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Henry James (review)

From: The Henry James Review
Volume 29, Number 2, Spring 2008
pp. 210-212 | 10.1353/hjr.0.0001

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Mary Ann Caws’s “brief illustrated life” (1) of James initially seems a dubious choice of format to discuss a writer generally viewed as critical of the mass publishing industry’s use of pictures to sell their stories—let alone someone hardly known for brevity himself. Indeed, this decision to publish James’s life with pictures repeats the plot of one of his tales in another of those spooky coincidences where life imitates art for James. The key conflict in “John Delavoy” (1898) is a popular magazine editor’s choice to reject an unnamed narrator’s critical review of a recently deceased “immense novelist,” John Delavoy (405), and instead to commemorate his life with a sketched picture and a biographical blurb by the deceased writer’s sister. Observing that the text serves “just to write round and round that portrait” (FC 429), the narrator, turning an old proverb, grumbles, “I had always held that, like good wine, honest prose needed, as it were, no blush” (412).

And yet, as Caws rightly points out, “what an intensely visual writer was Henry James” (1). To attest to this fact, this biography is replete with all kinds of visual renderings of “places, pictures, and people frequented by the Master.” Caws is furthermore careful to limit her project’s scope in order to keep it within the guidelines for this series of small volumes, relying heavily on easily accessible accounts of the writer’s life by Leon Edel, R. W. B. Lewis, Sheldon M. Novick, and Fred Kaplan—as well as fictional renderings by Colm Tóibín and David Lodge—to bring James to life for the reader. She also doesn’t take an academic approach to her subject, sidestepping any discussion of James’s participation in the increasingly visually oriented “worlds of journalism, travel writing, drama, or serious publishing” (1). In fact the closest she comes to breaking new ground is delivering some previously unpublished photographs.

But this book is hardly a tell-all. Caws’s pictorial version is distinct in that her text’s brevity matches the concentrated intensity of the pictorial medium so generously supplied in this version of James’s life, and that strikes me, after all, as a very Jamesian project. In her book, which rejects a chronological retelling of James’s life, we witness the urgency with which James pursues his own dictate in The Ambassadors to “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to” (215). Instead, the book is organized by James’s great loves. Caws distills “the more vivid moments of telling, of friendships, of places, illuminating the events of James’s writings” (1). What we have as a result is James as the passionate, not simply the cerebral, writer. Caws is at her most persuasive when she considers the permeability of life and art for James, how art had always served as a medium for living fully and passionately. Through the veritable gallery of artists and socialites she presents, Caws reveals James as part of a

community of creating individuals: that which permitted him to occasionally use the collective first-person plural pronoun. One of the most famous passages from . . . “The Middle Years” speaks to this (Kaplan 372): “I wanted to do what they call live. . . . We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task.”1


For Caws, James’s wide circle of friends and family also reflected “a refusal of being tied down to any one way of conceiving life” (23). That is, “the very richness of such a non-narrow point of view endowed him with the truest kind of liberal thinking.” In “James Country” and the succeeding chapter, “A Double Consciousness,” she shows how Henry fit in with “a family of visionaries,” one which, she wryly observes, “was not what we would think of as a calm family” (8). Henry thus imitates his family’s peripatetic travel patterns, playing the role of the “passionate pilgrim . . . taking a position away, removed, always away from his home port” (21). Caws also likes to show James’s “Great Friends” at their most dramatic and...

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