In a recent volume of essays, Fiction and the Figures of Life, William Gass suggests a difficulty for any biographer of Henry James. It is the possibility that the real psychic dramas in a life so exclusively literary may have lain, not in the events and emotions usually considered as the core of any writer’s story, but in his struggle with words. What if James’s mysterious accident on the fence in the fire in Newport, or the death of Minnie Temple, or the suicide of Constance Fenimore Wool-son, or even the homoerotic friendship with the young Norwegian sculptor were minor episodes compared with his failure to write good plays or with the tortured development of his late style? Might Gass’s idea not be the key to a different emphasis in the whole art of literary biography?

Did James perhaps have a sense of this himself? Did he realize that his heart, like his mind, was more dedicated to words than to...

 
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