Jessa Crispin from Bookslut considers the new book on Henry James from Michael Gorra:
The problem with writing about Henry James is that everything has already been written. That is one reason more people are writing about Henry James the person these days — Henry James the homosexual, Henry James the virgin, Henry James the pederast, Henry James the impotent — than Henry James the writer. What could possibly be left to say about Henry James the writer? It has all been laid out, his novels, his theatre work, his stories, his essays have all been picked apart. He is The Master. He possessed genius unparalleled in his time. The end.
Every time I think I am having an original thought about Henry James it turns out I am mistaken. Those precise, twisted father-daughter relationships in Washington Square andThe Golden Bowl, that is … oh really? 2,512 results on Questia already? Well, how about that section in The Tragic Muse when … okay, well fine. I guess I’ll just fuck off then.
So I do not envy Michael Gorra’s task of trying to find a new way to write about Henry James and his beloved Portrait. His biography of that work, Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece, tries to avoid many of the pitfalls of biography, and Henry James’s biography in particular. For the most part, he leaves James’s willy out of the conversation, and that is a relief. And he is aware enough to largely avoid the biographer’s weakness for trying to find real life counterparts for every fictional character, or echoes of imaginative incidents in the writer’s personal experiences. He wisely admits the limitations of such an approach, writing, “Searching for some putative original allows us to see what was in fact created; the difference between the fictional page and the gravel of documentary truth can stand as a guide to artistic practice.” When Gorra does go looking for the gravel of documentary truth, he is looking mostly at the cities and places that housed James and his creativity as he worked on his book.