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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 III: Jamesian Auto/biographies

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← 66 | 67 → CHAPTER IIIJamesian Auto/biographies

Auto/biographical reflection accompanied James from the beginning of his career as a writer, and increased, understandably, at the end of his life, when he was, on one hand, an acknowledged literary master, but, on the other, also increasingly subject to various acts of dissent, iconoclasm, and neglect. When commenting on his two biographies and three volumes of autobiography, James scholars note that his biographies contain in fact a lot of autobiographical information, and his autobiography was at least partly intended as a biography of people he knew. This part of James’s oeuvre is then an excellent illustration of the ways in which biography and autobiography interweave and coalesce. In comparison with the numerous studies on James’s novels and tales, the critical response to his auto/biographical writing still appears surprisingly meager, though the widespread postmodern and postcolonial habit of researching the periphery (also in the metaphorical sense of studying less well-known works of an acclaimed novelist) has, in recent years, resulted in scholarly publications devoted to James’s auto/biographies.

Both biographies were commissioned works, although the circumstances in which James accepted the offers differed considerably from each other. James received an offer to write a biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864), one of the first American writers whose fame crossed the borders of his homeland, at the beginning of his literary career, whereas the commission to write a biography of William Wetmore Story (1819–1895), a good friend and a successful, but not...

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