Cover of volume one of Leon Edel's five-volume biography of Henry James, Avon Books paperback edition 1978
Joseph Leon Edel (9 September 1907 – 5 September 1997) was a North American literary critic and biographer. He was the elder brother of North American philosopher Abraham Edel.
The Encyclopædia Britannica calls Edel "the foremost 20th-century authority on the life and works of Henry James." His work on James won him both a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize.
Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Edel grew up in Yorkton, Saskatchewan. He attended McGill University and the Université de Paris. While at the former he was associated with the Montreal Group of modernist writers, which included F.R. Scott and A.J.M. Smith, and with them founded the influential McGill Fortnightly Review. Edel taught English and American literature at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia University, 1932–1934), New York University (1960–1972), and at University of Hawaii at Manoa (1972–1978). For the academic year 1965-1966, he was a Fellow on the faculty at the Center for Advanced Studies of Wesleyan University.
Though he wrote on James Joyce (James Joyce: The Last Journey, 1947) and on the Bloomsbury group, his lifework is summed up in his five-volume biography of Henry James (Henry James: A Biography 1953–1972). Edel discussed the notion of biography in Literary Biography (1957), in particular his conviction that literary biography should enfold a subjective author's self-perceptions into his output. Edel's second and third volumes of the James biography earned him a Pulitzer Prize for Biography and a National Book Award for Nonfiction in 1963. Edel enjoyed privileged access to letters and documents from James' life housed in the Widener Library at Harvard University, after gaining the blessing of members of James' family.
The discovery of impassioned but inconclusive letters written in 1875–1876 by James to the Russian aristocrat Paul Zhukovski, while Edel was deep in the process of finishing his biography caused an ethical crisis; his decision was to continue to ignore what he considered a peripheral aspect of the self- identified "celibate" and sexually diffident James's life. Edel did treat James's relationships with novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson and sculptor Hendrik Christian Andersen at length, especially in volumes three and four of the biography. After weighing all the evidence, Edel confessed that he was unable to decide whether James experienced a consummated sexual relationship. Although later scholarship and new materials have called into question the accuracy of his portrait of James, Edel's work remains an important source for studies of the author.
- "A biography seems irrelevant if it doesn't discover the overlap between what the individual did and the life that made this possible. Without discovering that, you have shapeless happenings and gossip." — Leon Edel
- Henry James: The Untried Years 1843–1870 (1953)
- Literary Biography (1957)
- Henry James: The Conquest of London 1870–1881 (1962) ISBN 0-380-39651-3
- Henry James: The Middle Years 1882–1895 (1962) ISBN 0-380-39669-6
- Henry James: The Treacherous Years 1895–1901 (1969) ISBN 0-380-39677-7
- Henry James: The Master 1901–1916 (1972) ISBN 0-380-39677-7
- A Bibliography of Henry James: Third Edition (1982) (with Dan Laurence and James Rambeau) ISBN 1-58456-005-3
- Henry James Literary Criticism — Essays on Literature, American Writers, English Writers (1984) (editor, with Mark Wilson) ISBN 0-940450-22-4
- Henry James Literary Criticism — French Writers, Other European Writers, The Prefaces to the New York Edition (1984) (editor, with Mark Wilson) ISBN 0-940450-23-2
- Writing Lives: Principia Biographica (1984) ISBN 0-393-01882-2
- The Complete Plays of Henry James (1990) (editor) ISBN 0-19-504379-0
- The Visitable Past: A Wartime Memoir (2000) ISBN 0-8248-2431-8
- Writing Lives: Principia Biographica - briefly noted in The New Yorker 60/49 (21 January 1985) : 94