Henry James, Gertrude Stein, and the Biographical Act

Synopsis

Charles Caramello argues that Henry James and Gertrude Stein performed biographical acts in two senses of the phrase: they wrote biography, but as a cover for autobiography. Constructing literary genealogies while creating original literary forms, they used their biographical portraits of precursors and contemporaries to portray themselves as exemplary modern artists. In doing so, they actually became exemplars, and Caramello treats them not only as artists, as developers of modernist portraiture, but also as types, as emblems in an ideal history of modernism. Caramello advances his argument through close readings of four works that explore themes of artistry and influence and that experiment with forms of biographical portraiture: James's early biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne and his much later group biography, William Wetmore Story and his Friends, and Stein's celebrated Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and her largely forgotten Four in America, which comprises biographies of Ulysses S. Grant,Wilbur Wright, Henry James, and George Washington. As Caramello shows, James and Stein portrayed artistic exemplarity in terms broader than the aesthetic. In Hawthorne, James linked his precursor's romantic art and his conservative politics, presented Hawthorne as uncritical in both arenas, and, implicity, proferred himself as a critical thinker of modern artistic principles and progressive social vision. He repeated the maneuver, with complex variations, in the more overtly political William Wetmore Story. In the Autobiography and in Four in America, Stein explored how patriarchy produces and enshrines masculine art, just as it produces and enshrines masculine cultural icons, and she proferredher art and herself, in counterpoint, as lesbian and feminist.