Volume XI, Number 2, Fall 2015

"Auto/biographical P/acts" by Ágnes Zsófia Kovács

Ágnes Zsófia Kovács is associate professor at the Department of American Studies, University of Szeged, Hungary. Her areas of academic interest and teaching include late 19th-c. early 20th-c. American fiction and contemporary American fiction, versions of literary Modernism and Postmodernism, popular fiction, multicultural American identity prose, and theories of American Studies. Her current research into travel writing involves re-reading texts by Edith Wharton and Henry James as travel accounts. She has published two books, The Function of the Imagination in the Writings of Henry James (Mellen, 2006) and Literature in Context (Jate Press, 2010). Email: akovacs@lit.u-szeged.hu

Henry James and the Art of Auto/biography
Miroslawa Buchholtz
Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2014.
Series: Dis/Continuities. Torun Studies in Language, Literature and Culture. Edited by Miroslawa Buchholtz. Vol. 6.
pp. 222.

Miroslawa Buchholtz’s book on Jamesian auto/biographies forms part of the current critical interest in James’s largely neglected nonfiction. James was not only a fiction writer, but also a literary critic, travel writer, biographer, and autobiographer and current culturally oriented criticism loves to focus especially on his The American Scene (1905) as a site of knowledge production about the issue of race in the turn of the century US. Buchholtz’s contribution to this field is an extension of the critical interest to the traditional area of literary biography in order to discuss the cultural politics of writing auto/biography.

The theoretical framework of the enterprise reconceptualizes the genre of biography by problematizing the concepts of subjectivity and authenticity. The redefinition centers on the idea of life-writing. “Life-writing” sheds light on the former problematic distinction between biography and autobiography, where the difference hinges on essentialist concepts of subjectivity and representation, presupposing the sameness of the person who writes and of the person whose life is being narrated. To reflect the interrelation between biography and autobiography, the slashed word auto/biography is used throughout the volume. Another key issue in auto/biographical writing is authenticity. Similarly to other kinds of historical writings, the authenticity claim of auto/biography has been problematized in the past decades. As a way to reflect on this problem, Buchholtz accepts Lejeune’s model modified by Paul de Man about the idea of the auto/biographical pact. According to de Man, auto/biography is a speech act, it has a contractual nature. What justifies auto/biography is an auto/biographical pact between the writer and the reader about the authenticity of the text. However, the substitution of a narrative for the identity of its object results not only in a discourse of self-restoration but also its disfigurement (32). An additional problem with the pact is that the reader may not be aware of the auto/biographical restoring/disfiguring act involved in the writing. To indicate this tension involved in the contractual speech act of narrating auto/biography, Buchholtz uses the slashed word p/act throughout the volume.

“All of James’s Biographers” offers an account of biographical endeavors concerning Henry James from the earliest reminiscences to life-work studies, biographies, and current fictional biographies. The aim of the chapter is to show how life-writing becomes the site of intense rivalry over power and knowledge. The most telling example of this power struggle is how Leon Edel, a scholar who told the writer’s life in a way to strengthen James’s position as a literary master, monopolized mid-twentieth century James biography. Edel’s psycho-biography on James claims James sacrificed life for art and that this explains James’s ambiguous relations to persons, his reserve, his extreme devotion and focus on literary excellence. This view paralleled the image of James the Modernist master. Until recently scholars had to face Edel’s overpowering presence in the field and could not seriously question his claims but only adopt one of three strategies of avoidance: either write about lives of other members of the James family, or write in the formula of a biographical series, or explore one aspect of James’s life. Only in the final decade of the twentieth century was Edel’s monopoly questioned in biographies by Fred Kaplan and Sheldon M. Novick. The chapter provides an interesting and thorough account of how specific book chapters, like Michael Anesko’s (1986) new historical account of James’s notion of authorship and his relation to mechanisms of literary production, paved the way for redistributing James as symbolic capital. Anesko’s convincing analysis of how different critical cohorts attempted to shape James’s reputation for their own advantage served to question Edel’s claims of James’s image. Another case in point is Lyndall Gordon’s A Private Life of Henry James (1999), which is a Feminist reconsideration of the role of actual women in James’s fictional production. The chapter finally discusses fictional reimaginings of James’s life (Tennant, Tóibín, Lodge, Hollinghurst, Ozick, Oates, Liebman-Smith) and contextualizes them with a string of current professional biographies that discuss the theme of sexuality and gender in James’s life in the context of the turn of the century Victorian culture.

James was also the author of books classified as biography and autobiography, and chapter 3 proceeds to take account of these writings under the heading “Jamesian Auto/biographies.” His auto/biographies of Nathaniel Hawthorne (1879) and William Wetmore Story (1903) are discussed as well as his late auto/biographical texts A Small Boy and Others (1913), Notes of a Son and Brother (1914), and The Middle Years (1917). The chapter focuses on the tension between biography and self-invention present in all these texts. It also explores the conflicts resulting from the incompatibility of James’s auto/biographical acts and his pacts with the subjects’ families, friends, readers. The most notable example is the case of A Small Boy that had started out as William James’s biography but was then turned into Henry’s memoir, with quotations that had been ’stylized’ and edited for the sake of the narrative (Kovács). The chapter offers an account of recent scholarship on James’s auto/biographical writing and shows the lack of a synthetizing theoretical perspective and account of James’s biographies and autobiographies.

Chapter 4 explores James’s changing attitude to the technology of photography. This new form of documentation functions as an aid and supplement to human memory. The chapter surveys existing photographs and portraits about James with iconographical rigor and eventually arrives at a post-structural (Barthes, Sontag) theorization of the photographic image. Buchholtz claims that James’s ambivalence about photography in his later years reflects his ambivalence about auto/biography. As the photo is the joint effort of the model and the photographer, it also involves the tension inscribed in the auto/biographical p/act. The production of the author’s portrait is always a public act that aims to market a specific image of the author.

The book points out a blind spot in the reception of James’s biographies and autobiographies. There is a need for a consistent theoretical frame and analyses of Jamesian auto/biographies, Buchholtz argues and naturally, her book fills that void. The book provides a consistent post-structuralist definition of the auto/biographical p/act that it uses for a profound and detailed account of its wide ranging material. Also, it reflects a new historicist interest in the analysis of the notion of authenticity, the processes of literary reproduction and marketing. I especially enjoyed chapter 2, which reads like a detective story about the stolen Jamesian symbolic capital but is at the same time a very well researched and problem-oriented account of the relevant critical/fictive material. Chapter 3 provides an insightful example of reading together early and late auto/biographies by James. The apparatus with sources and appendices will be quite useful for researchers of Jamesian autobiography. If it was possible, I would only ask for a more theoretically sustained articulation of the final chapter on Jamesian photography. The chapter’s thorough listings are eventually transformed into theorizing about puncture and cognitive claims in general. The chapter only mentions the marketing uses these images of James have been put to, the explanation of which would nicely fit the framework of the project.

Works Cited

  • Kovács, Ágnes Zsófia. “The Ragbag of Memory: Henry James’s Scenic Perspective in A Small Boy and OthersAMERICANA 11(2015): 1.