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Leon Edel

By R. W. B. Lewis

Whenever I think of Leon Edel, I’m glad to be reminded that he grew up more or less in Canada; that he studied at McGill University in Montreal where I have a cherished personal connection; and then completed his graduate studies at University of Paris. Leon was himself thus, in his formative years, the very embodiment of that international theme which he traced so deftly and in such rich detail in The Life and Work of Henry James. He, Leon, having had the Jamesean experience of being an American in Paris, also gained the special perspective on the American personality of our northerly Canadian cousins.

But it was in Paris that Leon wrote his dissertation on James’s “dramatic” years in French and then in English. I came upon this work a dozen years ago when I was engaged in Jamesean studies and discovered to my delight the text and revisions of James’s dramatization of his own novel The American. This dramatization opened in the fall of 1891. The original story told of a middle-aged American, Christopher Newman, who comes to Paris in search of experience. He becomes involved with the aristocratic French family the de Bellgardes; strikes up a friendship with the son of the family, Valentin; and hopes to marry the daughter Claire de Bellgarde. All ends badly, including the fact that Valentin dies after being wounded in a duel. But Leon’s text shows James was induced to make changes towards happier endings.

In fact, in favor of bigger box office receipts, he desperately rewrote much of the last act. And the major change is that Valentin does not die. Instead, at the proper moment the doctor runs on stage shouting “Great news, he’s better!” All this was brought to light sixty plus years ago by the young Canadian-American scholar in Paris.

I can still remember Edmund Wilson sitting on the porch of our house outside of New Haven one evening and saying quietly that Leon Edel’s Life of Henry James was the best literary biography ever written by an American. This was in the later 1960s and there were still two volumes to come. Let me try to give an illustration of what can be meant by this extraordinarily high claim. In the fifth and final volume of his biography, Leon’s biography, it’s called The Master and it covers the years 1901 to James’s death in 1916, Leon devotes an eleven-page chapter to The Ambassadors, the first of the three novels that are usually booked together to comprise James’s major phase. The chapter begins by telling of  a portrait of James painted in the summer of 1899 by his young cousin Bay Emmett. The portrait is formal, a bit sullen, somewhat arty. But there was much later discovered another unfinished portrait stuck behind it, Bay’s provisional sketch presenting a far more relaxed and human individual. Thus one, behind the other, Edel observes were the two Henry Jameses: the solemn and unsmiling master, the abstemious novelist; and the more bouncy human being, the relaxed parochial resident of Rye, the haunter of the local pubs. These two personae, Edel suggests, divide between them the psychological substance of The Ambassadors, the novel James had begun to write that very same summer. Edel then moves gracefully through the story of the novel, noting that the chief character’s name, Lewis Lambert Strether, is borrowed from Balzac in the latter’s novel Louis Lambert. He follows the middle-aged Strether, James himself becoming middle-aged, as Edel quietly notes, and follows him on his mission to Paris, theoretically to rescue young Chad Newsome from the clutches of a corruptive French female. He reaches rather slow partial liberation from his New England conventionality, and one moment in that process has to be stressed, what Edel calls the brilliant climactic scene in the Paris garden of the painter Gloriani, where Strether, talking to little Bilham, delivers in Edel’s phrase, “…one of the most poignant soliloquies in all of James’s fiction and of the most personal.” It arrives at the unforgettable formulation, “Live all you can, it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you have your life.” Central to Edel’s biographical treatment of this moment is the original scene of it, a story James had heard “…long ago at Torquay, of William Dean Howell in the Paris garden of the artist Whistler murmuring to a younger friend that he should live all one can.” And Edel continues, “…James had known Whistler’s garden, he knew it very well, he had visited Whistler there years before during 1875-76 when he visited on occasion the house overlooking the garden and talked with old Madame Mohl, Fanny Kemble’s friend, the Anglo-French hostess, who had also been a friend of Madame Récamier in Chateaubriand. James had stood at the window and observed the adjoining convent for the returning of missionary priests. In The Ambassadors, he endows Strethers with his own memories,” and then Leon returns to the heart of the literary work. I do recommend that whole section as a model of what is meant by literary biography.

My own acquaintance with Leon, which deepened into a friendship began in the later 1960s when I was at work on a biography of Edith Wharton. I peppered him with questions, not only about Henry James’s relationship with Edith Wharton but about a number of mutual friends like Percy Lubbock.  He was invaluably and efficiently helpful. I recall meetings at the Century where he would answer questions that I put to him, but not allowing me to take any notes. The Century forbids that anybody have a piece of paper in front of himself and Leon could be very stern and impatient about that kind of regulation. Out of these meetings, anyhow, there emerged the outline of a Whartonian or rather a Wharton-Edel anecdote that I enjoyed giving shape to. In February 1931 Edith Wharton, tucked away in her winter home on the French Riviera, flew into a panic upon hearing that someone named Leon Edel was proposing to write a book about her dear and deceased friend Walter Berry. The reason, so Edel had informed another friend of Mrs. Wharton, was that Berry had been the intimate of three great novelists, Marcel Proust, Henry James, and Edith Wharton, and he wanted to get any relevant letters and documents. Edith hurriedly dictated a letter to Bernard Berenson telling him of this affair and asking his advice of how it might be stopped. “As you know,” she told Berenson, … “I’m going to get together material for some reminiscences and I’m perfectly willing, in order to block Mr. Edel, to say that I’m going to write a life of Walter myself. Of course, there isn’t really any material for a life but a vulgar gossipy book could be manufactured by Edel and by Mrs. Crosby [that’s Berry’s cousin by marriage] and this naturally I want to prevent at all costs.” I must admit that personally I would have enjoyed seeing a vulgar and gossipy book about Walter Berry et al. concocted by Leon Edel and Caresse Crosby. In fact, the whole venture was a sort of honorable literary conspiracy. Twenty-two year-old Leon Edel had interrupted his studies at the Sorbonne to try to help a friend, name unknown, who wanted for some reason to see Walter Berry’s letters to Edith Wharton. Leon wrote directly to Madame Wharton more or less clearing things up and on April 3rd Edith wrote another friend: “I’ve had a very decent note from Edel who will wait on on me in June.” Edel did so, coming out to the Wharton home outside of Paris in late June by invitation and making a quiet show of abandoning the whole project. He and Edith got along very well; saw each other more than once afterwards. Edith Wharton in fact wrote a very strong recommendation for a Guggenheim grant to Leon Edel on the basis of which Leon finished the study of Henry James’s plays, and I believe began seriously to address himself to a full-scale biography of the master. And thus was initiated the grand endeavor.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on April 7, 1998.

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