Interviews

Leon Edel, The Art of Biography No. 1

Interviewed by Jeanne McCullough

About biography, Lytton Strachey once wrote, “We do not reflect that it is perhaps as difficult to write a good life as it is to live one.” In our own time, Leon Edel—a literary biographer for over fifty years—is the most notable practitioner of his craft.

When the prospect of an interview on the art of biography first came up, so did the issue of geography. Quite simply, Edel was in Honolulu, the interviewer, New York. With characteristic generosity, Edel offered a solution. “Will you come to Honolulu?” he wrote, “an ocean and a continent away? You are welcome to conduct the sessions here in my study on a hilltop overlooking the city, a fine green place with an intrusive sleek cat, plumeria trees, cooing doves and general quiet.” Tempting as it was, the meeting in Hawaii was preempted by the Edels’ visit to New York in the spring of 1985. This interview was conducted in their room at the Westbury Hotel during two consecutive mornings in mid-May. Now in his seventies, Leon Edel is a small man with a soft voice and a ready smile. We sat in armchairs by the window of his hotel room, with a tape recorder on a glass tabletop between us. Often, to stress a point, Edel would lean in toward the machine and raise his voice slightly to be sure he was heard over the rumblings of traffic on Madison Avenue. At other times, Edel would quote long passages by memory, then double-check the quotation in one of the many books or notepads piled neatly beside him. A seasoned biographer, Edel is well aware of the importance of accuracy, yet his assiduous checking proved to be mere formality. He invariably got each quotation right, word for word, a feat he noted with a broad smile and a slight twinkle in his eyes. After our last session together, the Edels took me to a celebratory lunch, where we discussed everything from Marjorie’s work—she has recently written the biography of a Hawaiian princess—to Edmund Wilson’s sex life, and shared the first wild strawberries of the season.

 

INTERVIEWER

What moves one to write a biography, to spend that much time in somebody else’s life?

LEON EDEL

It’s a little like falling in love; at any rate that’s the way it usually begins. You never know how long the affair or the infatuation will last. Of course, it’s a one-sided love affair since the love object is dead or, if alive, relatively unwooable. Most biographies are begun out of enchantment or affection; you read a poem and want to find the poet, you hear a statesman and are filled with admiration, or you are stirred by the triumphs of a general or an admiral. In the writing of the life changes occur, discoveries are made. Realities emerge. The love affair, however exhilarating, has to be terminated if a useful biography is to emerge. Sometimes there is disenchantment and even hate; the biographer feels deceived. Isn’t that the way all love affairs run—from dream and cloud-journey to earth-firmness? 

INTERVIEWER

Of course, we’re talking about one kind of biography here; there are other kinds.

EDEL

Yes, the kind written by journalists and hacks to cash in on a new reputation or a horrendous crime; the quest for the Boston stranglers and the off-beat kinkiness that leads to murder; the material of In Cold Blood and The Executioner’s Song . . . though the latter are not the works of hack writers, but novelists trying to put reality into fiction. The great and important biographies, however, derive from feelings akin to love and are written because the biographer feels a need to explore the given life regardless of publisher interest and possible success. Since we are focusing on biography as an art, let me put it this way: biography for better or worse is an involvement with another person; if the biographer forms an attachment or is “hooked,” the affair can last for years. It acquires, at any rate, a history of its own, a very complex history.

INTERVIEWER

How did you originally become interested in Henry James?

EDEL

That’s indeed a complex history. It began when I was a student of eighteen. And it started with James Joyce, not Henry James. In 1926, I heard stories about Joyce’s banned book Ulysses and what an oppressed author he was; nobody wanted to publish him. I sympathized; I explored. I finally got a smuggled copy. For a youth of eighteen the prose was dazzling. I thought of Joyce as a kind of Paganini of prose: a trickster who carried all English literature in his head. I was fascinated by the way Joyce tried to put the reader into the minds of his characters—that long soliloquy of Molly Bloom’s, the way Joyce flitted from Bloom’s thoughts into street smells and street incidents and then back into the stream of consciousness. Great stuff! Did I fall in love with Joyce? No, he wasn’t lovable. But he was a great performer and youth likes performance. So I went to my favorite professor and announced I would write a dissertation on the “stream of consciousness” in Joyce. “Impossible,” said the professor. Joyce was forty. His book wasn’t available. There were only some poems, Dubliners, and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. And anyhow, he was alive; at that time you wrote dissertations only on the dead, whose work was complete and who could be fully appraised.

INTERVIEWER

How did Joyce lead you to Henry James?

EDEL

My professor said to me during our conversation that James seemed to him really the man who had anticipated all the new writers. “Henry James? Who’s he?” I asked. My professor told me he was an American writer, just ten years dead, and I would find all his works in the library. Off I went, and there he was: thirty-five volumes of novels and tales in the old Macmillan edition, blue and gold, very crisp and new. His titles were beautiful—The Wings of the Dove, The Portrait of a Lady, The Golden Bowl. I carried home the two-volume Wings and started reading. Often I only half understood. It moved slowly and with difficulty, but it was startling and strange to someone like myself who had read Charles Dickens and Mark Twain and James Fenimore Cooper. I began to dip into the two volumes of his letters. They were grandiose. And then I read that he had tried to write plays for five years and been booed off the stage. Somehow that episode fascinated me; it shocked me that a man so delicate and refined could receive this kind of treatment. I went back to my professor and we ended up with a compromise: I could write on James as a psychological novelist and smuggle in a chapter on Joyce, and Virginia Woolf, whom I also was reading. That was how I came to the moderns, at that early time.

INTERVIEWER

Where did you go from there?

EDEL

I had put myself through college working on a local paper in Montreal. After graduation and a year’s work I found myself dissatisfied—the life of a reporter somehow wasn’t what I wanted. So I applied for a fellowship to go abroad. I thought only of Paris and the Joycean world. In Quebec at the time the government had sold a great deal of liquor in their liquor-control stores to thirsty prohibition-starved Americans who crossed the border weekends, creating a great tourist industry. The provincial government decided to make a gesture out of its opulence to humanism and the arts; the result, a dozen fellowships a year for European study. I was carried across the Atlantic on the alcoholic profits, ostensibly to study French journalism. In Paris, I hung around the writing crowd, admired Hemingway from a distance, watched Joyce at the opera applauding an Irish singer, frequented Sylvia Beach’s bookshop where I met the young Cyril Connolly; I went to Brittany for a holiday, to Concarneau, a port filled then with red and blue sails of the tuna fleet, ran into Allen Tate and Caroline Gordon, and Léonie Adams, who were there, and they took me in Paris to meet Ford Madox Ford so he could talk to me about Henry James, which he did, leaning on a grand piano and wheezing like a walrus. I was a junior hanger-on of the expatriates in Montparnasse, hearing the far-off rumbles of panic and the Wall Street crash. Then I pulled myself together. It dawned on me that I would go back to a changed world and I had better find something to show for my stay abroad. Also, I had to have progress reports to get my fellowship renewed—it was good for three years if I showed myself serious and industrious. I made friends with a gifted young Canadian from Toronto named E. K. Brown, whose life of Willa Cather I would later complete when he died prematurely. It was he who took me to see the French professor of American Literature and Civilization, and this professor, Charles Cestre, urged me to go on with my Jamesian studies. I offered to do a dissertation on James’s five years of failed playwriting.

INTERVIEWER

So your study of James’s plays anticipated the biography?

EDEL

The idea of a biography never occurred to me at that time. I had to investigate those mysterious five years of drama-writing, which I began to call James’s “dramatic years.”

INTERVIEWER

How did you launch your investigation?

EDEL

First, I read all of James’s published novels—all thirty-five volumes—and magazine stuff still uncollected. Then I made inquiries and learned that James’s produced plays were in London, but I’d have to get permission from the James executor to get at them. The plays were in the Lord Chamberlain’s Office where copies had been placed at the time of production to fulfill British censorship requirements. Would you believe that this old custom was still observed until late in this century? James had four plays produced; and after getting permission from the family, I sat in a little office in St. James’s Palace—very appropriate!—where I was allowed to bring my typewriter. Of course, this was long before the age of Xerox. One thing led to another. I met James’s last secretary, Theodora Bosanquet, a remarkable woman, and she looked up her old diaries and told me James had corresponded with Bernard Shaw. So I wrote to Shaw who immediately received me and gave me a discourse on how good James’s plays would have been if he had written them like Shaw plays. He was marvelously articulate; he marched up and down his long study talking at me, but actually losing himself in his spoken prose. He talked in completely punctuated sentences. Anyway, the end result of my researches in London and Paris, during which I met various persons who had known James—including Edith Wharton’was that I wrote two dissertations for a Sorbonne doctorat d’Etat, appeared before a board of examiners, five solemn French professors who gave me a hard time—it’s a public event—and finally grudgingly declared me a doctor of letters. Then I went back to Canada, and to the Depression.

INTERVIEWER

With the thought of doing a biography of James?

