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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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“We work in the dark – we do what we can – we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”1 This is one of Henry James’s most famous quotes. It comes from his tale “The Middle Years,” which was first published in 1893. In the tale, the ailing novelist Dencombe is becoming resigned to the idea that his death is imminent and all the masterpieces that he hoped to write will never see the light of day. Dencombe sums up his view on artistic (or in fact any) creativity to his young admirer, Doctor Hugh. In the even more famous Shakespeare quote, the rest is silence, but Dencombe (not only James’s protagonist, but also his porte-parole), though he similarly begins that last sentence, does not repeat Hamlet’s dying words. He adds to them a metadiscursive gloss and admits that despite all the reasonable effort of life and work, both leave behind an unpredictable residue: madness ennobled by art. The spirit of positivist productivity resounds in the verbs: we “work,” we “do,” and we “give.” The remaining sentences of the quote form a chain of definitions, which describe three different attitudes to life: life full of doubt, passionate life, and task-oriented life. The rest, that is the effect of actions and attitudes, remains “the madness of art.” It would seem that the words of James’s protagonist convey the anti-romantic contempt for both art and madness....

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