Back Rediscovered: The “audacious,” “charming,” “fully alive” late memoirs of Henry James
Henry James: Autobiographies

Library of America takes special pride in the release this week of Henry James: Autobiographies, a collection of three memoirs—A Small Boy and Others (1913), Notes of a Son and Brother (1914), and the unfinished The Middle Years, published posthumously in 1917—together with an assortment of his autobiographical essays and notebook entries and a fond reminiscence by Theodora Bosanquet, the secretary to whom James dictated all three works.

The sixteenth volume in LOA’s Henry James edition, Autobiographies is timed to the hundredth anniversary of his death on February 28, 1916.

With the enormous growth of memoir as a literary genre in recent decades, it’s more than time for these lesser-known late works to find a new audience. But readers shouldn’t expect a linear recounting of a life story in these books. What James provides instead is something much less orthodox—a sensuous, almost stream-of-consciousness evocation of the sights, sounds, and smells of his childhood and adolescence, in locales that include Albany, Newport, and New York on one side of the Atlantic, and London, Paris, and Geneva on the other. (The detailed end notes by volume editor Philip Horne are a virtual Baedeker to this vanished nineteenth-century world.)

Henry James and his father, from a daguerreotype taken in 1854.

If there’s anything like a narrative through-line in the collection, it’s the growth of James’s famously developed aesthetic sense, for which any experience is fodder, from a bout with typhoid fever to a crude but vivid stage adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. (James refers to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel as “my first experiment in grown-up fiction. . . . much less a book than a state of vision, of feeling and of consciousness.”) Throughout, we encounter James at his most expansive and ingratiating, as likely to disarm with a joke about his weight as he is with the arresting phrase “New York state of mind” (casually deployed in 1913, sixty-some years before Billy Joel).

But don’t just take our word for it. Two appreciations, available online, serve as helpful introductions to these books while also making a persuasive case for why they deserve to be rediscovered in the twenty-first century.

The more recent is Adam Gopnik’s review of Autobiographies this month in The New Yorker, in which he declares, “For freshness of voice, firmness of purpose . . . and general delight on the page, the memoirs are fully alive to the contemporary reader.” Gopnik’s praise subsequently includes the pull-quote of every Jamesian’s dreams: “Henry can be extremely funny.”

We’re also pleased to direct readers to an earlier consideration of A Small Boy and Others by the late Library of America cofounder Richard Poirier, originally published in the London Review of Books in 2002 and now available on the Guardian website. Prompted by a standalone 2001 reprint of the book, Poirier finds A Small Boy and Others “conceptually and stylistically . . . one of James’s most audacious, charming, and puzzling works.” Read for yourself to learn why “puzzling” is one of Poirier’s encomiums; for our part, we’ll add that his essay offers the provocative suggestion that “the book is to be read as a work of fiction, composed entirely to suit [James] himself.”

As a final enticement to the curious, it’s worth noting that both Gopnik and Poirier allude to some striking affinities—as well as some distinct differences, to be sure—between A Small Boy and Others and Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way, another high-style literary foray into the workings of time and memory that appeared in 1913.

Watch Library of America’s website in the weeks ahead for further material on Autobiographies and on the upcoming centennial of James’s death.

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