EDEL

No, I felt I’d done with James. And I needed a job. So I drifted back into journalism—where I remained, locked in that dead end for the next seventeen years. I did think I might turn my French thesis into a book, and having established relations with James’s executor I received his permission to edit the complete plays of the novelist. There were twelve in all. But the drudgeries of journalism, the Depression of the thirties, flattened me out. Finally, however, I got a Guggenheim Fellowship to edit the plays. I returned to Europe and found new material, and then went to Harvard to continue my researches. The Jameses had deposited the family archive in the basement of the Widener Library and were expected to give it to Harvard, but for the present they still controlled access to it. I was supposed to deal exclusively with James’s plays—but in an archive one has to look at everything in order to find the particular things one wants. That was how I found myself one day in a long underground room with very long tables and boxes and trunks and papers and letters everywhere: William James to Henry, Henry to William, Alice to her brothers, all neatly lined up; also, letters of mama and papa James, piles of manuscripts, assorted books, and a large wooden box like an army footlocker labeled “Henry James.” The secretary in charge said as far as she knew it had never been opened. I opened it. Neatly labeled items in the handwriting of Theodora Bosanquet, James’s last secretary, were typescripts of the very plays I was looking for; also a few sheets labeled “Last Dictation.” I read these and decided I would copy them—they were all about Napoleon and I wanted to study them. The dictation was like “stream of consciousness.” A note from Bosanquet said that James during his last illness called for her and dictated these fragments, signing them “Napoleon”! Some time later I learned that the executor ordered the dictation destroyed because it showed the “disintegration” of Uncle Henry’s mind. But I had put my copy in a safe-deposit box and published it years later, after the executor was dead. I also found a number of scribbles in James’s handwriting with all kinds of notes, some about the plays. I decided I’d copy these too. I think it was in that room, with all those treasures around me opening the doors of the past, that I discovered my vocation as a biographer. Everything seemed filled with mystery and promise; there were all kinds of answers in those papers to the puzzles and secrets the novelist had left behind, residues of his complex being. But a number of years would elapse before I would really face this truth—the truth that I wanted to write a life of this man.

INTERVIEWER

What held you back?

EDEL

For one thing, I hadn’t delivered on my project, the editing of the plays. I was sure of myself in that work, but otherwise I felt unsure and overwhelmed by what was involved. Years of journalism lead to a kind of sloth—unless you are in one of its special branches and have made it your career. I hadn’t. I felt like someone who had access to a kind of fortune, but didn’t know where to turn. Didn’t know how to use it. So I decided I’d begin by copying a few pages of the hurried scribbles in James’s notebooks, and spend the rest of the time reading the plays and examining their successive revisions, so as to establish publishable texts. Then one day I had an extraordinary experience. I came on a passage in the notes that confirmed my long-ago hypothesis—that James’s play-period had profoundly influenced the creation of his later novels. In that passage, James wrote, “Has a part of all this wasted passion and squandered time (of the last five years) been simply the precious lesson, taught me in that roundabout and devious, that cruelly expensive way, of the singular value for a narrative plan too of this (I don’t know what adequately to call it, the) divine principle of the Scenario . . . a key, that, working in the same general way fits the complicated chambers of both the dramatic and narrative lock?” My old hunch, that had grown into my Paris thesis, found itself validated in the Master’s own words. I suppose this discovery gave me a measure of confidence. But by the time I’d finished my Guggenheim year, the Hitler war was upon us. I ended up taking three years out for soldiering under Patton in Europe, and a year in Germany, in the military government.

INTERVIEWER

And through all this, did you still think of James and Joyce?

EDEL

As you may imagine, my mind was on other things. I dreamed of trying to write a novel like War and Peace, now that I had been a soldier and moved in a great swirl of history; but that was just a passing fancy, a Mitty-dream, and I told myself that my real skills lay in biography—that this was the way I best could express myself. Yet, even so, James followed me. During the war itself, I dug up some of his letters.

INTERVIEWER

How was that?

EDEL

It’s a funny story. I was at the liberation of Paris. I was in a special group of French linguists who went into Paris with De Gaulle—he was at the head of our procession. I met a publisher one day who had heard that I was interested in James. He asked me if James had been translated into French; he was interested in publishing him (and he did, he published quite a bit of James after the war). I said to the publisher, what I really want to know is if James’s letters to Alphonse Daudet are still around, and the publisher said, “His son Lucien is in the phone book. Why don’t you call him up?” So I called, and there was this tired voice at the other end. I said I was an American soldier who was interested in Henry James, and I had some spare hours at the end of the day, could I come and see him? He had a very courteous and gentle voice. He said, come along. I didn’t ask him on the phone if he had any letters, but I asked if he remembered James. And he said, yes, he remembered James’s visits to his family. I trotted over to his place; he was still in the old family apartment on the Left Bank, near the Invalides. It was a very elegant apartment. When I arrived, he was bundled up in bed—there was no heat then, and he was a very old man. And when I walked in, there were the James letters laid out. He said, “I found James’s letters to my father, here they are. Take them!” I said, “You’re giving them to me?” He said, “Yes, I’m an old man, I’m going to die. They’ll end up in the garbage if you don’t take them.” So I said, “I’ll take them, but I’ll see they get into a permanent collection. I’ll donate them in your name.” I read them, they were very good. I copied them, and mailed them to Harvard.

INTERVIEWER

When did the biography project actually come into being?

EDEL

Three years after I got out of the army, and had finally brought out my long-delayed Complete Plays of Henry James, an eight-hundred-page book, I signed a contract with Lippincott, the old Philadelphia firm that had published the James plays, to write a life of Henry James.

INTERVIEWER

And did you originally plan that this would be a five-volume work?

EDEL

Oh no. I planned a single volume, in three parts: the fledgling years, the middle years, and the age of mastery. I wrote the young James in three years and called it The Untried Years. This was Part One. I asked Lippincott to put it in their safe. I now had very comprehensive research to do for the middle years. Very soon George Stevens, their trade books chief and a man of considerable literary distinction, took me to lunch and asked me whether I’d mind if they published Part One as an independent book. “If that’s the young Henry James, it can stand by itself.” I became panicky. “What if I want to insert some further chapters? What if I find new letters?” He wasn’t troubled by that. “This book stands by itself. If you want to insert some chapters do it now.” I took it home and reread it. It was tempting to get the book out. But I warned him that he was committing me to serialization. He and my English publisher agreed that The Untried Years could stand even if I didn’t write any sequels. I did insert some chapters. And I knew then, thinking of all the letters still unread—and that vast archive now presented to Harvard by the Jameses—that I’d have to face some knotty problems later on.

INTERVIEWER

What knotty problems?

EDEL

Well, I knew James’s dramatic years [1890–95] in great detail but I still had a tremendous amount of research to do. There were thousands of letters to read, the greater part of all the material I had seen at Harvard. I was in New York and had just started teaching at New York University. My first volume had attracted attention and I was no longer a young man beginning a career. I was, to be exact, forty-six when The Untried Years came out.

INTERVIEWER

What sort of reception did the first volume get?

EDEL

In England, the book received considerable praise, from those who had known James—Max Beerbohm and Harold Nicolson among others, and a newer generation like Graham Greene, Joyce Cary, and Herbert Read. In the States, I got cautious reviews from the academics, but very little general notice—still, a good climate was created. Suddenly, I was recognized as the ranking Jamesian expert. Even though others had been breaking ground, I had a longer backward reach. After all, I had had a quarter of a century novitiate.

INTERVIEWER

So here you were, starting a new teaching job at NYU, and buried in research.

EDEL

Yes, and pretty soon I was floundering. The residual Jamesians abroad went to their attics and, with their sublime confidence in the British Post Office, kept mailing me big bundles of his letters—without even registering the packages! My desk was piled. I knew the grand lines of James’s career, but I had by no means sorted out the details. And I had very little time to go to Cambridge to read steadily in the James archive. It took me ten years to get my bearings and master my materials, including an entire year at Harvard dictating data from James letters and other documents into a tape recorder. It was clear to me that my subject was large enough to require some hard thought about how it might be treated. The unexpected letters that belonged in the first volume did turn up, and then I began to realize I was free to devise my own form. I could use flashbacks for new materials that, chronologically, belonged earlier. And as I kept finding surprises of one sort and another, I created a kind of fluid nonchronological episodic story. I’d startled too many hares in the published volume to be able to turn back to conventional chronological biography. I was creating a serial and it could be a cliffhanger if my material allowed for this.

INTERVIEWER

If you didn’t really have anything more than a general plan, then you had no idea where you would end up, what shape the biography would take?

EDEL

No. I invented my form as I went along. At one point, for example, it became clear that I had to deal with the strange friendship between James and Constance Fenimore Woolson—she an old maid who loved him, he a fastidious bachelor who was being kind to her but keeping himself distinctly at a distance. I decided to drop one part of my story to tell this phase. In effect I was doing what all the old novelists did: tell one part of the story, then turn to another part, then turn back—the narrative mode of suspense, as old as Homer. In the first volume I’d intuitively planted all my themes in the first four chapters; like Chekhov, I placed my pistols in the first act, knowing the audience would expect me to produce them in the third. Having James’s last dictation about Napoleon, I planted the Napoleonic theme, then the “museum world” theme, the relationship with his brother, and so on, and my structure took its form from my themes. Expediency, you see, made me artful. My total work was built on a series of continual discoveries and adjustments. Then my volumes grew longer; the second volume became two volumes.

