Henry James: the untried years

Edel, Leon. Henry James: the Untried Years 1843 – 1870 (Volume 1). Philadelphia: J B Lippincott, 1953.

Reason read: to honor the birth month of Henry James, born April 15th, 1843.

Henry James: the Untried Years is, for lack of a more appropriate description, the beginning of Henry James. It chronographs the James family origins (briefly) and covers the first twenty seven years of the writer’s life. Several pieces of trivia I picked up from this volume were of interest. I did not know the writings of young Henry James’s and those of his father’s were often confused, especially when they wrote for the same publication. It irked the younger James so much so that after his father’s passing he made sure everyone knew he was dropping the “junior” part of his name. But, by the same token James Sr had misgivings about artists in general which was  a shame considering one son wanted to be a writer while another thought his true vocation was one of an artist.
Edel also does a great job giving the reader a sense of place. Young James was a well traveled youth, but the Hudson area of New York was not only a place of family roots but it gave young James his first important hero. Newport, Rhode Island and Boston, Massachusetts are two other very influential American geographic locations. When James finally starts “trying” his years Italy and France become major influences as well.

As an aside, James’s description of George Eliot made me think of my father-in-law. Surely, “magnificently ugly”, “deliciously hideous” and “monstrously beautiful” all have a similar ring? Two were from James and one was from Jim.

Author fact: One of the most fascinating things about Leon Edel is that he had already mapped out how the James biography was to be written practically in its entirety before he wrote a single sentence. He stated that “his [James] was a large life and it requires a large canvas” (p 10). Another interesting fact is that had Edel lived just four more days he would have made it to 90 years old.

Book trivia: Volume 1 contains eight illustrations. What is nice about Edel’s edition is that he takes the time to give more information about these illustrations. For example, the photographs on page 193: Edel includes an explanation of when the photo was taken, what James was writing at the time & even James’s opinion of the photograph.

Nancy said: Nancy said if you want to learn the most about James then you can’t do better than Edel. She called his five-volume set “magnificent” (p 144).

BookLust Twist: from More Book Lust in the chapter called “Literary Lives: The Americans” (p 144).



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