- 1 Henry James refers to the lines on Shakespeare’s tomb at Stratford-on-Avon: “Blest be ye man yt sp (...)
My sole wish is to frustrate as utterly as possible the post-mortem exploiter — which, I know, is most imperfectly possible. Still, one can do something, and I have long thought of launching, by a provision in my will, a curse not less explicit than Shakespeare’s own on any such as try to move my bones.1 Your question determines me definitely to advert the matter in my will — that is to declare my utter and absolute abhorrence of any attempted biography or the giving to the world by “the family”, or by any person for whom my disapproval has any sanctity, of any part or parts of my private correspondence. (Letters 4, Appendix, 806)
1This was Henry James’s statement, in a letter-response to his nephew Harry, early in 1910. Fortunately, no such curse was found in his will, much to the relief of scholars and editors who could proceed after his death to publish and study his letters.
2Undoubtedly one of the most prolific letter writers, Henry James is said to have written more than 15,000 letters (to over 1,000 individuals), of which less than one third are in print today. A diachronic approach to the process shows that there were three stages to the history of the publication of his correspondence during the past century. Richard Hocks considers that any history reveals, “as time continues and closure is deferred”, “its inevitable fragmentation” (20). It is then in the spirit of fragmentation that I will analyze the publication history of Henry James’s letters through a presentation of the three stages or periods mentioned above and of the elements upon which these divisions were based. It might be then appropriate to move on to a brief evaluation of the way James’s letters were received in the twentieth century, a perspective that would help to sketch, by way of conclusion, the proposal of a reading proper to the epistolary genre.
3The first period to be considered spans from James’s death to the late 1950s: a forty¬year period relatively fertile in James-letter publishing. It begins with the two-volume collection The Letters of Henry James, edited in 1920 by Percy Lubbock, commissioned after James’s death to edit the letters available at that time. Yet, many of them were truncated copies and the entire editing process was “controlled” and censured by the James family. Moreover, many important letters did not come out until after the publication, which made new efforts necessary in editing James’s correspondence. However, the edition, along with other posthumous writings, “did its job”, it made the Master “available to posterity — at a time when his reputation sank to its lowest point” (Letters 1, xx). There are some other collections of letters edited in this period (most of them private and printed in limited editions by their possessors), such as the letters to Walter Berry (1928), to A. C. Benson and Auguste Monod (1930), to the actress Elizabeth Robins and her friend Lady Bell (1932), to R. L. Stevenson, (1948), and to William Roughead (in William Roughead: Tales of the Criminous — 1956). The period culminates with the publication by Leon Edel of a volume of Selected Letters of Henry James (New York: 1955, London: 1956).
4In spite of the increasing necessity of publishing the (this time “consistent”) letters that continuously came to light, the forty-year period that followed (until the late 1980’s), did not witness the inscription of many names on the list of James letter publishers. The situation remained unchanged even after two particular events that occurred in 1943: the celebration of Henry James’s centenary, which increased the general interest in his work and drew the attention of a new generation of scholars to the writer, and also the donation of the James manuscripts to the Harvard University by his nephew Harry James. The material was deposited in the Houghton Library, supposedly to facilitate scholars’ access to the documents.
- 2 For reasons of brevity, I decided to limit myself to studying the publication in book form.
- 3 Robert F. Sayre, The Examined Self: Benjamin Franklin, Henry Adams, Henry James, 1964; George Mont (...)
5However, except for Leon Edel’s four volumes: Henry James: Letters (1975 — two volumes, 1981, 1987) and several journal articles,2 revealing some unpublished letters, the mentioned period didn’t see in print any other collection of letters. There were just a few books that included Henry James letters mainly with a biographical purpose3 and there was only one translation: Une amitié littéraire: correspondance et textes (Henry James - R. L. Stevenson) (1987).
