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Henry James and the Art of Auto/biography


Mirosława Buchholtz

Henry James (1843–1916) has been widely acclaimed for the elegance of his prose, the incisiveness of his social comment, and the subtlety of his psychological analyses. Whereas James’s tales and novels have been carefully studied over the past decades, his non-fiction, including literary criticism, travel writing, biographies, and autobiographies, still remains at the margins of critical activities. This study seeks to explore some of these neglected aspects of James’s work, while at the same time interrogating the traditional formula of literary auto/biography. It also attempts to piece together an image of James as a subject and object of biographical and autobiographical endeavors, including portraiture.
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CHAPTER I: Auto/biographical Studies


← 18 | 19 → CHAPTER IAuto/biographical Studies

In recent years, the concepts of biography and autobiography have been increasingly replaced in English-speaking literary and cultural studies with the terms “life writing” or “life narrative.”1 “Life writing” is not an invention of our time, however; in eighteenth-century England, the concept was used interchangeably with, and perhaps even more often than, “biography.”2 Its restoration to favor is connected with the revival of the idea of narrating life in a way that does not highlight the difference between genres that depends on a category as uncertain as the identity or similarity of the biographee and the narrator. If the terms “biography” and “autobiography” appear in publications today, they are often fused together to define an auto/biographical endeavor.3 This blending of two terms (which for a few centuries used to denote separate genres of writing) into one word shows that the line between the author and the protagonist of auto/biography, between subjectivity of the describing and subjectivity of the described, is being blurred. What matters is no longer the question of authorship (Who writes? Whose life is being narrated?), but the act of auto/creation or self/creation, which is inextricably bound with the act of writing. Thus the boundaries between literature and history,4 the alleged subjectivity of autobiography and the apparent objectivity of biography, have become again the subject of debate.

“Life writing” is a literal translation of the lexeme “biography,” and an English transliteration of a Greek term.5 Preference...

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