Obituary: Professor Leon Edel

Richard Garnett,Janet Adam Smith
Wednesday 10 September 1997 23:02

Leon Edel, biographer and editor of Henry James, was the foremost Jamesian scholar of his age and played an important part in rescuing the novelist from the indifference of British readers and the hostility of those American critics who believed that James had betrayed his birthright in turning his back on his native land and in taking British nationality.

Edel, like James, was a cosmopolitan. Born in Pittsburgh in 1907, he went to McGill University, Montreal, at the early age of 16 and there first became obsessed by Henry James. Having taken his degree, he won a scholarship to the Sorbonne, where he earned a doctorate for a dissertation on Henry James's theatrical years. While still a student he visited Edith Wharton at Saint Brice in search of information about James's plays and about Walter Berry, a mutual friend of hers and James's.

She knew nothing about the plays and was defensive about Berry, suspecting Edel of being a "publishing scoundrel". But she soon warmed to him, and a few years later, when recommending him for a Guggenheim Fellowship, remarked with unusual prescience, for he had written little yet to warrant it, that he had "the sympathy and understanding which are necessary to lift a work of erudition to the level of literature".

During the Second World War he served as an intelligence officer in the United States forces, and afterwards as Chief of Information Control, News Agency, in the US Zone of Occupation from 1946 to 1947. At this time Rupert Hart-Davis was just setting up his own publishing firm. He was to open his account in February 1947 with Fourteen Stories by Henry James edited by his partner David Garnett, and was planning other reprints. He suggested to Theodora Bosanquet, James's last secretary, that he should reprint her little book Henry James at Work. She demurred but recommended "a brilliant young American" who had written a thesis on James in French, Lieutenant J.L. Edel.

Hart-Davis got in touch with him, and eventually they met in New York, where Edel was living in a flat that looked out on to the United Nations building, and earning a living by reporting its proceedings and writing reviews in an evening paper. Although he had briefly held an assistant professorship at Montreal before the war, he found that his French doctorate was of little help in persuading anyone to give him a new post. It was not until 1952 that he got back into teaching, first at Princeton and then with various professorships at New York University, where his career was crowned in 1966 with a Henry James Professorship created especially for him.

Meanwhile Hart-Davis had signed him up not only for an edition of James's plays, for which he already had an American contract, and which came out in 1949, but also for a new biography of the novelist. The first volume appeared in 1953, the second not until 1962. They earned him excellent reviews, and in the following year he was awarded both the $1,000 National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize.

The biography had originally been envisaged as two volumes, but when the first one was finished Edel realised that he would need two more to complete the job, and so on with each succeeding volume, until there were five in all, the last and longest not appearing until 1972. By this time the work was being hailed, in V.S. Pritchett's words, as "a masterpiece of the biographer's art". Edel had succeeded in making a life in which "nothing happened" as enthralling as anything in Dumas.

This was a remarkable achievement because James had gone out of his way to cover his tracks. In 1903 he made a great bonfire of his papers, and he revealed himself no more than he could help in his own letters, which he urged his recipients, without much success, to "burn, burn, burn". Edel's pertinacity, cunning and luck in uncovering these tracks, together with the sheer fun of the chase, provide an entertaining chapter in his Literary Biography (1957).

Edel was a stalwart defender of the biographical approach to literary criticism, which he rescued from banality by taking into account the writer's interior life, trying to disengage "the essence of a life . . . from the eternal clutter of days and years". His approach was always psychological. He had been interested in psychology and psychoanalysis ever since he visited Alfred Adler in Vienna in 1930, and he himself had been successfully psychoanalysed to remove a serious writer's block when he came out of the army. His study The Psychological Novel was published in 1955 and Stuff of Sleep and Dreams, what he called "Experiments in Literary Psychology", in 1982.

He was never tempted to imitate his Master's style but tackled complex subjects with exemplary clarity and wrote a limpid prose in which the anfractuosities of the quotations from James stand out like rocks in a mountain stream. A younger colleague once confessed sadly that he tried to write like Edel but "somehow it always turns out different".

He made many other contributions to Jamesian scholarship, edited collections of James's writings on the novel and on the theatre and his Complete Tales in 12 volumes in 1962-64. He brought out James's Selected Letters (1956) and a more comprehensive collection of Letters in four volumes in 1974- 84. He also edited Henry's sister Alice's diaries (1965), and with the energetic help of Dan H. Laurence he compiled a Bibliography of Henry James (1957). He wrote prefaces to the Bodley Head Henry James in 11 volumes (1967-74) and to several reprints of James's novels.