6A reconstruction of the circumstances at the time might bring one possible explanation to this. Two sources give us the story; the former is to be found in Leon Edel’s Introduction to his first volume of Letters (1975), and the latter in Pierre Walker’s article which tries to restore the facts on the basis of Edel’s correspondence with the Paul Reynolds literary agency, empowered by Harry James towards the middle of the century to manage the family literary matters.
7In the late 40’s and early 50’s, Leon Edel emerged as “the uncontested dean of James studies” (Hocks, 8). He had been given by Harry James, as he himself put it, “all possible acceptance and access to the family papers”. He was permitted to examine the family archive, “thousands of letters and other papers” (at the time when it was still deposited in the basement of the Widener Library), seven years before it was given to Harvard, and it is he who found “the composition books” later edited as James’s Notebooks (Letters 1, xxx). In the early 50’s, Edel envisaged the publication of several volumes of letters, destined to be “complementary to the notebooks and supplementary to Lubbock” (xxxi). But the decision to write the life of Henry James forced him to postpone the project and limit himself to publishing a small volume of 120 letters: Selected Letters of Henry James, in 1955. However, in 1958, Edel signed a contract with Harvard University Press for a four-volume edition of letters (Walker 280). From this position, Edel began to pose as a “defender” of the interests of the James family and implicitly of the image of Henry James. He described himself as trying to prevent such unhappy experiences as the previous editions, experiences that made the James heirs suspicious and selective in giving further permission for letter publishing. He considered only Lubbock’s edition as decent, although not complete and unrepresentative. As for the other collections published during what I called “the first period”, he described them as trivial and injurious to James’s image. They were trivial, because, he said, they were “insubstantial”, “telephone talk” and they revealed only the social side of the writer. He shared the attitude the nephew Harry James further adopted, permitting only letters “of substance” to be printed and that “only after careful consultation with Lubbock” (Letters 1, xxx). One could infer that Edel dreamed of the same role, that of being the authoritative voice to be consulted further on, as the successor of Lubbock.
8What Edel further did was to write a few letters to the Reynolds agency in order to complain about already printed publications or to try to hinder the publication of works that contained letters or passages of letters of Henry James, claiming that they were unauthorized and thus prejudicial to the family rights. This attitude, however, was rather understood as a dissimulated attempt to “control and limit access to James archival material and to prevent publication by other scholars that would have ‘scooped’ his own ongoing projects” (Walker 280). This perception was not wholly unjustified, since Edel himself had asked Reynolds in a letter to recognize his priority, to protect his edition and refuse publishing permission unless the publication did not harm or anticipate his own volumes (280). Moreover, Edel downplayed the importance of the previous editions in his Introduction: “The few peripheral collections, published since Lubbock, not all authorized, have added minor glimpses of the protean artist. Lubbock’s image of James was set for fifty years” (Letters 1, xxii)—that is until his own edition.
9Edel might have acted like a protector of Henry James and the James family interests; however, the fact that it took him 26 years to complete his edition and that meanwhile he waged a war against all those who tried to do letter-work, had inevitable ominous consequences for James letter publishing during what I called the “second period”. Such attitude also accounts for the almost inexistence of other collections of letters and the favor given to letters quoted in biographical books. Pierre Walker mentions a few examples of collections that either never appeared or came out many years later: for instance, that of George Monteiro, who had prepared and prefaced the complete correspondence between Henry James and Henry Adams twenty years before he could publish it. The incidents Edel provoked had inevitably a long-term, double effect: first, it led to the restriction of scholars’ access to James material at Harvard, and then it “scared enough other scholars and editors away from trying to edit and publish James letters. [...] Thus through his intercession and as a result of taking so long to publish his own edition of letters, Edel did delay the publication of — and thus the wider access to — James letters” (Walker 286). We should add, however, using Edel’s words about Lubbock, that to this day, Edel’s volumes remain the most important collection of Henry James letters in print.
- 4 Henry James and Edith Wharton: Letters: 1900-1915 (Ed. Lyall Powers, 1990); The Correspondence of H (...)