INTERVIEWER

For which you won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

EDEL

Yes, though why they gave me the Pulitzer before I’d finished my entire job I can’t imagine. I suspect they thought I had finished it. Then, my final volume broke into two and there they were—five volumes. My morbid fear was that public interest would peter out, but it didn’t. My last volume sold much more than the first. The movement was upward all along.

INTERVIEWER

I want to come back to something you said earlier. Is biography really an art or is it, in fact, a structural piecing together of fragments—a form of carpentry?

EDEL

There is carpentry involved, of course, but what I was doing was finding a form to suit my materials as I went along, having from the first given myself a large design. The moment you start shaping a biography, it becomes more than a mere assemblage of facts, mere use of lumber and nails—you are creating a work of art. I think I was performing like a dramatist when I planted my pistols ahead of time, and like a novelist when I did a flashback—incorporating retrospective chapters as I moved from theme to theme, character to character, showing the hero making mistakes and correcting them, facing adversity and learning from experience, growing older and having his particular kind of artistic and intellectual adventures, writing novels applauded in England and decried in America or being attacked in England amid the cheers of his countrymen back home. I had James’s Europe as my scene, and his bold way of annexing foreign territory to his American subjects. Above all, I was working toward what would be the climax of my serialization—those five intense years of dramatic writing, when he failed miserably, and then pulled himself together to write his last novels. All this required what I like to call the biographical imagination, the imagination of form. As biographers, we are not allowed to imagine our facts.

INTERVIEWER

How would you describe the nature of the biographical art beyond the technique of narrative?

EDEL

I believe the secret of biography resides in finding the link between talent and achievement. A biography seems irrelevant if it doesn’t discover the overlap between what the individual did and the life that made this possible. Without discovering that, you have shapeless happenings and gossip. The difference between one kind of biographer and another may be measured by the quantity of poetry infused into the narrative of life and doing—the poetry of existence, of trial and error, initiation and discovery, rites of passage and development, the inevitabilities of aging, or the truncated lives—Keats, Byron and others—who died young and yet somehow burned like bright flames. This kind of writing requires patience, assiduity, also enthusiasm, feeling, and certainly a sense of the biographer’s participation. The biographer is a presence in life-writing, in charge of handling the material, establishing order, explaining and analyzing the ambiguities and anomalies. Biography is dull if it’s just dates and facts: it has for too long ignored the entire province of psychology and the emotions. Ultimately, there must be a sense of the inwardness of human beings as well as outwardness: the ways in which we make dreams into realities, the way fantasies become plays and novels and poems—or the general who fights a great battle, Nelson and Trafalgar, Wellington and Waterloo, Washington and Valley Forge, the defeated Napoleon and his Waterloo—the strivings and the failings. It involves finding the links between the body and the spirit or soul in which human beings seem to rise above weakness and struggle.

INTERVIEWER

The links between poet and poem, politician and politics, generals and battles are one distinct part. Isn’t there a lot more?

EDEL

Oh yes! To continue our building metaphor, the reader must get a sense of the girders, the structural steel, the consistencies and ambiguities of existence, the ways in which individuals grow and shrink and shrivel, or suddenly burst into flame and burn up. The world is full of snapshots; but these are single moments of existence, brief flashes of public or private history and often arranged beforehand by the photographer or tv camera. The biographer must be inside the narrative as well as outside—a quest for an active imagination at its work: James writing The Wings of the Dove, or Churchill at the helm of a world war. There is the teller and the tale, and the teller must be capable of handling the poetry and the humor, the richness and poverty of existence. And there’s more: the use of words, the question of style, the way the materials are melted down, the supreme art of summary, the delicate use of other persons’ mail, the modes of saying and doing, and now with the sexual revolution the capability to be frank about physical matters, which Victorian biography always kept hidden. There is all this. Each subject establishes its area of relevance. Hemingway offers us the macho relevance. Thoreau’s self-contemplation is at the center of his using Walden as a huge mirror for himself. And then the complex ones—Napoleon who seemed to possess the art of facing the impossible, the art of contingency, and so on.

INTERVIEWER

So then, what is the essential difference between a biographer and a novelist?

EDEL

The difference between a novelist and a biographer resides in the biographer’s having to master a narrative of inquiry. Biography has to explain and examine the evidence. The story is told brushstroke by brushstroke like a painter, and the biographer often has to say he simply doesn’t know—he cannot fill in the gaps. There’s so much that can never be known, whereas the omniscient novelist can be—well, omniscient, something impossible in biography.

INTERVIEWER

Can you talk a bit about a biographer’s relation to the subject?

EDEL

You’ll remember I began by saying most biographies start with a love affair, a very peculiar one. There are endless mementos, a kind of created relationship, because biographer and subject move on the same level of history. You read your subject’s letters, you make friends and enemies with the subject’s friends and enemies, you are often as identified with the image as a novelist is identified, while writing a novel, with the hero or the heroine. Sometimes the love collapses during the research; at other times it is reinforced. There is always an air of mystery—every box of letters you open, every attic in which you rummage, becomes filled with the emotions of the biographer’s involvement. Freud long ago described this as a latching-on to some aspect of the subject that has belonged to one’s earlier years; the subject may have a familiar smile, or a facial resemblance, or offer some hint of some likable person in the past, a parent, a favorite uncle, a nanny, some figure of our schooldays. It’s a little like America’s love affair with Ronald Reagan. He could recite nursery rhymes on tv and his admirers would say, “Isn’t he great? Doesn’t he communicate!” But what does he communicate? Something upbeat, a grin, a wisecrack; he tells us that this is a glorious world and he will take care of everything. That’s the early phase of biography in which a subject can do no wrong, an infatuation stage. In psychology, this is called a “transference.”

INTERVIEWER

In what ways does biographical transference manifest itself over time?

EDEL

If the biographer remains infatuated we get a hero-worshipping biography. Many such are written. But a biographer in touch with realities sooner or later comes out of the involvement. Biographical transference takes many forms. It can be so powerful that the biographer after spending a lifetime gathering materials isn’t able to get the life down on paper. Some strong inhibition occurs. I’ve known such would-be biographers—one young biographer who followed a living novelist all over Europe, drank with him, developed a friendship, they corresponded, the subject was helpful and willing to be questioned . . . and then the friendship stood in the way. Nothing the young man could put down seemed good enough; or, in the fantasy, there remained a fear that perhaps the subject wouldn’t like it. The history of Boswell’s dilemma after Johnson died fits what I’m saying. He’d had a long friendship with Johnson and it was one of continual admiration; Johnson had also liked Boswell’s own genial candor. Boswell struggled to get the book written, but he finally had to get the help of a great scholar, Edmond Malone, who, being an outsider, could help give the narrative an objectivity Boswell didn’t always have.

INTERVIEWER

Lytton Strachey is someone else you’ve cited in the past who actually went through a “transference” of sorts with his subject.

EDEL

Well, with him it was queens. Strachey wrote Queen Victoria, he wrote Elizabeth and Essex. You can take it any way you want. He was a homosexual, and he was a queen, too. He identified with them. He wanted to be a queen. Ruling, presiding over the destiny of other people.

INTERVIEWER

I wanted to get back to James and ask how you get started tracking your subject, especially one no longer living.

EDEL

You start almost anywhere. I’ve already described how I began by tracking James’s plays. I wrote to the eldest son of William James, who was his father’s and uncle’s executor, and it was he who gave me permission to read the plays at the Lord Chamberlain’s. Then there were the actors who had been in the plays. One was still acting in London. He didn’t tell me much, but he brought some letters he got from the wife of the actor-manager who’d staged the play. He mentioned another individual who had known James; I wrote to him. I’ve described how from James’s secretary I learned there’d been correspondence with Shaw. Shaw in turn told me that Granville-Barker read some of James’s plays. A former actor, Allan Wade, working in the British Museum (now the British Library) heard I was reading up on James as a playwright and came to my desk, and he was full of valuable information; we became very good friends.

INTERVIEWER

James was one of those people who feared his biographer and who sought to foil him, right?

EDEL

Well, James was a secretive person; he tried to frustrate future biographers by burning all the letters he received, but he couldn’t burn those he had sent to others. I soon discovered everybody saved them because they were so warm and written in such an inimitable style. James invited his future biographers to seek him out in what he called the “invulnerable granite” of his art. That’s so Jamesian—the “invulnerable granite.” Well, I sought him there; it wasn’t invulnerable at all. He talked in his travel writings about himself. He wrote two remarkable volumes of autobiography and left a fragment of a third. Even before I entered that room in the Widener that first housed his papers and the family’s, I knew that I was going to be overwhelmed by material and that I’d have to find some way of dealing with it.

