Text: J. Gerald Kennedy, “Jeffrey Aspern and Edgar Allan Poe: A Speculation,” Poe Studies, June 1973, Vol. VI, No. 1, 6:17-18


[page 17:]

Jeffrey Aspern and Edgar Allan Poe: A Speculation

Duke University

While much of the critical discussion of Henry James’s The Aspern Papers ( 1888) has dealt with the shifting relationships between the three major characters, little has been said about the homme manqué of the work — Jeffrey Aspern. James’s well-known notebook entry of January 12,1887, coupled with his preface for the New York edition, comprises a credible account of the origin of the tale, and we have come to accept the explanation that James has transported Lord Byron to the New World as a means of “covering one’s tracks.” (1) Yet there has always been something incongruous about Aspern’s nationality, at least for historically minded readers. One surveys the period in question for an American prototype, a Romantic poet of similar repute who was writing lyric verses in the 1820’s; the name which suggests itself most readily is that of Edgar Allan Poe.

A dozen years before he published The Aspern Papers, James publicly blasted Poe as the author of “very valueless verses” in a review of Fleurs du Mall. His condemnation included the charge that to take Poe “with more than a certain degree of seriousness is to lack seriousness one’s self. An enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection” (2). James’s denunciation came only months after a monument to Poe had been raised in Baltimore, an event which elicited tributes from Holmes, Tennyson, and Swinburne, and Mallarme’s sonnet, “Le Tombeau d’Edgar Poe” (3). Esteem for Poe burgeoned in the seventies and eighties, no doubt to the chagrin of James, who must have attributed Poe’s growing reputation to that banality of taste and paucity of culture which in his eyes characterized the American literary scene (4).

It was from such a cultural wasteland that James drew his fictional poet, Jeffrey Aspern. James’s preface to The Aspern Papers suggests that he realized the problems raised by the Americanization of Aspern. He answers “the charge . . . that I foist upon our early American annals a distinguished presence for which they yield me absolutely no warrant” by pointing out that the creation of a “comparative American Byron” places the greatest imaginative distance between the real poet and the fictional one. In both the preface and the novella, James emphasizes the dearth of real artistic talent in America; his reference in the preface to “our lean prime Western period” echoes the narrator’s allusion to “a period when our native land was nude and crude and provincial.” The narrator prizes the poet, in fact, because he transcended his artless environment “to live and write like one of the first; to be free and general and not at all afraid; to feel’ understand, and express everything” (p. 50).

Yet one wonders whether Aspern is really the literary giant the narrator imagines him to be. The reader’s estimation of Aspern is ultimately determined by his conception [column 2:] of the narrator’s function; whether he provides an essentially straightforward view of the past (as Wayne Booth has said) (5), or whether his attitude toward Aspern and the papers reveals the same ineluctable self-deception that typifies his dealings with Juliana Bordereau. The narrator demonstrates by word and action that he is a poor judge of human nature; we might question whether his aesthetic judgment is not similarly fallible (6). Telling evidence of his shortcomings as a critic may be found in his own cliche-ridden celebration of the “divine poet.” Early we are told that Aspern was “one of the most brilliant minds of his day,” that he “hangs high in the heaven of our literature,” that he has become, in short, a “god.” Using heavy-handed religious imagery, the narrator describes himself and John Cumnor, his English associate, as the “ministers” of Aspern’s “temple.” In a phrase which appears to reflect on the benighted attitude of the narrator, Aspern is said to be “a part of the light by which we walk” (pp. 5-6). Such hyperbole gradually produces ironic overtones and suggests that, despite the narrator’s effusive rhetoric, Aspern may simply be a mediocre poet. The narrator’s headlong admiration seems finally to be rhe product of “a decidedly primitive stage of reflection,” while his hero, stripped of the godlike aura by Jamesian irony, comes more and more to resemble the Poe for whom James had unconcealed scorn.