- 5 ‘Pardon My Delay’: Letters from Henry James to Bruce Richmond (Ed. Philip Horne, 1994); ‘Bravest of (...)
10With the last volume of Henry James’s letters published by Edel (Henry James: Selected Letters, 1987), and Edel’s project being now achieved, one may record a period of relative fertility in the publishing of Henry James’s correspondence, as the surprisingly numerous collections of letters published during this “third” period indicate. Thus, starting with Rayburn Moore’s Selected Letters of Henry James to Edmund Gosse (1988), hardly a year has elapsed without the publication of one or several volumes of letters. Most of them, with a view to bringing to light aspects of a particular relationship, contain the extant exchange of letters between Henry James and one of his notable correspondents.4 There are also complete collections of letters from Henry James to one or several addressees.5 In 1999, Philip Horne issued a selection of letters (Henry James: a Life in Letters), of which more than a half had not been previously published.
11The late years also marked the publication of Henry James’s letters in the non-Anglophone Europe, mainly by translations in French and Italian: Lettres à sa famille, Paris, 1995 (translated by Diane de Margerie and Anne Rolland); Lettres: 1900-1915, edited by Lyall H. Powers, Paris, 2000; Lettere da Palazzo Barbaro, Lettere 1869—1907, con alcune lettere di D.S., A., R. Curtis. Milan, 1989; Amato ragazzo: Lettere a Hendrik C. Andersen, 1899—1915, edited by Rosella Mamoli Zorzi, Venice, 2000. These are all very valuable contributions to the publishing of Henry James’s letters, since they are complete collections and thus give us a comprehensive perspective on the relationship between James and his correspondents.
12However, a complete edition of the letters has never been published. Leon Edel didn’t even consider the necessity of such an endeavor, as he put it in the Introduction to Letters 1:
The present collection constitutes only a part of the entire corpus. My guiding thought has been that in an age of photo-duplication we no longer need total publication, and in any event, in the case of James, such publication would be difficult, costly, and redundant, certainly out of proportion to the needs of the general reader. Scholars can read for themselves the holographs which today are so easily copied (xxxii).
- 6 Philip Horne calls such an enterprise “a huge undertaking, but one without which the general under (...)
13Nevertheless, nowadays scholars consider a complete collection highly necessary for a better understanding of James.6 Such a dream is becoming a reality with the project, announced in 1997, of the University of Nebraska Press publishing the Complete Letters of Henry James, to be edited by Pierre Walker and Greg Zacharias, and with the first two volumes soon to come out. There also exists a web material containing helpful and exhaustive information on James’s letters, namely the Online Calendar of Henry James Letters by Steven Jobe, completed by A Biographical Register of Henry James’s Correspondents by Susan Gunter. The Calendar provides information on more than 10,400 of Henry James’s letters both published and unpublished.
14It may be relevant to point out that quantity is not the only benefit of the forthcoming edition; “completeness” is also expected to be conveyed through high fidelity in the reproduction from the manuscript. This means that the errors and omissions of the two previous editions of letters will be corrected, but above all that the editors will endeavor to offer all the requisite elements in order to facilitate the reader’s approach to the original, i.e. the manuscript. Greg Zacharias specifies that “both the historical and the material nature of James’s letters inform their meaning and should be remembered when reading edited texts of the letters. A letter has a materiality that locates it in history and provides a context for its meaning” (222). The editors will consequently reproduce the misspellings, underlinings, and all sorts of alterations in the edited text, so that when consulting it, readers can get as close as possible to the original document. Such was not the editorial point of view thirty or even eighty years ago, although James himself had deplored such truncation and distortion in printed correspondence: “one has the vague sense of omissions … one smells the thing unprinted” (Letters 1, xxxiii). However, Percy Lubbock, adapting himself to the James family’s wish to protect the Master’s intimacy, had published many truncated letters, and most of the time the originals were not available to him. As for Edel, he tried to reproduce from originals and give full-length letters as often as possible, but he considered that all such details as the above mentioned should be eliminated in order to give the printed edition the aspect of a proper book: “it seems to me when letters are translated from handwriting to print, they should be edited to be read as one reads books: with an avoidance of brackets and an economy of footnotes. The & should certainly read ‘and’, and all abbreviations and shortcuts of hasty writing deserve to be spelled out”. He moreover rises against what he calls “the ‘immoderate’ use of the bracketed sic, or the reproduction of obvious spelling mistakes anyone might make when writing in a hurry” (xxxv).