INTERVIEWER

It sounds like a potentially endless undertaking. You mention that James wrote thousands of letters. Did you ever become so overwhelmed with material that you gave up?

EDEL

I gave up a number of times. In a letter in the two volumes of James correspondence Percy Lubbock edited in 1920, I found James mentioning to his brother William that he had spent a weekend with Manton Marble. That was an odd name, but I found him in the Dictionary of American Biography. He had been one of Pulitzer’s editors on the World, and a world authority on bimetallism. A biographer develops a curious graveyard memory. I pigeonholed the name. Once at the Library of Congress, looking over a list of the library’s accessions, my eye caught the fact that it had just acquired the papers of Manton Marble. I went promptly to the manuscript division. Great libraries can’t card index every item when they have a massive archive, they can only deliver boxes of stuff, and let you rummage. I was told the Marble papers were in huge scrapbooks; he had pasted in all his correspondence and masses of clippings. They wheeled in a cartload covering certain years and told me there were other cartloads I could have. Library carts are of varying sizes, and these were big, like luggage carts at a railway station. I spent three days turning pages. There was vast correspondence in the likely years—but it yielded me only three thank-you notes from James. I would have to spend months turning the pages of bimetallic letters to and from very famous people, and I then and there decided that I would skip Mr. Marble and take the chance of being called negligent.

INTERVIEWER

And were there any repercussions?

EDEL

No, but there was an interesting sequel. About eight or ten years later I received a letter from the librarian of the London Library, then Mr. Simon Nowell-Smith, a dear friend. “I suppose this is the cross you have to bear,” he wrote. Apparently, a lady had just called on him with more than a hundred letters from Henry James to Manton Marble, and asked whether she could present them to the library. Luckily, there were also typescripts of the letters and these Nowell-Smith sent to me. It was just as well I hadn’t wasted several weeks in Washington turning pages of those folio scrapbooks. It also proved that a library may have an individual’s papers and still not have everything. James’s letters had been held out from the Marble archive.

INTERVIEWER

Were any interesting?

EDEL

Just two, as far as I was concerned. A good letter about Shakespeare, in which James asserts Bacon didn’t have enough poetry in him to have written the plays and sonnets; and another letter admitting he had written a review of Drum Taps, attacking Whitman when the volume came out, but adding that nothing would induce him to reveal “the whereabouts of my disgrace.” The whereabouts were given in the bibliography I compiled with my collaborator, Dan H. Laurence.

INTERVIEWER

You mentioned the social notes to Marble. Don’t social notes reveal little things too?

EDEL

Sometimes—dates, names, occasions. It’s always difficult to recover details of social events and by and large they remain unrecorded. The great hostesses often don’t write their memoirs. Also, social notes often are deceptive. One never knows, when James declines an invitation, whether or not he’s indulging in the white lies of social duplicity.

INTERVIEWER

You also cite the importance of laundry lists, unpaid bills, and check stubs—things that might reveal clues to the personality of the subject.

EDEL

One never knows what these things may reveal. Eliot said, if we found Shakespeare’s laundry lists, we might very well know something more about Shakespeare. We might know whether he was a man who was scrupulously clean, or whether he was a slob. We might. All these things tell us something. With James, for instance, it’s the handwriting. He used to sign himself, Henry James, Jr. And after a while, the “Junior” got to be less and less. He hated being a junior, he hated number two. Papa was number one. There are a lot of juniors like that, who try to get around it some way, with numbers for instance: Vanderbilt I, Vanderbilt II, Vanderbilt III, etc. What’s interesting is the way that the “Junior” in James’s signature becomes, finally, just a little curve, a tiny curve with a dot over it. And in a matter of days after his father dies, he writes a letter to his publisher and draws a hand pointing to his signature’it’s “Henry James,” without the junior—saying, “this is the way I sign my name now.” That’s graphics. He didn’t like being number two, he didn’t like being number two to William either. I always look at things like that. There was one old notebook where James scrawled his expense accounts . . . that told me something. I haven’t found any of James’s checks, though I found checks written to him, which told me how much he was getting paid for his stories. Of course, I was very interested in that. An earlier biographer suddenly had the idea to look up the account books of magazines and sure enough, he found payments made to James for work he had done that, when it came out originally in the magazine, was unsigned. There are something like three hundred items of James’s writing that were identified merely through the bookkeeping of some of these magazines. His early review of Whitman was found that way. Those fugitive writings can tell us so much.

INTERVIEWER

Fugitive writings?

EDEL

The odd little things that writers toss off spontaneously, which sometimes don’t even get recorded in their bibliographies. Biographers search for them, if you can get any clues to them. There’s another case of discovering one of James’s great letters, of which I found a mention in a literary journal. Sometimes, you just look through the journals of the time that you knew the writer was involved with in some way. In one journal I found a little item that said, “Mr. James had advice for would-be novelists at the Deerfield Summer School.” It quoted one sentence from the letter. So I thought, perhaps a fuller version of the letter is quoted somewhere else. Following that kind of reasoning—and this is the sort of “sleuthing” part of it—I did some straight thinking. I said, “Well, the first place to look is The New York Tribune.” That was the most influential newspaper of the time. And I decided to look at the Sunday issues of that year starting in January through June. I went and looked, and sure enough, somewhere along the line there was James’s letter to the Deerfield Summer School. The Summer School had written and asked him for the letter, and he had sent them back four paragraphs. That’s a good example of the plain, hard digging you do in biography—I came upon one fact, and just sat down and reasoned the rest out.

INTERVIEWER

So there’s a great deal of speculation in biography.

EDEL

Inevitably. We can never know everything. We can’t even be sure of the dates on letters, unless we have some verification. Letters often are misdated. What we hope for from most biographers is informed speculation. I usually set the facts in front of a reader and if necessary say “we may speculate” or “we may conjecture,” if I think the facts add up to this or that conclusion. There are gratifying moments when you speculate and then find proof of accuracy; there are less gratifying moments when you find your conclusion was far-fetched.

INTERVIEWER

You play a hunch?

EDEL

It isn’t quite a hunch. It’s often a subliminal bit of computer-work in your mind. I once asked myself why James had called his collected novels and tales “The New York Edition.” This struck me as curious. The edition was being published in New York and in London. But he didn’t call the one in London “The London Edition.” He called it “New York” there as well. The logical answer seemed that he was somehow relating his collected works to the city of his birth. When I was given access to the Scribner archive—they published the edition—I found a very Jamesian memorandum that confirmed my hypothesis. “If a name be wanted for the edition, for convenience and distinction, I should particularly like to call it the ‘New York Edition.’ My feeling about the matter is that it refers the whole enterprise explicitly to my native city—to which I have had no great opportunity of rendering that sort of homage.” And I have already described how my original thesis, that James’s playwriting years consciously made him reconsider his novelistic techniques, was validated in James’s notebooks 

INTERVIEWER

To get to the point where you can use supposition effectively, you must have to know your subject very well.

EDEL

A biographer gets to know a subject better than the subject ever knew himself or herself, because the biographer has read everything. Can you furnish a list of all your correspondents? All the writings you did long ago? And yet a lot probably are lurking in some trunk or attic. A couple of years ago a high school friend of mine died and his widow sent me all the letters I had written him when I was fourteen and fifteen, he having been then in England. It was astonishing how much of my lost young life I recovered in these letters, how much I saw of my young and rather priggish self! All I remembered was that we had exchanged a few letters when he was staying in Birmingham and I was on the prairie. I had written more than a hundred letters. T. S. Eliot once asked me about all the letters James had written, and I remember he made a gesture to his wife that his letters would fill a book—and he held up two fingers to show a very thin book. Now the widow is going to publish his letters; she has found trunksful. There will be, I am sure, several very fat volumes. After a while I got to be pretty expert in appraising James’s correspondence. I once called on a woman in England who had an important batch, and told her I figured there might be eighty or ninety. She counted them out to me as if she were shuffling a pack of cards. There were eighty-nine. The length and nature of the friendship, the general size of such batches, enabled me to hazard a guess. I remember once urging Harvard to get Morton Fullerton’s letters because I thought them important. When they got them, I read them with a sense of disappointment. There were eighty or so and they told me very little. This was like the Manton Marble story. I was sure there must be others. And in due course I found the really important batch at Princeton. Fullerton had given his best letters to his sister or cousin, and she passed them on to Princeton. And then later, one or two other good ones turned up in auctions. You see, biographers have to be like dogs, always following a scent.

INTERVIEWER

Were there other kinds of material besides correspondence?

EDEL

James discovered the telegram at the turn of the century. That got to be a sport. I’ve seen long Proust telegrams, as long as letters. But James’s are brief and he’s having fun. “Deprecate attendance at station. Opulent choice of cabs.”

INTERVIEWER

You are currently editing Edmund Wilson’s papers. A major difference between your work on James and your work on Wilson is that you knew Wilson, knew him well. Are you running into the same problems of accuracy and discretion that you did with James?

