Frank Harris

Year: 
1970

In this volume Robert Brainard Pearsall, an American academic and author, gave us the only literary biography of Harris to be published to date. By concentrating on Harris' literary output, rather than the often exaggerated - not least by Harris himself - details of his life, Pearsall does much to help us arrive at that elusive perspective, a balanced view of the man.

The great bulk of Harris' writing has been generally neglected since he died. From time to time over the years a volume or two of his short stories have appeared, but the only piece of his fiction currently in print is The Bomb. This is a great shame because, as Pearsall makes clear, Harris' early stories stand up well beside those of many of his contemporaries. Despite his roguish reputation, he was a writer of sensitivity and subtlety, with a deceptively plain prose style which hardly seems dated at all, despite the passage of nearly a century.

Pearsall reviews almost all of Harris' published works, as well as giving some biographical background. Unfortunately he was writing before the publication of Pullar's authoritative life, so some of the 'facts' are a little inaccurate - he gives Harris' birth year as 1855, and states that Nellie and Harris were married in 1898, a mere 29 years too early. These slips are not important - the strength of this book lies in its uniquely comprehensive survey of Harris' literary output, which for those of us engaged in collecting his books provides an invaluable guide.

One of Pearsall's more endearing traits is that unlike the majority of earlier biographers "the more [he] learned about Harris, the better [he] liked him". Where Harris is guilty of boasting or being rather careless with the truth, Pearsall simply quotes the relevant passage and leaves it to the reader to judge; but on those occasions when Harris exhibited a virtue, Pearsall unhesitatingly points it out. I have no doubt that Pearsall felt he was redressing the balance against those like Brome, Kingsmill and Hesketh Pearson who had painted Harris in various shades of villainy.

Here is part of Pearsall's final summation of Harris's literary standing:-

... Harris's ultimate claim in literature will be of the literary kind. On the basis of a few early volumes of Contemporary Portraits, Bemard Shaw called him "a greater Plutarch.' The publication of a full text of My Life and Loves by the Grove Press in 1963 entitled him to be regarded as a greater Suetonius. As Seymour Kahn has properly stated, "Here are brilliantly clear literary snapshots . . . in a sharply natural, contemporary light. Because of Harris's fantastic initiative as a catalyst between people and a bridge to events that would otherwise have been unlinked, his personal story becomes inseparable from the world's story, circa 1880-1920, which he actually helped make happen. We are given a scope of significant experience on a history-making level that is like nothing else conceived during this period." Center creates cohesion, and the admission of My Life and Loves to ordinary libraries must bring form into the literary view of Harris. As one by one these volumes come back into print, Harris's miscellaneous books find place around the autobiography much as was suggested by Wordsworth in his image of a "gothick Cathedral." The republication of the hundred-odd Contemporary Portraits will soften and complete his wonderful pageant of a'half century of Western civilization. His pioneering insistence that sex is as indispensably part of literature as it is part of life gives him a considerable socio-literary stature. Beyond that will be seen his tender and perceptive spirit, his marvelously developed curiosity, and his insatiable thirst for the incidents of human stress and nobility.

This is a little treasure, recommended strongly to all Harrisians. Out of print, but it regularly turns up at such sources as Bibliofind, Abe Books or Amazon.com's zShops.