The etymology of Aspern’s name may offer a clue to James’s underlying attitude toward his fictional poet, for it is actually an archaic form of the verb “to spurn” (7). In the figure of Jeffrey Aspern, James manifests his rejection of his culturally barren native land; through the ironically inflated statements of the narrator, he in effect satirizes the poet whose muse “was essentially American.” And this poet, the narrator makes clear, is the best America has to offer. The dead poet might thus be said to serve a symbolic purpose, in that Aspern, like Poe, represented that deplorable deficiency in American culture which led James to expatriation.

Further support for the Aspern-Poe hypothesis comes from quite a different source: a little volume of literary essays by the Boston clergyman, critic, and historian, Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Short Studies of American Authors (8) contains both a memorable sketch of Poe and a largely unfavorable essay on one Henry James, Jr. Higginson, aptly described by Robert Falk as “James’s bête noir “ (9), charged that James’s novels were hastily written, lacked “robust” characters, and reflected an “indifference to careful local coloring, especially where his scene is laid in the United States.” Couched behind the criticism that James had yet to produce “a satisfactory novel” (10) was Higginson’s resentment of the low opinion of American life found in his fiction. Perhaps Higginson also resented the satirical rendering of the Mr. Wentworth in The Europeans (1878), a “tremendously high toned old fellow” whose name had probably not been chosen by accident.

There is little question that James read the Higginson essay, for in a letter to W. D. Howells, dated January 31, 1880, he complained of the “Higginsonian fangs” tearing his sensitive flesh (11). The essay on James is important to the present study, however, principally because it indicates that, in all likelihood, James had seen the article on Poe which appeared in the same collection of sketches. [page 18:] This essay, now valued chiefly for its eyewitness account of Poe’s controversial Boston Lyceum performance (12), may have contributed to The Aspern Papers by providing James with both a portrait of Poe and a vivid description of an aged woman who had once loved the poet. The last paragraph of the essay recounts Higginson’s interviews with Sarah Helen Whitman in phrases strikingly similar to James’s depiction of Juliana Bordereau:

I like best to think of Poe as associated with his betrothed, Sarah Helen Whitman, whom I saw sometimes in her later years. That gifted woman had outlived her early friends and loves and hopes, and perhaps her literary fame, such as it was: she had certainly outlived her recognized ties with Poe, and all but his memory. There she dwelt in her little suite of rooms, bearing youth still in her heart and in her voice, and on her hair also, and in her dress. Her dimly lighted parlor was always decked, here and there, with scarlet; and she sat, robed in white, with her back always turned to the light, thus throwing a discreetly tinted shadow over her still thoughtful and noble face. She seemed a person embalmed while still alive: it was as if she might dwell forever there, prolonging into an indefinite future the tradition of a poet’s love; and when we remembered that she had been Poe’s betrothed, that his kisses had touched her lips, that she still believed in him and was his defender, all criticism might well, for her sake, be disarmed, and her saintly life atone for his stormy and sad career (13).

Whether or not one is prepared to accept this passage as a source for Aspern’s Juliana, a few significant parallels should be noted. Mrs. Whitman’s avoidance of the light (one source says she always wore a veil indoors) (14) and the perpetual shadow over her face correspond to Miss Bordereau’s curious green shade and the “piece of dingy lacelike muslin” (p. 104) which hide her eyes from the narrator until the climactic encounter at the end of Chapter — . Poe’s erstwhile fiancee is further represented as deathlike, “embalmed while still alive”; James’s narrator visualizes a “ghastly death’s head” (p. 23) behind Juliana’s shade. Like the “publishing scoundrel,” Higginson finds the past more visitable by imagining the intimacies that once passed between lovers, though we need not impute to the clergyman the same search for “vicarious eroticism” that William Bysshe Stein sees in the behavior of Aspern’s disciple (15). Finally, in both the passage cited above and the James novella, there is the pervasive sense of a woman’s quiet and steadfast devotion to the memory of a dead poet, a fidelity so strong that it determines the tenor of her remaining years.