He published books on other authors, including James Joyce in 1947 and Willa Cather, completing E.K. Brown's life of her, in 1953. He edited four volumes of Edmund Wilson's diaries (1976-86) and wrote Bloomsbury: a house of lions (1979). This is a good general view of the group, but none of these books has quite the authority of his work on James. James was his fief and his preserve.

In 1976, 60 years after James's death, his great-nephew Alexander James unveiled a plaque to him in Westminster Abbey. Edel was called upon to give an address. It was the culmination of all that he had worked for.

Meanwhile in 1972 he had left New York to take up a professorship in Hawaii. There he spent the rest of his life, continuing to write and revise his work and indulging his fondness for swimming. During his academic career he served on many committees, held many visiting professorships and was rewarded with numerous honours; even his contributions to psychology were marked by honorary membership of a psychiatric institute and the American Institute for Psychoanalysis.

Edel was a genial companion and a welcome guest. He was an unfailingly entertaining talker, though one could not but notice how quickly the topic of conversation would shift to Henry James. But nobody minded, for he could talk for hours upon his magnificent obsession without ever becoming a bore.

Richard Garnett

I first met Leon Edel in the early 1950s with Rupert Hart-Davis, who had recently published my book on the friendship between Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson, writes Janet Adam Smith. So I was accepted as an ally in their mission to bring James back to the centre of the literary scene with Rupert publishing, Leon editing, short stories, plays, letters, and finally producing the magnificent biography.

Our three-cornered friendship - later extended to include June Hart-Davis, Leon's third wife Marjorie and my husband John Carleton - flourished in Soho Square, the Garrick, my house and, after Rupert's retirement, at Marske in the Yorkshire dales. Wherever we were, whatever other topics came up - and Leon had a wide range of interests - the talk would come round at last to Henry James. I really believe that Leon - wearing a ring that had once belonged to the Master! - felt that by immersing himself so deeply in James's life and thought something of their essence had been transmitted to him. "Even in death," he once wrote me, "the biographee makes demands on biographer."

When I was teaching in New York in the Sixties, and Leon was a professor at New York University, we often met in the lively and hospitable home of John and Phyllis Gordan (John was curator of the Berg Collection of the New York Library and discoverer of the manuscript of The Waste Land). My sharpest memory though is of a dinner with Leon and his wife Roberta, a Freudian analyst, in their apartment on Central Park. There were three of us - but places set for four, the other diner being a huge black cat which perched gravely on a stool and ate off the table in a rather finical way.

There was much talk of James and of Edel when I was visiting Anthony and Violet Powell in the summer of 1973 - they admired his biography, but had never met him. I said I'd love to arrange a meeting when Leon came over next - but I'd no idea when that might be. There had also been some grumbling from Tony about critics of his own novels who said he overdid the coincidences. Back in London next day I found a message - Leon was shortly arriving! It wasn't possible to have a meeting that year, but when Leon came over for the James memorial in Westminster Abbey in 1976, he and the Powells did lunch with me, and he wrote afterwards of "the delight and apparently inexhaustible substance of our talk". The ghost of Henry James had hovered over the table.

Next day we were all in the abbey for the unveiling, by Henry James's great-nephew, of the plaque in Poets' Corner, and the address by Leon. I had gone with Phyllis Gordan, who had asked Arthur Crook and me to lunch afterwards. Meeting Leon on our way out, she invited him to join us - and when he explained he was giving lunch to Alexander James, she invited him too. So there we were, enjoying an excellent lunch at the Ritz - four elders devoted to the Master and the young kinsman who clearly felt a bit out of his depth and seemed more at ease talking about protest movements on the college campus. A donnee for a James short story?

Announcing one of his rare later visits to London from Honolulu, "I hope you will dine with me," Leon wrote, "and we will fete our reunion and shrug our shoulders at Time."

Joseph Leon Edel, English scholar and writer: born Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 9 September 1907; Assistant Professor, Sir George Williams University, Montreal 1932-34; Adjunct Professor, New York University 1950-53, Associate Professor 1953-55, Professor of English 1955-66, Henry James Professor of English and American Letters 1966-73 (Emeritus); FRSL 1970; Citizens Professor of English, University of Hawaii 1972-78 (Emeritus); married 1935 Bertha Cohen (marriage dissolved 1950), 1950 Roberta Roberts (marriage dissolved 1979), 1980 Marjorie Sinclair; died Honolulu 6 September 1997.

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