- James, "The Aspern Papers," and the Ethics of Literary Biography
Although it has inspired a voluminous body of published scholarship, "The Aspern Papers" is a more intensely personal and topical story than hitherto recognized. To be sure, its central source is well-known: Henry James wrote the nouvelle shortly after learning in January 1887 that a Boston art critic and retired sea captain named Silsbee had schemed to pilfer the papers of Claire Clairmont, Byron's former mistress, who had settled in Italy with her niece. In the story, serialized in 1888 and revised for the New York Edition in 1908, an unnamed narrator also plots to filch papers from Jeffrey Aspern's quondam mistress Juliana Bordereau and her dowdy niece (or daughter) Tina. Most criticism of the tale focuses on one or two formal issues—the reliability of the narrator and the culpability or rapacity of the Bordereaus. I do not presume that such earlier approaches to the work are wrong. However, they neglect both James's own experience as a "publishing scoundrel" and the circumstances of a recent publishing scandal. "The Aspern Papers" offers, I believe, pointed commentary on the ethics of literary biography inspired in no small part by James's own research into the life of Nathaniel Hawthorne for his monograph in the English Men of Letters series in 1879 and by the controversy surrounding the publication of Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Wife by Hawthorne's son Julian five years later.
James clearly conceived Aspern as a type of the elder Hawthorne—not, as usually assumed, as a version of Byron or Shelley.1 Like Hawthorne, Aspern (the [End Page 211] surnames distantly echo) was a prominent New England romantic author. Much as Hawthorne died prematurely in 1864—in his autobiography, James recalled the shock with which he heard the news—Aspern suffered an "early death" (156). Much as Hawthorne's fame declined for a decade or so after his death, Aspern's reputation endured a "long comparative obscuration" (155). More to the point, James described Hawthorne in his monograph in terms remarkably similar to those James's narrator uses to portray Aspern. Whereas James had asserted that Hawthorne was "thoroughly American" (Hawthorne 47), the narrator claims that Aspern's muse was "essentially American" (186). Much as James had described Hawthorne as "a strikingly handsome fellow" (Hawthorne 46), the narrator depicts Aspern as "remarkably handsome" and "one of the handsomest" men of his day (155, 217). Much as James had imagined how "Hawthorne must have felt" when "he made the acquaintance of the denser, richer, warmer, European spectacle" in the 1850s (Hawthorne 43), the narrator tries to "judge how the Old World would have struck" Aspern during the first years of his expatriation (186). James had written that "compassion for the young [Hawthorne] becomes our dominant sentiment . . . when we think" of his early years in a "provincial, rural community," in a culture that was "in some respects provincial" (Hawthorne 1, 28-29, 30). Similarly, the narrator of James's story first "loved" Aspern for finding the "means to live and write" during "a period when our native land was nude and crude and provincial" (186).
The repetition of the term "provincial" is particularly telling. James had derided the provincialism of antebellum New England so often in his Hawthorne —the word appears nearly a dozen times in it—that his friend W. D. Howells complained in his review of the book that "the provinciality strikes us as somewhat over-insisted upon" and "we think the epithet is sometimes mistaken" (282). James soon apologized, at least privately, for the frequency with which he had used the term: "It is quite true I use the word provincial too many times—I hated myself for't, even while I did it" (Letters of Henry James I 72). He deliberately used the word again in the story, it seems, to emphasize the similarity between Aspern and Hawthorne. Although the parallel has been generally overlooked, Leon Edel only slightly overshoots the mark with his suggestion that "in Aspern James evokes himself as he was, and as he would have liked to be—a kind of Hawthorne figure liberated from...