EDEL

I am not writing Wilson’s life; the problems are different. I am editing Wilson’s journals, diaries, and notes. With Wilson’s papers, even so, I have to verify as much as I can, because people forget, they make mistakes . . . I’ve come now to the part where he and I know each other, and he often misquotes me. Or, I’ll tell him some little biographical fact that I’ve learned, I’ll mention a name, and he gets the name wrong. So that makes me very careful about what he said to other people. And then, where the people are still alive, I write to them and try to check and make sure—I don’t want to get involved in any libel suits!

INTERVIEWER

In addition to the nature of the work being different, there is also the difference between the two men.

EDEL

Fundamentally, Wilson and James belonged to different eras and had distinctly different minds and temperaments. They can’t really be compared, except that both had fine minds, and both tended to be aloof in spite of their gregariousness. James had a transfiguring imagination; Wilson was concerned with concretions. A daffodil was, to Wilson, a daffodil, and he could describe it charmingly. To James it was a yellow essence, a distinct form and shape, an embodiment of shade and color, texture and sunlight. James abstracted reality into new realities and generalities. Wilson interrogated, assembled, dissected. James was the novelist par excellence; Wilson struggled to write the two or three novels he produced, and they are by no means his best writing. So with sex—allowing for the difference between the Victorian-Edwardian James, and the modern Wilson. Wilson dealt with sex in all its physicality. He was direct, confronting, copulative. James translated sex into spirituality, into varied forms of reticence and avoidance. It assumed highly nuanced forms; it was all indirect. James would have called Wilson a literalist. Wilson could not quite get into Jamesian depths—the novelist was too subjective for him and Wilson had the same difficulties with him that he had with Kafka.

INTERVIEWER

Wilson had, well, quite a busy sex life, as you’ve just alluded to. Is that presenting a problem for you?

EDEL

There are whole sections in Wilson’s journals in which he is very candid about his sex life. You couldn’t have published that in the twenties. Now I’ve been doing it, though there are parts I’ve had to omit because the people don’t want to appear, and I have to respect their wishes.

INTERVIEWER

Even if it’s at the expense of telling the whole story?

EDEL

That’s right. I can’t. When the people are still alive, they’re entitled to their privacy. Fortunately, by the time he was old, a great many of his sexual partners were old ladies and I don’t think that I’ve been indiscreet . . . but in one or two cases, I did get indignant letters, where the ladies suddenly recognized themselves in an early volume, even though their names were disguised. They were very unhappy about it, but at least they weren’t litigious. One has to take the attitude that later biographers, of later generations, will rectify and deal with that. It’s up to them. I can only do what I can do now. I have to go by the present situation.

INTERVIEWER

That must be frustrating.

EDEL

Sometimes it can be. What was frustrating was to find Mary McCarthy giving her papers to Vassar recently, and some of her quarrels with Wilson appearing in the press, whereas I had avoided using such details in the last volume. I can understand her reason for withholding the papers until now. She could feel that her privacy was being invaded. And I think that’s quite right, quite fair. Biographers and editors have to practice a certain ethic in this kind of work. They’re dealing with human situations and human lives, and if the people are still living one cannot ride roughshod over them. That’s why I was very careful not to offend the Jameses, although they gave me complete freedom. And as I say, I tell the story, but I always try to tell it very cautiously and not give them too much mental anguish. Sometimes, you can cause a lot of mental anguish. Anyway, I suppose now I could restore some of the McCarthy material. Do a retrospective or a flashback or something—if I were writing Wilson’s life.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve said many biographies need to be rewritten. Why?

EDEL

Like humans, biographies grow old. New generations need new versions of past history in the generation’s new language. In the past thirty years our attitudes toward sex—toward the physical being of men and women—have changed drastically, and most biographies were written before these changes occurred. We have had the new feminism. And we have also the “new biography.”

INTERVIEWER

By which you mean—

EDEL

—new ways of writing lives, new approaches. During the past fifty years there has been a remarkable revolution in psychology and our understanding of human behavior. That doesn’t mean that every biography needs to be rewritten. There are memoirs, and brief lives of many persons, which serve the general need. But every now and again a new generation will want to take a new look at FDR, or Napoleon, or Churchill. Also new material keeps turning up. Look at the Mary McCarthy example. An older generation often sits on a good many secrets that come to light as the generation dies off. The rewriting of biographies is a natural process and follows the curve of a new generation’s curiosity and the continuing work of historians. What I did to Thoreau is a good example.

INTERVIEWER

What did you do?

EDEL

I was asked to write a fifty-page pamphlet on Thoreau. I did a lot of reading, and rereading. I came to him quite freshly. The biographers had been using their received image of him for a long time. He had become very popular in the 1960s. He was at the center of two myths: one was that he had built his hut in the wilderness and escaped from the tyrannies of civilization. The other was that he went to jail to defy a form of taxation and so stood up for civil disobedience. Both myths had in them not the truths of what Thoreau did, but the wishes of most Americans at the time. When I had looked afresh at all the data, it was clear Thoreau had not moved into the wilderness. He moved one mile from his home into the woods at Walden Pond, within walking distance of the life he had always led. So it was a gesture. And his civil disobedience had been considerably rewritten, as it were, by Gandhi, and it had worked for Gandhi. I wasn’t trying to debunk the magic of Thoreau’s myths, but I saw that Thoreau himself wasn’t at all the Thoreau of legend which biographers and folklore had built up. The biographers had all told the story of how Thoreau, in a dry season, fried some fish in a tree trunk and set fire to the Concord woods. What I saw was that he had come to be hated by the townspeople, that he was a meditative narcissist with more feeling for trees and plants than for humans. I had asked myself the question: Why did he really at that moment of his life move a mile down the way to the edge of the pond? The answer was because he had become very unpopular in the town.

INTERVIEWER

How did you arrive at your conclusions?

EDEL

I arrived at my conclusions—they have been picked up since by others—by reading the psychological signs and signals of Thoreau’s personality and his actions.

INTERVIEWER

How can you be sure you read the signs correctly? What is the psychological evidence?

EDEL

The ways in which we act; the things we say whose meanings we can read today, though earlier generations did not have the perception of them. The Freudian slip that tells what people really are thinking. The aggressive practical joker, the funny man who is really depressed, the suicide who jumps rather than swallows pills—these are all, as we now know, signatures of the self. All these details need to be observed and pondered. That’s what I mean by reexamining our materials and our conceptions. Of course you can’t prove all your inductions, but in lives we have repetitious patterns. Joyce repeated his myths about himself again and again—and everyone thought what he did brilliant and funny; but a new and careful look shows them to have been pathetic and pathological. He constantly proclaimed himself a victim of persecution, even after the world honored him and worshipped him. T. S. Eliot’s stance, his structured prose, the very subjects he chose for his essays, tell us much about him. His essay on “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” behind its great show of impersonality, is a most personal essay about his stuffy family and his impatience with his own stuffiness, his striving to break away into “the new,” as Ezra Pound had urged him. He’s very much involved with being a sort of “Prince Hamlet.”

INTERVIEWER

You’ve been known to use the term “literary psychology.”

EDEL

A doctor defines a patient’s illness in part by looking at symptoms. A biographer (who is by no means a doctor and certainly not a therapist) defines the subject’s nature by looking at what the mind brings to the surface and transforms into language. What I like to call “literary psychology” is the only kind of psychology a biographer can practice, for there’s no question of putting his subject on the couch—as critics of biography and the psychological approach claim. A biographer is merely someone looking at evidence—circumstantial, psychological, documentary. We must remember that human beings are psychological entities as well as physical; and that above all, in biography, we are watching their imagination of themselves.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve been both admired and criticized for your use of psychology in biography.

EDEL

Well, there are the convinced and the unconvinced. Biographers who have felt shortcomings in their own works, when they saw what I had done and what I demonstrated, faulted me. But most of my readers reacted quite differently. You must remember there’s still a great resistance to certain simple truths about the human animal. Everything points to our being creatures of habit and “conditioning”—but there are still some who give us absolute free will and laugh at this kind of determinism. Academe hates what it calls “psychologizing,” because they fear it. And then there’s been a great deal of half-baked psychologizing.

INTERVIEWER

Let’s talk about determinism.

EDEL

Shakespeare’s great line about determinism is in Hamlet—the special providence that exists in the fall of a sparrow. Our lives are determined, if you want to take the religious view, by God—but God gave us parents, or surrogate parents, and their behavior forms us in childhood; a loved baby behaves differently from a neglected baby. Our entire sensory apparatus goes into play the moment light and air and sound—the entire world—assail us as we emerge from the womb. All this is in the textbooks, and yet most people dismiss it. Our bodies and our psyche take their shape from the way in which all of us have been fashioned. There are phases and stages of our bodily as well as our mental education. The habits we form, the clothes we wear, the furniture we put into rooms all are in one way or another signatures of ourselves. A great part of biography is the study of these signatures. Biography has for too long studied the artificial trappings, the clichés of lives. Everything has in reality been determined, including the ways in which we cope with the determinings, and the ways in which we defend ourselves. A biographer tries to figure out, if he follows this path, how the subject feels—or fails to observe, or shuts out feeling—the fundamental things of humanity and human behavior. The inhibited person will act predictably different from the unbuttoned person.