15All this constant preoccupation with quality in publishing Jamesian letters, along with the considerable amount of publications recorded so far, could only reinforce the immense prestige the literary man enjoyed throughout the past century. However, there is another aspect, of no less importance than the statistical analysis of data, that we should not leave aside when dealing with the reception of such a corpus: the status these letters achieved, i.e. the point of view from which they were approached by literary critics. An evaluation of the reception of James’s published letters might also prove interesting in so far as it can provide an answer to a natural question of the contemporary reader: “Why should we read James’s letters today?”
16On the whole, the numerous essays, articles and books containing letters of Henry James put forward two facets of the reception of his correspondence. First of all, the century witnessed the shared interest of the scholarly readers of Henry James in the biographical details of his epistolary work, with a view to gaining insight into his life, to revealing new aspects of the man. The letters were thus regarded as a priceless material that supplements, for instance, the autobiographical works. Examples may be picked up at random to illustrate this critical approach: for instance, in Robert Sayre’s “The Examined Self”, letters from Henry James to Henry Adams are a complementary source to the Adams Autobiography, but they also fulfill an explanatory function for works like James’s Autobiography, William Wetmore Story and His Friends, etc. Leon Edel also uses the letters as one of the main sources in the five volumes on The Life of Henry James. In a companion to reading Henry James, the letters “are edited with the intention of illustrating the novelist’s life from the moment when his autobiographical notes fail us” (Pelham 199). Similarly, the reviews of the four volumes of Edel’s Henry James letters published in journals like Modern Age: A Quarterly Review or Times Literary Supplement estimate the importance of the letters almost exclusively from a biographical point of view.
17A second critical approach, in close connection with the biographical one, tackles the relation between James’s correspondence and his fiction under several aspects: for instance, the letters relate the story of the gestation and elaboration of his creations; they also constitute a privileged space where the writer expresses his own conceptions on the “art of fiction”; and they enlighten aspects from the works of fiction, etc. Henry James himself, reviewing Colvin’s edition of the letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, envisaged the relation of a writer’s life to art in general as well as to his “art of fiction” as a possible reason for the letters:
Had I space to treat myself to a clue for selection from the whole record, there is nothing I should better like it to be than a tracking of his “literary opinions” and literary projects, the scattered swarm of his views, sympathies, antipathies, obiter dicta, as an artist — his flurries and fancies, imaginations, evocations, quick infatuations, as a teller of possible tales.
18The author’s “method” is also something important to be looked for in the letters, as well as “the congruity between the manner of his feeling a fable in the germ and that of his afterward handling it,” James continues (70). Edith Wharton, in an article called “The Man of Letters” (published by Leon Edel in Henry James: A Collection of Critical Essays), quotes from James’s letters to literary correspondents in order to reveal his preoccupation with subject and form. In Henry James and the Naturalist Movement, Lyall H. Powers also quotes from letters in the archives of the Palazzo Rucellai in Florence, with a view to illustrating “the changes in James’s art of fiction due to the influence of realist and naturalist writers” (2). The same interest is evident in the most recent works on James. As Philip Horne affirms in the Introduction to Henry James: a Life in Letters, “The best reason for reading literary biography is an interest in a writer’s works, and how they came into being. [...] a thoughtfully presented selection can constitute an involving narrative — a narrative of passionate creation” (xiii).
