has been leveled against many of the modern masters of prose fiction and prompts the question: Did such revolutionists as James, Proust, Joyce and Faulkner lose touch with their era? Or did the era, dulled by mass-media banality, lose touch with them? James' late style is thickly metaphorical and pictorial and, though intricate in syntax, far less so in the fiction than in the late autobiographical works. As a critic, Novick turns in a hit-and-miss performance, uneven on the earlier works. (He is fond of the dubious notion that Jamesian characters are modeled on living persons.) On the later works he is better, writing with a delicate appreciation of James' mature style. As he shows, it exploited what James called 'the divine scenic method,' a new way of seeing that recalls Conrad's remark that the storyteller's task is 'above all, to make you see.' It was a byproduct of his playwriting experience and his determination to embody in his tales all the subtleties of human awareness. In the pursuit of those subtleties, James created privileged observers whom he came to call 'reflectors,' who see the action — as E.M. Forster joked — 'through lenses procured from a rather too first-class oculist.' The issue has been much canvassed, but rarely as well as here in this very readable portrait. Novick has given us a Henry James who is not only artistically heroic but entirely admirable as colleague, friend, companion and brother — as he was in life. Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is an Alexandria writer. His novel 'Lions at Lamb House,' about Freud and Henry James, appeared in September." Reviewed by Edwin M. Yoder Jr., Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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Sheldon M. Novick portrays Henry James as a man of great emotional depth--powerful, confident, generous, and above all, courageous. This landmark life follows the author's exceptional biography of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, of which Edmund Morris said in The New York Times, " masterly . . . perfected to the point of art." of photos.
With this follow-up to "Henry James: The Young Master," Novick completes his revelatory two-volume account of one of the worlds most gifted and least understood authors. Henry James is seen anew, as a passionate and engaged man of his times, driven to achieve greatness and fame.
About the Author
Sheldon M. Novick is the author of Henry James: The Mature Master, Henry James: The Young Master and Honorable Justice: The Life of Oliver Wendell Holmes, and is the editor of The Collected Works of Justice Holmes. He is Adjunct Professor of Law and History at Vermont Law School, and lives in Norwich, Vermont.
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