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Henry James and the Art of Auto/biography

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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 II: All of James’s Biographers

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← 32 | 33 → CHAPTER IIAll of James’s Biographers

In spite of the doubts concerning biography as a genre, presented in the previous chapter, I acknowledge the possibility of a contract between the author and the reader, which – as an analogy to Lejeune’s concept – I would like to call a “biographical pact.” Perhaps it would be more appropriate in fact to reconceptualize it as a “biographical p/act,” introducing a slash in order to emphasize the presence of an “act” in the “pact.” The most visible sign of the biographical pact or agreement is – just as in the case of “autobiographical pacts” – the presence on the title page of two names: that of the biographer and that of the biographee. The history of constructing Henry James’s biography is an excellent example of legal claims as part and parcel of all attempts at constructing literary history, including accounts of authors’ lives. The biography genre may become (and in the case of James it actually became as soon as he died, or even before) a battlefield, the place of struggle for power and for the exclusive possession of complete knowledge about him. For decades, one biography of Henry James has dominated both popular and academic discourse. There have been attempts to re-interpret some episodes of his life, but even today no biographer can afford to overlook Leon Edel’s monumental work, which consists mainly of five bulky volumes of biographies published in the years 1953–1972,1 as well as a two-volume biography of...

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