Henry James: A Life

Leon Edel

Henry James: A Life

Leon Edel

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Henry James: A Life Summary

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Revered American James scholar Leon Edel’s 1985 biography of the American novelist Henry James, Henry James: A Life, is a condensed version of Edel’s five-volume (2,195-page) biography of James, published between 1953 and 1972. However, Henry James: A Life also takes into account new information and theories about James’s life which had emerged after the publication of Edel’s first epic biography.

Edel’s account of James’s life is motivated by admiration. He describes James as America's “one fully achieved literary artist,” and one of the first true psychological novelists. His biography interweaves the story of James’s life with readings of his novels, which are also mined for possible clues to James’s inner life.

Predominantly through psychoanalytical readings of James’s fiction and letters, Edel establishes what he believes to be the central issues shaping James’s life and work. Edel argues that James saw his father as crippled and emasculated and his mother as overwhelmingly dominant. However, Edel sees James’s relationship with his elder brother, the philosopher William James, as the key relationship in James’s life. The two brothers are raised like twins, despite the fact that William is more than a year older than James, and both are encouraged to think of themselves as destined for greatness. The brothers compete fiercely to be the one to achieve greatness first. Edel sees this contest as a life-long motive for James’s writing.

However, Edel also acknowledges some alternative theories about James’s relationship with his brother. He respectfully notes the argument of Howard M. Feinstein, a biographer of William James, that both James brothers were affected as much by their parents’ inability to achieve a sense of vocation as they were by their own rivalry. Edel also sets out Richard Hall’s theory that Henry and William’s rivalry was underpinned by an unacknowledged incestuous sexual bond. This theory supports Edel’s reading of James’s Washington Square. This novel features an intelligent but ruthless character named Dr. Sloper: Edel argues that Sloper is a portrait of William, who had just “betrayed” James by marrying.

From his early life with his family in the U.S. and Europe, Edel proceeds to describe James’s youth: studying with tutors; reading Balzac, who will later be the most significant influence on James’s own work, and finally attending Harvard Law School, where he discovers that he is more interested in literature than law.

After writing reviews and short stories, James publishes his first novel, Watch and Ward, in 1871. Shortly afterward, he leaves for Europe, where he attempts to establish himself in Paris and Rome. After a brief return to the States, James establishes himself in England, where the bulk of his writing is done. Edel emphasizes James’s friendships with other writers, and the influence these writers have on his work, among them George Eliot, Flaubert, Zola, Kipling, Conrad, and H.G. Wells.

One important difference between Henry James: A Life and Edel’s earlier five-volume biography is that in the wake of the “sexual revolution” Edel feels able to be more open about James’s sexuality. Edel sticks to his earlier view that James was a lifelong celibate, but he places more emphasis on the novelist’s infatuations with men. In particular, Edel argues that late in life, James had something of a breakthrough about his own sexuality, and enjoyed eroticized friendships with younger men, especially the expatriate Norwegian sculptor Hendrik Andersen. For Edel, evidence of this breakthrough can be found in James’s later novels, which take sex more seriously as a factor in human relationships than his earlier work.

Drawing on a Freudian idea of homosexuality, Edel argues that James’s homosexuality was a result of his fear of heterosexual relationships. Edel suggests that James had a lifelong fear of women, deriving from his father’s emasculation by his mother. Edel examines James’s relationship with his cousin, Mary “Minnie” Temple, and with the American novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson. He argues that Woolson’s suicide may have been caused by James’s rejection of her advances. Again, evidence for this possibility is found in James’s novels, as well as letters written by the novelist expressing guilt about her death.

Edel stresses the effects on James of his failure as a playwright. Despite his success as a novelist, James’s plays were poorly received by audiences. At the opening night of his first long play, Guy Domville, the audience hissed at James when he appeared for a curtain call. Edel argues that this episode resulted in a severe depression and a period of infantile regression. Once again, the evidence is found in stories from this period, some of which are concerned with victimized children.

James died in 1916. Edel stresses his achievement as a novelist and his influence on the generation of writers that followed him.

Edel’s biography has been criticized in the decades since its publication. In particular, subsequent biographers have argued that James was homosexual, and probably not celibate: these biographers have suggested that Edel’s insistence on James’s celibacy is tinged with homophobia. Edel’s psychoanalytical approach has also been criticized as out of date. Nevertheless, Edel’s work on James is still regarded as an important source for students of the novelist’s life and work.
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