While we consider Henry James the one of the greatest novelists writing in the English language, he didn’t always have that reputation. During Henry’s lifetime, he struggled continuously to balance his art with the marketplace. His most popular books were often pirated, netting him very little income, and his finest works of art simply didn’t sell.
Monopolizing the Master (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) begins, “Before he left this world, Henry James took various steps to shape the contours of his posthumous reputation and direct the lines of critical inquiry that would affect it.” Late in his life, James sent out to collect what he considered his most important works in the New York Edition, a 24-volume set of his novels and tales. Thus began a process which would take decades, and which saw a number of players attempting to shape James’s legacy, and, in some cases, build their careers on it.
This book is the story of the construction a literary legacy. It focuses on the case of Henry James, but one could imagine similar books written about many other authors. After an author dies, a number of issues arise. Will his or her works be collected? If so, how? Will the author’s letters be published? This can be a contentious issue, because many of the letters contain very personal information, not only about the author, but about other living people. Finally, who will write the author’s biography, and what angle will it take?
In the case of Henry James, all of these questions became contentious. Shortly after his death, his family examined the question of publishing his letters. Henry James named as literary executor his sister-in-law, Alice James. And it was Harry, the son of Alice and William, who took things in hand. Harry tightly controlled access to the letters, and filtered those that the family did not want published. There were a couple of early contenders to become the first Henry James specialist: one was Theodora Bosanquet, Henry’s final amanuensis; another was Percy Lubbock, who was a friend of James’s and a true fan of the Master. Lubbock eventually edited two volumes of James’s letters and attempted to keep alive the reputation of his hero through essays and books.
The title of this book becomes apparent when the young scholar Leon Edel comes on the scene. After obtaining Harry’s permission to edit James’s plays, Edel got access to the family archive. Over time, he solidified his position and became, for many years, just about the only person who could access these documents. When he began writing his monumental five-volume biography of James, he managed to “monopolize the Master,” until the completion of his work more than 20 years later. The author is especially critical of Edel in this book, titling the final chapter The Legend of the Bastard.
In many ways, it is understandable that a family wishes to control the legacy of an author as much as possible. That it took several generations for scholars to be freed of these fetters is probably not surprising. What is worrisome is that many documents may have been lost or destroyed in an attempt to shape that legacy. But this book shows just how Henry James’s legacy was created, for good or for ill. It’s an interesting story, one filled with heroes and villains, and one that shows that academia isn’t as dispassionate as many people think.
Review originally published on The Figure in the Carpet.