19James’s correspondence has thus become a fully acknowledged, representative documentary corpus. Biographers and critics use it continuously and consistently as a repository of biographical data, mainly with two purposes: either to elucidate some particularities of the author’s life, or to help them clarify certain aspects of his works of fiction. Such a reading, however, poses a danger of limitation in reading the fiction. Yet letters can have an intrinsic literary value in another sense. Apart from a few general considerations made by Edel in an introductive essay, hardly any attention was ever paid to the letters as a literary work in itself. Notwithstanding that James himself considered good letters “the most delightful of all written things” and that he claimed he was ready to grant a correspondence that had “the real charm”[...], “all the glory of the greatest literature” (Letters 4, 123).
20The reader will be first and foremost enchanted by the beauty of expression, the elegance of the ideas, the exquisite texture, the distinctive and distinguished tone of the letters; it is then regrettable that almost no attempt was made to bring such facets of James’s style into light. Edel’s Introduction to the Selected Letters of Henry James is intended to incite the critic to undertake the adventure. If his subsequent commitment to giving James’s work its full dimension did not allow Edel to further develop thorough studies on the subject, his introductory remarks may be taken as an invitation for those who would be interested to take on such work. Let me therefore further try to call attention to the arguments for a third possible way of approaching Henry James, namely via his epistolary style.
21No doubt that letters have first of all a practical aim, as they are written to friends or family in order to compensate for their absence. This leads to the conclusion that James’s letters were written out of love — certainly, love for his friends, but, just like Flaubert’s “love” letters to Louise Colet (Beizer 59), written out of the love of letters. Thus, the epistolary practice was an exercise for James, an agreeable exercise of style and imagination, which he fulfilled as a ritual: “In the good old world one’s mornings are sacred — that is my letter-writing time” (Letters 2, 366). At a tender age, James showed (as his early letters prove), a certain preoccupation with the letter writing craft, which converted later into “an aesthetic concern with the genius of this genre” (Maini 358). While he was writing his correspondence, he was very serious and “highly self-conscious, as if some ideal normative reader were looking over his shoulder” (359). When someone is looking over one’s shoulder, the natural tendency is, firstly, to display a rigorousness of style, and secondly to avoid mentioning intimate details, feelings or interior experiences. After all, James must have imagined that his letters were to be seen by the public eye sooner or later, or at least he might have fancied that his friends would not have the courage or desire to burn their letters as he did. The discreetness of James’s letters led Edel to the conclusion that maybe the fundamental letters of his life — the intimate ones — were never written. Edel insists on the fact that the letters “tell us little about his art and indeed very little about the man who wrote them save that he possessed a verbal magic” (Selected Letters xvii). Thus, although the letters reveal his life to a much lesser extent than we could expect, they do reflect his artistic nature: “Long before the end, it had become second nature with him to clothe the innocuous small-change of letter-writing in the vestments of literature” (xvi). Even the most common business letter or the shortest note was touched “by the mind and the imagination” of the writer. James expected the same from his correspondents. He demanded that their letters should be well-written (he always thanked in the opening those who had sent him a “very good letter”) and that they should eventually develop noble ideas. He also used to protest against letters which kept to general and trivial subjects. The following phrase is repeated, with slight variations, to several addressees, at different moments: “I complain of you that you will never write to me save of the weather — as if you had just been introduced to me at an evening party” (Letters 2, 322).
22Manner and matter had therefore to be brilliant; and when there were no ideas whatsoever to communicate, the style had to compensate for and cleverly and skillfully dissimulate such a failing. For “Henry James was incapable of offering a thought without pinning a flower in its button-hole and the reverse of this was that he could disguise the absence of thought by a shameless gilding of his verbal lilies” (Edel, Selected Letters, xvi).
23However, such was not the case with all his correspondents, for James wrote discriminately: when addressing his close friends and relatives, he generally used a simple and direct style; on the contrary, the persons for whom he had less affection, the intruders, the embarrassing, the dull and uninteresting ones were, with few exceptions, those who were granted a lapful of exquisite “lilies” in well-polished, elaborated letters.
