Henry James Letters (Magill's Literary Annual 1981)
All dead letters fascinate the voyeur in us: secretly we eavesdrop on the past, and the stilled tongues speak. When the letters of the famous appear in print, we expect famous secrets. Indeed, some writers, such as D. H. Lawrence, have left us the autobiography they neglected to write. Do not expect as much from the Henry James letters. His secrets are small and the biography partial at best, and typically evasive. Where some writers remove their masks in letters, James continually changes his, for he has as many disguises as he has correspondents: James the brother, the traveler, the platonic lover; James the friend, the acquaintance, the haughty stranger; James the literary agent and playwright; James the bachelor and weekend guest; and masking all other masks, James the master craftsman and professional observer. Were he alive to read his own collected letters, James would use them to write a novel about the harried writer whose correspondence and social obligations became his art form.
Carefully edited, indexed, and footnoted by his biographer, Leon Edel, this third volume of the James letters covers a transition period via the theater from his middle period to his late period. One would do well to have the multi-volume Edel biography close at hand, for many of the generous footnotes refer the reader to specific sections of that work. No one but Edel had the working knowledge of James’s life so necessary to edit the letters. The footnotes are always informative and yet never intrude.
During the years 1883-1895, marked by financial necessity and personal grief, James wrote two long novels and what may be his finest novella—The Aspern Papers. Throughout the period he turned out remarkable short stories for a steadily shrinking commercial market. In March, 1890, Macmillan made James a somewhat paltry offer of only seventy pounds for The Tragic Muse, explaining that James’s recent books had not been financially successful. James, hurt and not a little haughty, replied: “Unless I can put the matter on a more remunerative footing all round I shall have to give up my English ’market’ . . . and confine myself to my American.” Eight months later he experienced a further shock of recognition when Atlantic Monthly returned “The Pupil” as not suited to its needs. Although James was able to say that “the sense of a mistake is a still more fertilizing excitement than that of a success,” this rejection by his steadiest American magazine publisher redoubled the lesson from Macmillan. James could not help but see himself caught between two camps without firm footing in either: dire straits for a man dependent upon his pen for life support. The year 1890, therefore, was a turning point in his career, one worth closer observation.
That he was no longer in vital touch with his American audience was made even clearer in May of 1890, when he read William Dean Howells’ latest novel, A Hazard of New Fortunes. James rejoiced in its variety and its realism, in its characters and conflicts. Between the lines of his praise, however, one senses a certain chagrin. Here was the American novel which he was no longer capable of writing. Not only had he lost touch with his Boston roots, but his well there had also gone dry. The heart of American fiction had moved to New York. The drawing room was no longer its center; Washington Square had become historical fiction. Only two years earlier he had taken pride in his style, about which “it would be impossible to an outsider to say whether I am . . . an American writing about England or an Englishman writing about America.” This ambiguity he thought “highly civilized.” In 1890, however, James realized that he could no longer afford such “civilized” style. With his American audience no longer available, he could not afford to abandon his English market. To Howells, he admitted that “America fades from me, and as she never trusted me at best, I can trust her, for effect, no longer.” The rejected, aging, cautious suitor was being eclipsed in America by a generation of new authors for whom he had been godfather. In 1890, James, in effect, became an Englishman, and America lost its major literary personage.
America’s loss was not England’s immediate gain, for James turned to the theater to mend his fortunes. Building dream castles on the possibility of successful London plays, James hoped to establish a guaranteed income that would allow him to write his more serious fiction. Although he assured his literate friends that money was his motive, he approached the stage with the same meticulous seriousness he brought to his fiction. In 1891, the stage adaptation of The American was successful enough to spur his ambition. Opening night found him seated anxiously in the wings from whence he would “dash out and embrace everyone in the entractes.” Jubilantly, he wrote Robert Louis Stevenson that he had found his real form, “that for which pale fiction is an ineffectual substitute.” The whole dream crumbled rather cruelly at his very feet when his next major effort, Guy Domville, opened in London. The first night audience so despised the performance that when James appeared for his author’s bow at the final curtain, he was hooted and booed off the stage. The experience left him “weary,...
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Henry James Letters (Magill's Literary Annual 1985)
Without too severe an exaggeration it may be alleged that the Henry James posterity has come to know best is the James of the years covered by the fourth and final volume of Leon Edel’s edition of his letters. It was during his last two decades that James began his residence at Lamb House in Rye, started to compose by dictating to a typist, discovered the joys of motoring with his new friend Edith Wharton, and returned after many years to his native land for a visit that resulted in The American Scene (1907). This span includes also that astonishing burst of creativity that produced three major novels, The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904), in a three-year period during which the novelist turned sixty, and his New York Edition, for which he rewrote a number of his tales and novels and—more important—wrote the celebrated prefaces to each volume.