INTERVIEWER

Isn’t there a danger of overpsychologizing in biography?

EDEL

A biographer mustn’t overdo anything. Readers need evidence in reading a biography and the biographer needn’t underline to excess. Let me give an example. In James’s early stories, I found a few that deal with the ways in which marriage proves fatal to one or the other party. In “Longstaff’s Marriage,” for example, a man is ill and wants to marry a young woman on his deathbed. She refuses. He recovers. Then later she is dying, and he marries her, and she dies. Isn’t that a strange fantasy? There are other stories like this one, and there is James’s favorite story by Mérimée, about the young man who puts his engagement ring on the finger of a statue of Venus. She comes to his bed to claim him in marriage—and crushes him to death. You will recognize that when I found in James’s notebooks his playing with names, as he often did, the rhymes Ledward, then Bedward, then Dedward—and then as if for emphasis Deadward—I saw his association of these names as defining the stories he had been writing. My conclusion was “To be led to the marriage bed was to be dead. James accordingly chose the path of safety. He remained celibate.” All this did embody his genuine fear of women—and he wrote a number of vampire stories. The stories, the rhymes, James’s attitude toward marriage, his entire psychosexual makeup, about which I offered a long chain of evidence, warranted my reaching this conclusion and making this remark. But you should have heard the howl biographers and critics let out when I first launched my hypothesis. A short story written by an author is fabricated in every detail in the mind of that author. It is fiction, but all the fictional elements have been thought, conceived, worked, and reworked in the fancy of the writer. They are daydream stuff—and they tell us a great deal. What we need is validating evidence. I don’t think I was overpsychologizing.

INTERVIEWER

What was your own background in psychology?

EDEL

My wanting to write about the “stream of consciousness” when I was eighteen will suggest to you that I was interested in the inner workings of the mind, in free association. I was indeed at that time excited by Joyce’s attempting to set down not only the intellectual thoughts but the perceptual world, and I found Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, his giving us the mentally retarded Benjy’s sensory perceptions, a veritable revelation. I have told in Stuff of Sleep and Dreams of my meeting with Alfred Adler in Vienna. I also read a great deal in William James and I first read Freud in French translation in the late 1920s. But reading is not always feeling; we get only an intellectual conception of psychology. It wasn’t until I came out of the army in 1946, at forty, that I found myself in such a state of confusion and despair that I went to an analyst. During the three years of this analysis I underwent an entirely new education—insight into the nature of my dreams and fantasies. I was mentally attracted to the entire process—the analysis wasn’t just therapy, it became for me an entire schooling—and as I began to read more widely and talk with therapists, I was struck by the misapplication of therapeutic concepts to literature. Van Wyck Brooks and Edmund Wilson had both undergone therapy and used it—Wilson more successfully than Van Wyck Brooks. I went on to ask myself what in Freud, Jung, Erik Erikson, and the others belonged to literary study and what belonged to the realm of helping people in their problems. When I started using what I had learned—and I kept up my discussions and readings—I recognized that the only part of psychoanalytic psychology that belonged to literature was what Freud had discovered about the human capacity for imagining, dreaming, experiencing, observing, our tendency to delude ourselves, our rationalizations, our need for pleasure, our defense against pain—these human things belong to literature. Talking about “oral” and “anal,” using the adjective oedipal, and all the other lingo of the analysts, has nothing to do with us—these are theoretical constructs. The first paper I wrote after my exposure to analysis was an appeal to fellow biographers to translate the technical language into human language. Do you know that in all my five volumes of the Henry James I do not once speak of “sibling rivalry,” though I describe the rivalries between the brothers? What people have called my “Freudianism” isn’t that at all. I do not apply “constructs” to my material. I look at my material and deal with what it contains from the psychological orientation I have described. But this can’t be explained to one who hasn’t been through the excitement or anguish of seeing dream symbols as part of one’s experience of feeling and life; intellectual discussion of emotion doesn’t convey the actual lived feeling of emotion. An individual who hasn’t been in the depths of depression has no conception of what being depressed means.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve frequently talked about the biographer discovering the “life myth” of the subject. What do you mean by that?

EDEL

The inner, unconscious, and invisible drive in an individual, what we popularly call the “lifestyle,” is in reality a coalition of fancies springing from what the individual would like to be. Hemingway is an easy illustration because his myth is so obvious. Every minute of the day, in all that he did, he was trying to prove himself—how he was a fighter, a slayer of animals, a “slayer” of women sexually. He had to fight battles, to get into wars. Something drove him: big animals, the biggest fish, and he had to be “the greatest,” the supreme writer. And he himself didn’t understand this; he merely asserted himself in this way. Something teased his mind and created his directed physical energy. The self-myth is a covert myth, and Hemingway had to go on living it even after he had succeeded far beyond the expectations of most writers. The myth of “achievers” offers one key to unlock the inner individual. Thoreau revealed his life myth in what he must have thought a pretty little fable—but what a sad fable it is! He talked about having lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtle dove and sometimes he heard them in the distance, but he could never find them. Thus his fancy told a truth he himself didn’t begin to understand. He was describing longing and need. He named the three elements missing in his life: the faithfulness of the dog, that is affection; the strength and virility of the horse, in other words his sexuality; and the dove, the symbol of peace and the Holy Ghost that is love. Without guides (aptly selected from the animal kingdom) Thoreau kept looking in nature for the things absent in his psyche, and with an aggressivity that undermined the sweetness of his life. A man who decides to be, or finds himself to be, a loner must accept the consequences of that decision. Thoreau’s life is a tragic life, that of a man of enormous feelings that have shriveled up within him.

INTERVIEWER

What about Henry James’s personal myth?

EDEL

James wore an extraordinary mask. He presented himself and thought himself the quietest of men, all meekness and acceptance and resignation. He wrote and read and talked for fifty years; it was a sedentary writer’s life with some social life on the side, during which he displayed much wit and charm. From the beginning, he announced he would not marry. He lived by himself, but in one respect he met the world grandly—he gave of his work in abundance; that abundance in itself was a part of his hidden drive to power. His novels are about power, not love. He gives an impression of involvement in personal relations, but he is distant and cool, and seems to possess the kind of wisdom in which an individual never flounders; he knows where he is going. He needed money and success. He earned enough to live decently and stylishly. Society accepted him. He tried for years—he was tenacious—to earn theatrical success, and failed. This was a man who wanted and achieved greatness. His planning of The Portrait of a Lady as a literary coup is very much like Flaubert’s planning of Madame Bovary (who wasn’t a lady). By his tenacity, James brought it off—and made himself a literary power even when he had a limited audience. He became an oracle, a “Master” as the young called him. The myth of his drive to power was revealed in his deathbed dictation when in his delirium he dictated letters signed “Napoleon.” The military Napoleon would not accept the word “impossible.” James wouldn’t either. Nothing was impossible to a man of imagination, he maintained. He believed in gloire in the exalted French sense of the word. As Napoleon annexed territories by waging wars, James annexed, in his imagination, the whole of Europe to the American novel. He created the “international” novel—he foresaw the drama of America’s encounter with Europe, which today we watch in every foreign policy debate, and he saw too the dangers of America’s ignorance of the rest of the world. What he could not have dreamed is the way in which we have been great colonizers of the American dream and Coca-Cola. James became a theorist of fiction, a lawgiver. Thus some individuals act out their covert dreams and the world accepts these as it accepted Hemingway and James; Hemingway the writer for the masses, James the artist for a distinct and profound civilized minority—Matthew Arnold’s “saving remnant,” which cannot, I’m afraid, stay the rising tide of barbarism.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve just talked about James’s deathbed dictation. Is it true that he said something like “Ah, here it is, that distinguished thing!” when he was dying?

EDEL

I’m not sure he said it, but it’s a beautiful bit of apocrypha. It sounds like something Max Beerbohm might have put into James’s mouth. But what you’re thinking of originated in Edith Wharton’s memoirs. She says that when James had his first stroke, at the beginning of the last illness, he heard a voice—distinctly not his own—saying, “So here it is at last, the distinguished thing!” Mrs. Wharton got it from James’s old friend Lady Prothero. But the flat-footed facts of biography tell us James woke up and felt ill. He got out of bed to call his valet, Burgess; in reaching for the bell-button he grabbed the cord to his bed-lamp. He shouted as he crashed to the floor and help came. That doesn’t preclude his hearing the voice, and he may have later polished the story a bit if he was able to tell it; subsequent strokes quickly clouded his mind. We do know he asked for a thesaurus to find a better word for paralytic.

INTERVIEWER

In what way will biography be changed in the future?