24I will take only one illustrative example of the whimsical way James used to dupe some of his correspondents. The novel-writer Mary Ward used to ask Henry James to read her novels and eventually review them, which he would find difficult to refuse, although he considered her mediocre as a writer and “strangely stupid” as a woman (A Life in Letters 426). “I have written no article on Mrs. Humphry Ward”, he wrote in a letter, “only a civil perfunctory payé (with worlds between the lines) to escape the gracelessness of refusing when asked” (Letters 3, 405). He is “epistolarily” related to the mentioned lady by a web of amiable words the sense of which proves to be difficult to discern, were there not for a few letters (to other correspondents) which perform a paratextual role. For instance, Henry James informs Edith Wharton that he is to spend a couple of days at Mrs. Ward’s, and that he hasn’t yet read the novel she has proposed as a subject of discussion. He has therefore to find an un-offending way to explain this to Mrs. Ward: “I have had practically to tell her that all power to read her has abandoned me — though I have put it as the power to read any fiction.” (A Life in Letters 420). Here is what he wrote to her:
I find, myself, as I go on, that I can’t read new fiction, and am lost in wonder at the strange law that condemns me to write it — and to assume, to that extent, a reading of the same by others — unlike myself! [...] the disposition to read [...] — that is the inability of reading — has become in me almost a malady and a mania [...] Likewise I think it heroic of you to plough through the Golden Bowl which nothing could have induced me to do if I hadn’t been its author [...] (Letters 3, 415).
25As for James’s critical opinions on her novels, they appear most of the time extremely well dissimulated under the veil of subtle ironies: “The whole thing is delicate and distinguished, and the reader has the pleasure and security of feeling that he is with a woman (distinctly with a woman!) who knows how (rare bird!) to write” (58).
26He so dazzles his addressee by means of dashes, commas, parentheses and underlining and of his badinage on the whole, that the final impression one gets is that of a bizarre discourse whose real meaning is overlooked. Actually, all his verbal plethora is an ingenious subterfuge he crafted in order to put it un-bluntly that Mrs. Ward’s novel has too many imperfections for someone to possibly resolve them all in a letter:
I just rudely and egotistically thrust forward the beastly way I should have done it. But there is too much to say about these things — and I am writing too much — and yet haven’t said half I want to — and, above all, there being so much, it is doubtless better not to attempt to say pen in hand what one can say but so partially (Letters 4, 111).
27He is all but innocently playing with her own naïveté; he cunningly enjoys weaving around her a labyrinth of sparkling words, dazzling constructions, affectionate banter and faint sarcasm. That is to say that James would by no means allow himself to remain dry even before the most anodyne of subjects. Every letter deserves a non-conventional response and he would consequently always look for a fresh, original way of expressing things. “To use the ready-made was as disgraceful as for a self-respecting cook to buy a tinned soup or a sauce in a bottle”, he says, referring to Flaubert’s horror of clichés in letters (Critical Muse 310).
28The desired effect is thus successfully obtained and the victim is lost in the labyrinth: Mrs. Ward considered the letters “so flattering that she reproduced them in later prefaces — much to James’s embarrassment” (Selected Letters xxv).
29These considerations may lead to the conclusion that James’s epistolary language is a ruse, a stratagem, a real challenge for today’s reader, not lesser than it must have been for the envisaged addressees. Hence, a perceptive examination of the Jamesian style might open up revelatory vistas for those in search of fresh perspectives of the man and his work. Something like a reading between the lines, eagerly expected to shed more light onto the Master, who was in writing and speech, as he declared himself, “interminably supersubtle and analytic”, and who openly defied anyone who would attempt to find “the figure in the carpet” of his texts: “Nothing is my last word about anything. [...] It will take a much cleverer person than myself to discover my last impression — among all these things — of anything” (Letters 2, 221).