Thus, the period from 1895 to 1916 is the time of the mature Jamesian style, with its convolutions, qualifications, and subtleties. Indeed, this volume shows James exercising his famous style in much of his correspondence, especially in letters to highly literary and literate recipients. Not at all unusual is one sentence in a letter to H. G. Wells that contains in its seventy-three words—not long for a Jamesian sentence—three parentheses, five dashes, and four italicized (that is, underlined) words. On the other hand, his letters to Burgess Noakes, his houseboy and later valet, when the latter was serving in World War I, are admirably clear and direct.
Under the pressure of an idea or a relationship seen in its complexity, however, James threw simplicity to the winds, and these letters supply fresh anecdotes of James, the circuitous and exasperating. Witness three letters to Alvin Langdon Coburn, the young photographer chosen to illustrate the New York Edition. During a four-day period, James first gives elaborate directions to a certain indispensable Venetian palazzo, then, a day later, informs Coburn that a photograph of the building will not be needed, and finally, two days later yet, decides to send Coburn to Venice after all—meanwhile directing him to similarly vital haunts in New York and London. In the latter city James required for his story “In the Cage” a grocer’s shop on a corner with an enclosed telegraph office, which he assured Coburn would be “rather amusing to hunt for.”
There are also several examples of James’s semiapologies to publishers for stories that had mushroomed far beyond their originally projected length, and a reply to brother William, the psychologist, who had recommended that Henry’s next book contain “no psychological commentaries” and “an absolute straightness in style.” James had not the slightest intention of curbing his expansiveness or agreeing to his brother’s request; his simpler style now positively displeased him, and only with much revision could such early novels as The American (1877) and The Portrait of a Lady (1881) be admitted to the James canon, as established in the New York Edition. Whereas this imposition of his late style on earlier novels has given pause to a number of critics, James’s letters to Charles Scribner’s Sons show that he entertained no doubt of the utter rightness of this endeavor. This was the James who came to find even Leo Tolstoy deficient in “composition, selection, and style.”
It is impossible to dwell on James’s foibles, however, without noting how they inhere in the utter seriousness of his devotion to his art. It must be remembered that the very title of his essay “The Art of Fiction” (1884) seemed novel and presumptuous a century ago, and that even those who, like Guy de Maupassant and Gustave Flaubert, shared his convictions about the dignity of storytelling, had not ventured critical essays on the matter. The novel became a respected literary genre because of the efforts of Henry James and a few others.
The critical comments of the letters are, as might be expected, more scattered, sketchy, and informal than those in writing intended for publication, but James’s habit of candid response to the latest efforts of his literary friends is nevertheless illuminating, exemplifying his conviction of the intimate relationship between criticism and appreciation. Wanting to appreciate the books which proud authors sent to him, he felt obliged first of all to scrutinize them with a severe eye—as if he were writing them himself, he tells them on a number of occasions. Not surprisingly, James could be most severe with close friends. Hugh Walpole endured much correction at the master’s hand, but it appears that sculptor Hendrik Andersen chafed under James’s persistent efforts to remake his artistic vision and eventually ceased responding to his affectionate tormentor. Edith Wharton is battered rather less than some, but James did not hesitate to express his reservations about so distinguished a novel as The House of Mirth (1905): “better written than composed,” he told her.
James’s critical quarrels with George Bernard Shaw and with Wells demonstrate the critical assumptions underlying his art-for-art’s-sake and their art-for-society’s-sake, which from James’s viewpoint came close to meaning no art at all. A 1909 letter from Shaw explaining a theatrical society’s rejection of James’s one-act play The Saloon (first performed in 1911)...
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Bibliography (Magill's Literary Annual 1981)
Kirkus Reviews. LII, January 1, 1984, p. 32.
The New Republic. CXC, May 7, 1984, p. 32.
The New York Review of Books. XXXI, July 19, 1984, p. 39.
The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, April 15, 1984, p. 3.
The New Yorker. LX, August 20, 1984, p. 90.
Newsweek. CIII, April 9, 1984, p. 102.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXIV, December 23, 1983, p. 49.
Times Literary Supplement. May 18, 1984, p. 543.
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