EDEL

We can foresee great changes as a result of the sexual revolution. The biographer now can write with greater openness. Homosexuality was totally underground; today we at least face it. The Victorians so often suppressed the idea that men and women were physical—that is, sexual—entities. The problem will be how and where the lines will be drawn between privacy and the unbuttoned self. The exhibitionists will be out in force, and the voyeurs. New codes will be advanced—but the cry will be to “tell it all,” and biography will probably move closer to pornography. But freer discussion and consideration of humans as psychosexual beings is a great gain for the biographical art and for truth.

INTERVIEWER

Do you yourself think James was homosexual?

EDEL

Somehow, homosexuality in James’s mode of life seems out of character. He was too fastidious, too afraid of sex altogether—and contented himself by being publicly affectionate, giving his friends great hugs and pats on the back. That was why I use the term homoerotic. He had more erotic feelings towards men than women; we have a great deal of evidence in his work and in his late letters to younger men. But there was something avuncular about this. Somerset Maugham’s story that Hugh Walpole once offered himself to James and James said, “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t,” rings true, and I was told by Stephen Spender once that Walpole himself confirmed this. What I did find was that James, who in seventeen out of his twenty novels couldn’t write about love (he always turned it into power), in his last three finest and most powerful novels wrote believably about love, especially in The Golden Bowl. This suggests that once he had reached old age, and the time of diminished passions, he could open himself to feel love in ways that he had not been able to feel when he was channeling all his emotions into his inexorable power-drive. Some such hypothesis seems to me valid.

INTERVIEWER

James had a lot of female friends.

EDEL

As homoerotic men do. But they were elderly ladies, mostly mother figures. They were his best friends, when London society opened its arms to him: one was eighty, one was eighty-five. They were a marvelous mine of information about the society of the past. The actress Fanny Kemble—he’d visit her once a week, he was loyal to her. She was in her late seventies, early eighties. And the young girls . . . he loved young women, after all. And he wrote Portrait of a Lady. He understood them, but then, he was totally identifying with them. He was a young lady in so many ways. A Victorian lady. Somewhere inside him, there was an adolescent girl. And he understood adolescents very well.

INTERVIEWER

I’d like to ask you about the recent tendency to equate biography with fiction.

EDEL

Biography cannot be fiction. I have said a novelist is free to do anything—the novel is as much a work of the imagination as the writer wants to make it. The novelist creates the characters, supplies their background. Turgenev used to give each character a lengthy dossier as if the person had a police record. The biographer doesn’t have that freedom. The characters are real. The dossiers have to be real. Lytton Strachey once gave Queen Elizabeth a jewel to wear at a great occasion, but when asked, he admitted he put the jewel there to add a touch to his picture. That was a piece of fictional “property” imported into the story. George Kennan once admitted that in one of his histories he put a goat into the landscape between Russia and Finland when he was describing the departure of some important diplomat or personage from Russia to Finland. This was historic license. But he did add that he had usually seen goats in that landscape even though he didn’t know whether there was one there on that particular day. These of course are small details but they define the difference between fiction and history. Truman Capote, to get around this, wrote an account of real criminals and real murders but called it “a nonfiction fiction.” That was his way of explaining he had done some fictionalizing. Norman Mailer calls his Executioner’s Song a novel, not a biography. There are biographies that have imitated fiction, and there are fictions that have imitated biography—Woolf’s Orlando for example, which contains real-life materials about Vita Sackville-West. David Copperfield and Tristram Shandy also pretend to be biographies.

INTERVIEWER

Did you ever imitate the techniques of fiction?

EDEL

Yes, I did it twice in the James life. I created a small scene for which I found all the data, or a lot of it, in his autobiography, where he describes his call on his ailing cousin Minny Temple, in New Rochelle, before leaving on his tour of Europe—his first independent tour. There are two or three vivid sentences and I used them as if the scene were taking place; I dramatized the material. But every item came from the novelist—how Minny looked, what she said, what he replied. The other details were in the letters they wrote subsequently to one another. It was the last time he saw her; she died before he returned. My second imitation was when I found a sentence from James to a friend saying he had that morning visited Millbank prison to get material for a scene in a novel he was about to write. The visit to the prison is quite minutely described in the novel. I made a pastiche and had James actively mounting steps (as he described) and going through clanging doors, and seeing the prisoners. James reported the sounds, the smells, all that his senses had absorbed. His travel writings had demonstrated to me how accurate his descriptions could be. I could have quoted this stuff, but it was more dramatic to have James actively gathering his material. This is part of the shaping and telling in biography. Not a single fact has been imagined. Only my narrative form.

INTERVIEWER

So the moment comes when you must start writing. You’ve gathered all your material. Where do you begin?

EDEL

You begin, I suppose, the way all storytellers begin. Remember, a biography is a narrative, and the biographer has a story to tell. Inside the mind there is the classical beginning: “Once upon a time . . .” In my Thoreau I found my first sentence an expression of my thematic sense of Thoreau’s narcissism. I began something like this: “Of the creative spirits that flourished in Concord, Massachusetts, it might be said that Hawthorne loved men but felt estranged from them, Emerson loved ideas even more than men, and Thoreau loved himself.” A cruel beginning, but I think the reader wants to go right on. In the James, I began, well, at the beginning, with the coming of the first Jameses to America. I had made two decisions before I started writing: one was to enunciate all my themes in a kind of prologue called “Interrogation of the Past,” the second was that I had so much material I’d bog down if I didn’t find a selective principle. I determined to find a series of characteristic episodes in the lives of the Jameses, almost as if I were doing a scenario, and the biography would consist of the ways in which I strung the episodes together. As I wrote one episode, the next took its shape. Usually when I found a title, I had the essence of my given episode. I moved chronologically but also I had to juggle events in sequence, and events which occurred simultaneously and needed arranging in some sort of cogent order. The questions in writing I paid most attention to were those of narrative interest, drama where possible, and pacing. No one knows how to write biography if they can’t pace the story. Too many biographies are jerky bundles of indigestible fact.

INTERVIEWER

As you went on with your twenty-year project, surely your relationship to James must have changed?

EDEL

My relationship with James became increasingly businesslike. I sometimes wished I could ask him questions, but in his absence I played the biographer’s game of putting the question to myself and then writing down all the possible answers. Sometimes you succeed; sometimes you overlook the most obvious possibilities. My psychological studies helped me out of the “transference,” I think, when I found myself saying, “Here is that strange queer talkative man, a wanderer in London . . .” and when I recognized what an ego he had! Most biographers blindly overlook their involvement and simply report facts and believe themselves to know the answers to all unanswered questions.

INTERVIEWER

Did you ever feel like arguing with James?

EDEL

Not often. I did like his balanced view of life, his calm, his general “cool” compared to my own impulsive way of approaching life. But I think I can best answer your question by telling you the one dream I had about him. I never dreamed about him when I was working on the biography. But when I had finished, I one day dreamed I was a journalist again and with a group of journalists at Lamb House, his country house in Sussex. I remember that in the dream I was worried what he might think about all I had written about him. I hung back, and when the rest of the press went away I walked into his study. He was sitting behind his desk. I sat down and said, “Mr. James, I must tell you, I’ve had great difficulties establishing the hierarchies of your friendships.” He looked sadly at me and replied, “You know, I never got them sorted out myself.” I think what I did in that dream was to give myself James’s blessing. The dream also enunciated a biographical truth. The subject of a biography has never had a chance to bring order to a life so constantly lived and involved in action. It is the biographer who finds the frame, sorts things out, and for better or worse tries to bring order into a life story—create a sense of sequence and coherence.

INTERVIEWER

Do you ever feel “possessive” of James now, as though he is your subject?

EDEL

Certainly not. I never did. But I was criticized and often bitterly attacked for defending my priorities. Academics are great raiders; they love to pounce on other people’s work and grab a letter and rush off and publish it. The point that they always overlooked was that I was committed to a long-range project, I had devoted years to it and it had cost me a great deal. In simple business terms, I wasn’t going to tolerate trespassers. There were plenty of other subjects in the world open to them; the old frontier spirit of my childhood asserted itself. I had established my territory. I didn’t see why I shouldn’t exercise my rights. There were times when the academics were like a bunch of little nibbling mice and if one allows them to nibble away, your work is endangered, the best gets eaten up. I wanted my books to take the public by surprise, to have novelty and freshness. There were, along the way, certain professional invaders as well and I had to use whatever resources, not least the law, to protect myself. There were also plagiarists who borrowed my structure and order and development of the story, and often my quotes, arguing that they had seen the same material—but you see, what they didn’t know was that for every letter I used there were perhaps a hundred others of the same sort I could have used. It was too much of a coincidence that they should choose the selfsame letters and the exact quotes, and the order I imposed on this vast material. There have been famous lawsuits about this kind of thing, and the courts have upheld the originality of the created work, the originality of a design.

INTERVIEWER

Let’s talk about the gender of a biographer and that of the subject. Does it have an effect on the work?

