Gotham Diary:
18 December 2013

This morning, I want to return to Michael Anesko’s Monopolizing the Master, which I finished reading over the weekend. It is a book that everyone interested in Henry James’s fiction ought to read, not because it offers special insights into the work, but because it focuses on reactions to James’s complexity, reactions that tended to minimize this complexity, that tried to reorganize it. Monopolizing the Master is about misreading the Master.

Not just anybody’s misreading, but the gatekeepers’ themselves. These were James’s nephew and literary executor, Henry James III, known as Harry, an attorney by profession; and Leon Edel, a journalist who, in the course of writing a dissertation on Henry James’s stage plays, appears to have won the anxious Harry’s seal of approval. I do not mean to disparage lawyers or newspapermen, but it is no surprise to me that Harry and Edel liked to have things in black and white. Black was for shrouding the ambiguous, the ambivalent, the arguably inappropriate — everything that creaks underfoot as one traverses the spacious galleries of James’s novels and the winding corridors of his stories. Edel also enjoyed the clarity, for a time, of a working monopoly with regard to access to James’s papers, an arrangement with which academic libraries complied not out of obligation but from sympathy. The monopoly came to an end on 4 May 1973, when Harry’s nephew, Alexander James, rescinded it. Now, at last, the legacy of Henry James could be submitted to proper academic inquiry. It took nearly a generation for the effects of this liberation to be felt, so heavily had Edel’s hand clamped shut the possibilities of discussion. And we’re still calling James the Master.

The bootstrapping worked like this: James’s complexity was a sign of his mastery: he knew what he was talking about. If you couldn’t quite follow him, you could at least be sure that he had trailed into realms of fine exaltation. You might content yourself with this understanding, formulated by Pound, of James’s impeccable purposes.

What I have not heard is any word of the major James, of the hater of tyranny, book after early book against oppression, against all the sordid petty personal crushing oppression … the rights of the individual against all sorts of bondage. The passion of it, the continual passion of it in this man who, fools said, didn’t ‘feel.’ I have never yet found a man of emotion against whom idiots didn’t raise this cry.

(Anesko quotes this passage from Instigations on p 119)

Michael Anesko’s pen is the most sophisticated of instruments. Covering in full the protracted attempt to control the learned response to Henry James — which became, in time, the only response — Anesko never condescends to discuss the motivations behind this attempt. He does not conceal the matter altogether; on page 80 he lets drop a surmise about “the belated acceptance of heteronormative roles and conventions” by both Harry James and his sister, Peggy. He quotes from a very naughty pamphlet that circulated while Henry James was still alive, called What Percy Knew. (The fragment is titled, “The Better End, an uncompleted chapter from a novel by H nr J m s” — the Morgan Library has a copy, if you think they’ll let you see it.) The general effetness of Henry James’s circle of friends is mentioned as the reason why the James family didn’t get on with them. My point is that Anesko never dwells on the obvious wellspring of anxiety and control that produced the monopoly, that deep quaking and unspeaking dread of homosexual desire, out there in the world and, more horrible still, lying coiled within oneself. And because Anesko doesn’t dwell on it, it flies up from his pages, in all its bruised unhappiness, like a living, palpable ghost.

It would be anachronistic to charge Henry James himself with a homophobia similar to his nephew’s; Harry James’s attitudes were molded by the anti-feminine, muscularly Christian tide that swept the men of the West right into the folly of World War I. My own view is that Henry was too physically fastidious for actual sex; he was happy enough to write as if to lovers. That was the problem for Harry. It didn’t really matter what Uncle Henry did; what he wrote in his letters, and not just those to the hunky sculptor Hendrik Andersen, was blatantly faggoty. It wasn’t the sort of thing — it couldn’t be the sort of thing that the “Master” of American novelists, of novelists in English! could indulge in. So Harry saw to it that they were buried. Edel, not as squeamish on the subject but eager to secure his right to scoop everybody else, was happy to comply.

But James’s effusive letters, together with his nephew’s shame, actually make his novels much easier to understand, and at no expense to their mastery. The novelist’s private enthusiasms stand in for the thoughts and deeds of characters whose points of view are not shared with us. They give body to the menace of the unknown: they make it clear to us why the unknown must be kept unknown. This is not for a moment to suggest that most or any of James’s characters are gay. What they share with James is, simply, illicit desire. Many of James’s characters have a vaguely obscene desire for comfort — for the comforts, that is, of the well-appointed, beautifully-staffed private residence. This puts them in need of money, in pursuit of which they may do unspeakable things.

Pound is not off the mark: the most unspeakable act in James’s book of ethics is to pretend to love. What Henry knew was what follows innocence, and he writes about the mess as scrupulously as if he were shepherding atomic wastes. Within the spools of his finely-wrought paragraphs is tucked some very dirty linen. In the fiction, we can only guess that it’s there. In his letters, and in his nephew’s horror at the thought of their publication, we can get a good whiff.


And here I was going to quibble with something in Anesko’s book, his recurring references to James’s “cultural capital.” I have an idea what this phrase means, but I find it infelicitous in several ways. Real-world capital is always ascertainable down to the penny, and it is measured in one currency at a time. The power of novelists, especially with the passage of time, is both uncertain and profuse; I can think of at least two “currencies” in which the reputation of Jane Austen can be measured, and they are not mutually convertible. “Cultural capital” sounds Marxian to me, and therefore somewhat reductionist.

Perhaps I have just said all that I needed to say on the subject.