Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Posterior Priorities: James and Wilde and Then Some

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Posterior Priorities: James and Wilde and Then Some

Article excerpt

Monopolizing the Master: Henry James and the Politics of Modern Literary Scholarship

by Michael Anesko Stanford University Press, 2012. 248 pages

Oscar's Shadow: Wilde, Homosexuality, and Modern Ireland

by tibhear Walshe Cork University Press, 2011. 149 pages

Jesse Matz

Henry James himself would have made quite a tale of it. A photograph in Michael Anesko's gripping Monopolizing the Master shows James biographer Leon Edel smiling before Sargent's portrait ofJames, flaunting the very same topaz ring James himself is wearing. Edel got the ring as a gift in appreciation of his service to the James family after the 1953 publication of the first volume of his James biography. His exaltation--"The ring fits my finger--the same one HJ wore it on--as if it were made for it"--could have been basis for a Jamesian story of semi-gothic perfidy, but Edel's more general ambition--to "take all HJ as my province and tell all corners that I am doing Everything!" (187)--bespeaks a truly Jamesian scoundrel. Anesko tells the whole fascinating story. Bad enough as a tale of scholarly misconduct, it is worse as a story of what bad scholarly practices have meant for the history of sexuality. To earn the trust of the Jameses, Edel helped keep Henry James in the closet, and, after the fourth volume of his biography belatedly broke the news in 1969, Edel also helped guard against scholars searching for information that might have enhanced his rather minimalist version of Jarnes's homosexuality.

Compare Micheal mac Liamrnoir, who wrote and performed in The Importance of Being Oscar, the 1960 play that singlehandedly began the rehabilitation of Oscar Wilde. Founder of the Gate Theatre, and openly gay as early as 1928 when he moved to Dublin with his life partner, Hilton Edwards, mac Liammoir risked life and limb to redeem Wilde's reputation. Although The Importance of Being Oscar downplayed Wilde's sexu alit it initiated a series of liberalizing ventures that would include one-man Wilde shows, public advocacy, and An Oscar of No Importance, mac Liam-moir's 1968 memoir, which candidly celebrates Wilde as "that magician whose name was my secret for evermore" (63). Sharing that secret at the same time Edel shared the secret ofJames's homosexuality, mac LiammOir was a very different sort of successor. Both men chose to embody their idols, but whereas mac Liammoir helped heroicize Wilde's homosexuality, Edel played the villain, putting himself and his own interests first.

In the years between Henry James's death and 1969, his family made every effort to suppress information about his sexuality. Scholars and editors wanting to publish or even to discuss his work had to comply with restrictions set by a succession of family executors for whom -discretion" was essential. Percy Lubbock had to agree not to include James's gushingly amorous dotings upon younger men in the edition of letters published in 1920. That edition simply stripped many letters of language the James family found embarrassing--a remarkable violation in the history of scholarly editing but one that was simply standard over the years that James's descendants controlled his legacy. Edel's involvement only made things worse. Shrewdly aware of how best to exploit the family's concerns, Edel used them to consolidate his own power over James's legacy: convincing first the nephew and then others that he alone could truly be trusted to guard James's papers against indiscretion, Edel established what he came to call his "priorities"--his foremost rights to everything having to do with Henry James. For years, other scholars were kept from looking at James material in the Houghton Library; turned back at the library desk by unique prohibitions against access and permissions.

By the same token, because Edel helped keep James's sexuality a secret only in order to maintain control over James's legacy, only because secrecy endeared him to the Jameses, he was eager to go public when he stood to gain by it. …

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