restricted access Leon Edel and Literary Art (review)
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Reviewed by
Lyall H. Powers, ed. Leon Edel and Literary Art. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1988. 192 pp. $39.95.

This festschrift celebrating Leon Edel's eightieth birthday is even more of a mixed bag than such productions usually are. Besides poems by William S. Merwin, Marjorie Sinclair, and Diane Wakoski, an excerpt from a novel by Michael Ondaatje, an essay with eight drawings by Lamb House's present occupant Sir Brian Cook Batsford, two one-paragraph "Letters to Leon" by Merwin and Sir Rupert Hart-Davis, two cartoons by M. G. Lord, a biographical introduction and tribute by Lyall Powers, two informal essays on writing biography and reading James by Joseph Blotner and Cynthia Ozick, and ten more or less scholarly articles on Edelian biography, biography as a genre, various fictions by James, and some social, literary, and historical contexts that James and a few of his contemporaries (Hopkins, Wharton, Woolf, Dreiser) deployed in their work, the volume also features an interview with James Baldwin, who reveals how another voluntary exile living among Europeans but writing about Americans "became, in a sense, [End Page 646] my master." "It was something about point of view, something about discipline," Baldwin muses on the example of Henry James. "And something about the silence in which I myself was living." Three of these contributions have appeared elsewhere, two are revisions and one a translation of previously published work.

Of the scholarly essays, Robert Bernard Martin's meticulous exploration of possible sources for Gerard Manley Hopkins' "The Wreck of the Deutschland" in contemporary newspaper accounts of a shipwreck and Hopkins' experiences at a Jesuit novitiate offers the closest parallel (and, in a sense, the most sincere tribute) to the persuasive power and critical elegance of Edel's psychobiographical methodology. Adeline Tintner's claim that there is "A Source for James' The Ambassadors in Holbein's The Ambassadors (1533)" is a characteristic example of this prolific critic's thorough command of James's work and life, but I found her reading of the novel somewhat mechanical. One can make more or less the same assessment of S. P. Rosenbaum's analysis of Virginia Woolf s use of her early diaries, Sergio Perosa's thematic study of "The Aspern Papers," and Powers' exploration of James's notion of "the missed experience": solid, careful, sensible, and knowledgeable, but practicing biographical criticism in a less sophisticated manner than this collection's dedicatee.

Such epigonal slippage is also evident in the essays dealing with writing and reading biography. Blotner provides a few conflicted observations on his research technique and proclaims his ignorance of biographical theory. Dennis Petrie and Daniel Mark Fogel celebrate Edelian biography but never escape a rather old-fashioned stylistic approach: that is, Edel is a great biographer because he writes well, manipulating his material and his prose as if he were a novelist. This is to mystify rather than to clarify the issue. Novel-writing has a constantly changing history; it is not a stable cultural practice; life-writing's relationship with it is also constantly shifting. Indeed, why privilege the novelistic? Couldn't the early English novel (or the modern American novel) just as easily and inadequately be described as biographical because it stresses the verisimilitude of individual experience? It is (among other things) the ongoing relationships between the novelistic and the biographical (in all their various, unstable modes) that need to be recognized and articulated here, although not in the timid, oblique manner of Abraham Edel, who tries to use philosophical discourse to place "Biography Among the Disciplines." "In some respects [he concludes] it would be worth exploring the notion of the biographer . . . as not merely the writer of lives but as the theorist of lives. . . . Perhaps too, then, there is a dimension of making lives in the task of writing lives." Beginning rather than ending with this crucial premise is the way to make a significant contribution to the poetics of biography in the late twentieth century. One might have conjectured that the legacy of Leon Edel would have included such a stipulation, but, judging from this and other testaments to his example and influence, one might be wrong. Perhaps the...