EDEL

If you mean women can only write about women and men about men, that’s nonsense. Henry James wrote Portrait of a Lady and I believe portrayed his lady better than most women writers would have done. You might get a biography written by a woman-hater, and I have seen some biographies by feminists that were a bit biased in dealing with men. The male biographers of famous women have usually had their love affair with these women in their “transference,” and what you get then might be the usual intersexual bluntings, obfuscations, fantasies. We all have male and female components, and I am inclined to believe that the problems I have discussed exist on either side of the sexual line. You can have homoerotic loves in biography and also lesbian loves. And the results have to be judged by the completed book.

INTERVIEWER

You spoke of using the tape recorder. How did biographers obtain lengthy, accurate interviews before the invention of the tape recorder? How did Boswell interview Johnson?

EDEL

We know that Boswell kept regular minutes, written retrospectively, of his talks with Johnson. In my time, I did the same; sometimes just brief jottings. A biographer, like a reporter, has to judge whether pulling out a notebook will frighten the interviewed person, or inhibit, or render the subject expansive. My own theory was that a notebook interfered; I suspect tape recorders today interfere. I simply engaged in conversation and wrote notes afterwards. I’m sure that in my talks with Edith Wharton, we would have had a much more formal relation if I had ever pulled out my pencil, let alone a notebook. Ask me today what Edith Wharton was wearing the first time I met her in 1930, and I think I could tell you.

INTERVIEWER

Say, what was Edith Wharton wearing when you first met her?

EDEL

The image I got, as she stood on the walk where the car drew up, was of a short dumpy woman, very expensively dressed. She wore an off-the-face hat, of the kind that was stylish in the twenties. I was too young to observe detail, but I seem to recall a mauve suit of very fine weave and a mauve or lavender blouse. What stayed with me above all was that I was looking (after I had met her eyes and her welcoming smile) at the Legion of Honor bouton carefully pinned to the blouse, resting below a fine piece of jewelry. (I was dressed in an ill-fitting suit, had a wisp of a mustache, and wore a beret.) On a later occasion I remember her wearing the same sort of outfit for a walk in the garden and then saying she would use up one of the two times she was allowed, by her doctors, to climb the stairs daily, to put on a fresh “frock” for lunch. It was a lovely frock, as I remember, gold and black I think—but I don’t trust my memory on colors. The merlan frite and the Montrachet, however, were delicious.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think about the biographical value of “oral” biographies, like Jean Stein and George Plimpton’s Edie about Edie Sedgwick, or Peter Manso’s Mailer, in which snippets of numerous people’s accounts are woven together, like an oral mosaic?

EDEL

I haven’t read these, but I’ve seen others, like Michael Ondaatje’s book about New Orleans jazz. They are like film documentaries or collages. They are distinctly cinematic and vivid, but the evaluating eye of the biographer, screening the testimony, is absent. You take the story for granted, as you do a film. They are built on the theory that pictures don’t lie, which isn’t always true, and that a visual is worth a thousand words, which I deny—words can do many things pictures can’t. A picture hits an emotion; words explain and offer nuances and delicate overtones in addition.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve just cut your James down from five volumes into one.

EDEL

Yes, I’m happy to have done that. It gives me, at my age, a sense of completion. The cutting was done by my editor, Catharine Carver, and it was splendid. Then I sewed up some of the truncations, and grafted in new material, and wrote some new chapters, and I think it is now a fresh and independent work, a reworked biography, for our new time. All biographies can be put into a single volume, but the many-volumed serialization exists because of the richness and abundance of material; it provides more backgrounds, and then there is a different kind of pacing. But sometimes the big fat ones exist only because the biographer didn’t bother to summarize, didn’t know what to put in and what to throw out. I used to say that if I had done that, I would have ended up with twenty-five volumes. And then there is the question of exploring our greatest literary genius.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think that of James?

EDEL

I’m not the one who first made that claim. R. P. Blackmur called him the Shakespeare of the American novel. And I noticed that recently Joseph Epstein ranked him with the great names of British literary history—with Milton and Dryden, and the great line of prose writers. Certainly he was our greatest literary imagination; and the way in which he is constantly quoted and referred to suggests that his dream of gloire has been confirmed by time. But many Americans are put off by him.

INTERVIEWER

Why?

EDEL

Because he had so many phases—because his style grew intricate. Because he was often critical of America. Because he was wholly committed to art. Because, they say, “why can’t he say it out plain”—as his brother William always demanded. I think his late style has floored many.

INTERVIEWER

What was the reason for his late style, how did it evolve?

EDEL

He began dictating directly to the typewriter. It’s a case of the medium being the message and with dictation he ran into longer sentences, and parenthetical remarks, and when he revised what he had dictated he tended to add further flourishes. In the old days when he wrote in longhand he was much briefer and crisper, but now he luxuriated in fine phrases and he was exquisitely baroque. It’s a grand style but not to everyone’s taste.

INTERVIEWER

And no one noticed a change in the style at the time?

EDEL

His friends did, and some of the reviewers. And then people began to parody him. James Thurber, in our time, wrote wonderful parodies of his late manner; earlier, Beerbohm; and there were others. Parody demonstrates, I believe, the high individuality of a style. And one must distinguish between true style and a series of tics, like Hemingway’s. I think you’ll find James’s late books can be read aloud, because they are written in a dictated style.

INTERVIEWER

What about you? Do you write in longhand or directly on the typewriter?

EDEL

I used to write always in longhand and then type. But now I write best on the typewriter, it gets my thoughts down faster. But I really mess around and can go from one to the other. My way of writing is hard to describe because I don’t completely think through what I am going to put down—I just start and a lot of nonsense and bad writing comes out on the page. I keep on rewriting, in longhand or on the typewriter, until somehow out of my subliminal self there emerge all kinds of thoughts and ideas I hadn’t known to be tucked away inside me. Then I edit myself drastically. At some point a final version appears. It’s largely an unconscious process. My Bloomsbury book, which was an experiment in group biography that almost immediately (as a method) had an influence on other writers, came very quickly and easily, because I loved my subject, and the whole idea of the book. I have just rewritten the introduction to Wilson’s The Fifties twenty times—and finally it has jelled.

INTERVIEWER

Is it true you type with only two fingers?

EDEL

Yes. That’s why I couldn’t make my peace with a word processor. My wife gave me a lovely one for my seventy-fifth birthday, but I didn’t like the machine’s insolence. It tried to make me its slave. If I were seventeen or so, I would have had to master it, but I was too old. Yet my friend John Hersey swears by it, he thinks it’s done wonders for him. But then, John’s a little younger than I am . . . I went back to cutting and pasting, sorting and retyping. I wear myself out typing too much: slumped shoulders, aching back, cramped fingers. Too many years of sloppy and untrained working of machinery; but longhand now makes me impatient.

INTERVIEWER

What about the end of twenty years’ work? When you finished the last of the James biography, did any sort of postpartum depression set in?

EDEL

I suppose a vague sort of separation anxiety, but also a sense of triumph. And then I had so many other projects—I was committed to the Bloomsbury book, four volumes of James’s letters, the five volumes of the Wilson journals. I couldn’t tell you how many books I’ve seen through the press in the last ten years—but about one or two a year. Last year I had the final volume of James’s letters, and my book Writing Lives. This year I have the one-volume James and the fourth Wilson. For next year, I am to revise my volume of the James plays, and am editing in collaboration James’s complete notebooks, as well as doing the last of the Wilson volumes, and also a one-volume edition of selected James letters. And I like to keep up book reviewing, a few reviews a year.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve been doing a lot of work on writers in old age.

EDEL

I have watched myself aging, and in line with my theory that the greatest enemy of writers is depression, which they can’t avoid, I have studied in detail the old age of writers to see how they handled themselves. My essay “Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man” is widely known, and this year I published “The Artist in Old Age.” The first dealt with Yeats, James, and Tolstoy; the second with Willa Cather, Edmund Wilson, and William Carlos Williams.

INTERVIEWER

What, if I may ask, is the answer to old age?

EDEL

The answer to old age is to keep one’s mind busy and to go on with one’s life as if it were interminable. I always admired Chekhov for building a new house when he was dying of tuberculosis.

INTERVIEWER

Aren’t you currently working on your memoirs?

EDEL

Yes, but I have not yet found a form for these. I don’t want to do a formal autobiography, or a confessional book. I am going to select certain specific areas of memory. All my writings have been a search for form, really experiments in form. Critics will someday see this in the James—it’s the last thing they look for nowadays. I gave a form to the life of Willa Cather, which I finished after my friend E. K. Brown died in the fifties and left three or four chapters unwritten. My Thoreau was an experiment in condensation and reinterpretation. Bloomsbury was a stringing of different lives together as one strings beads. My memoirs will deal with my prairie years, but I don’t intend to dwell on seventeen years of journalism. The war will be the center. And then the James project. With, of course, all the personalities I met in my various lives. One learns always from the past. I studied Boswell to understand modern biography; now I am studying Gibbon’s memoirs—which though fragmentary have some important lessons. I’d be happy if I could write a single sentence like Gibbon. Like James, he had a grand style—it can’t even be parodied.

INTERVIEWER

So your memoirs are your next project?

EDEL

Yes, I’m very much absorbed in the problem of how to handle the story of my own life.