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Reviewed by:
Charles Caramello. Henry James, Gertrude Stein, and The Biographical Act. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1996. 275 pp.

What a happy book this is—these writers, so monumental, so august in their seniority, subjects of brooding photographic portraits, photographs in which they massively loom; these interesting texts: Hawthorne, William Wetmore Story, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Four in America; this pertinent question: what is it Henry James and Gertrude Stein do to, do with, the biographical act, portraiture. Caramello’s book itself is beautifully written, neatly phrased, at play with Jamesian and Steinian biographical figures. There is a rich sampling of the great photographic portraits. As it happens, Alvin Langdon Coburn did both James and Stein.

Notabene: this is an enthusiastic review. Here is a pithy line that perfectly describes a certain movement in James’s biographical discourse, James’s leaning, his activity always at the boundaries of genre. “Always less devoted to promulgating social theory than to painting social effects, always less interested in historical explanation than in aesthetic evaluation, always less persuaded by deterministic philosophy than committed to the power of will, James inevitably leaned from Taine toward Arnold, and, for this and other reasons, leaned from biography, historiography’s stepchild, toward the art of criticism.” Caramello is excellent on the influences, the anxieties, that inform Jamesian and Steinian biographical and autobiographical portraiture, showing how (it is always good drama) they go through the revisionary ratios, James doing Hawthorne, Stein doing Henry James.

What do you want to know about James’s Hawthorne? Why is James so circumspect in his treatment of Hawthorne’s marriage? One [End Page 453] reason: Hawthorne’s single research source, George Parsons Lathrop’s A Study of Hawthorne, has very little to say about Sophia Hawthorne. Another reason: the series James was writing for wasn’t interested in the personal lives of its listed men of letters. There are other reasons which Caramello sets forth. In this Hawthorne everything James says of Hawthorne applies to himself in his later strength, his maturity. A lot is at stake in James’s portrait of Hawthorne. As James slips from metaphor to metaphor, eludes logical constraints, swerves from certain problems, dealing with Hawthorne’s limitations, Caramello keeps James’s intention in sight, focused, comprehended. It is no small achievement, penetrating James’s wiliness, the densities of his narrative syntax.

Caramello also brings to the table two additional Jamesian portraits of Hawthorne, an 1896 essay, largely a synopsis of Hawthorne, and an official letter to the Mayor of Salem, Massachusetts, on the occasion in 1904 of the Hawthorne Centenary, and two extended comments, one in William Wetmore Story, the other in Notes of a Son and Brother. The comment in Notes is wonderfully exposited, its logic (greater than/lesser than) humorously set forth, its murkiness solved. “Like most of the writings in James’s memoirs of the post-1910 period, the passage on Hawthorne in Notes has a prolixity and obliquity that makes its point difficult to discern and nearly impossible to fix in paraphrase.” Caramello nonetheless discloses its point. It has everything to do with James remembering hearing the news of Hawthorne’s death during the Civil War.

Close readers of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “The Libyan Sybil,” as well as students of nineteenth-century American official art, will find Caramello’s treatment of James’s intensive study of Story’s sculpture very interesting. There is no lessening of analytic rigor in the William Wetmore Story section. Here are specificities spelled out, contextual details given. William Wetmore Story is a minor work, but James was intensely at work in it, projecting, allegorizing. As in Hawthorne, James evaluates an artist of the late Jacksonian period, in this case with considerable jaundice. It was his father’s period, its romanticism his father’s romanticism. It came up short of the mark (this is always James’s judgment of Jacksonian writing—that it was incomplete). Caramello gives us at once the formal structure of William Wetmore Story and its psychodrama, takes us to the several centers in this text. [End Page 454]

Which is, of course, in some sense, Stein’s reading...

Additional Information

ISSN
1080-658X
Print ISSN
0026-7724
Pages
pp. 453-457
Launched on MUSE
1997-06-24
Open Access
No
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