To assert that behind the compelling battle of wits delineated in the novella there exists a satirical portrait of Poe is to propound a theory which begs to be challenged. The standard historical interpretation of the work was, after all, submitted by James himself, who thoughtfully identified the figures behind the tale. Yet this may be the best reason we have for re-examining the role of the dead poet, for it raises the question of James’s motive in laying bare in his preface the tracks he had so carefully concealed in the novella. The preface suspiciously ignores Poe, even as it laments the absence of a “lyric genius” and explains the necessity for inventing a major American poet. Moreover, behind the narrator’s ecstatic comments about Jeffrey Aspern we discover a pervasive irony, which calls into question the poet’s real genius. The same disdain for the cultural atmosphere of [column 2:] this “nude and crude and provincial” land which led James to Europe may underlie the creation of his fictional poet. Rather than a “distinguished presence” emerging from an aesthetic vacuum, perhaps the idolized Aspern is no more than a vacuous poet — a poet, James may have thought, very much like Edgar Allan Poe.



(1) Henry James, “Preface,” The Novels and Tales of Henry lames (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1908), — II, xi. All further references to the preface and to The Aspern Papers are to this edition.

(2) The Nation, 22 (April 27, 1876), 280. James felt that Baudelaire was “compromised” by his dedication to Poe.

(3) The event took place on 17 November 1875. See Sara Sigourney Rice, Edgar Allen Poe: A Memorial Volume (Baltimore: Turnbull Brothers, 1877) .

(4) James later modified his opinions on Poe. His Prince Amerigo in The Golden Bowl ( 1904) expresses enthusiasm for The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym; in A Small Boy and Others (1913), James speaks of Poe as an “ill-starred magician,” and in Notes of A Son and Brother ( 1914) he refers somewhat ambiguously to the “Artless Age” of American letters, “as it still might be called in spite of Poe and Hawthorne and Longfellow and Lowell.”

(5) The Rhetoric of Fiction (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1961), p. 361.

(6) Such an interpretation is offered by Robert C. McLean, “Poetic Justice in James’s Aspern Papers,” Papers on Language and Literature, 3 (1967), 266, who notes that the narrator’s “ inability to understand and appreciate people parallels and complements his inability to evaluate art.” Samuel Hux, “Irony in The Aspern Papers: The Unreliable Symbolist,” Ball State University Forum, 10 (1969), 65, draws much the same conclusion, observing that the narrator’s failure to discern in the papers “the symbolic significance of a controlling moral corruption” is proof of his lack of critical insight.

(7) OED, ed. James A. H. Murray et al. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1933), I, 494

(8) (Boston: Shepard and Lee, Publishers, 1880). The six essays in the collection had first appeared in The Literary World. The final article in the series, on James, was published 22 November 1879, only a few days before Short Studies went on sale. Higginson’s prefatory note is dated 1 December 1879 and the volume was advertised in The Literary World for 6 December 1879, along with other Christmas gift editions.

(9) The Victorian Mode in American Fiction 1865-1885 (East Lansing: Michigan State Univ. Press, 1965), p. 93.

(10) Short Studies, pp. 52, 56, 58.

(11) The Letters of Henry James, ed. Percy Lubbock (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1922), 1, 73.

(12) 16 October 1845. Instead of reading a promised new poem, Poe perplexed and angered his audience with a reading of “Al Aaraaf.”

(13) “Poe,” Short Studies, p. 21. James had further access to details of the Poe-Whitman romance in John H. Ingram’s Edgar Allan Poe: His Life, Letters, and Opinions, 2nd ed. (London: W. H. Allen, 1886), pp. 366-387.

(14) William Whitman Bailey, quoted in Caroline Ticknor, Poe’s Helen (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1916), p. 281.

(15)“The Aspern Papers: A Comedy of Masks,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 14(1959),175.


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