The Complete Notebooks of Henry James Analysis

Henry James

The Complete Notebooks of Henry James

ph_0111201229-James.jpg Henry James. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

The Complete Notebooks of Henry James will certainly take its place on the shelves of James scholars, and perhaps of many others seriously interested in American literature and literary history. Its 633 pages of quality paper, bound in thick black boards handsomely gold lettered, will no doubt be squeezed in between other equally impressive tomes, such as the volumes that constitute the New York edition of James’s works, those two dozen or so revisions of his works that Henry James himself shepherded through the press. If the purchaser of this new edition of the notebooks has been truly serious about assembling a “must-have” collection of works by and about this important American author, he is sure to have already on this same shelf more than a dozen books about James which bear a second name—that of Leon Edel.

For half a century, the scholarly world has benefited from Edel’s devotion to James’s life and works. Several editions of James’s novels and stories bear Edel’s imprint. His meticulous scholarship and graceful style have produced a detailed, multivolume edition of James’s letters and an award-winning, four-volume biography. With the distinguished critic Lyall H. Powers, Edel has brought out this new edition of James’s famous notebooks, a work that certainly supplements, and will probably replace, the 1947 edition, The Notebooks of Henry James, edited by F. O. Matthiessen and Kenneth B. Murdock.

The title of this collection is actually somewhat misleading, since the volume contains much more than the title suggests. Less than half of the book is devoted to reproducing the nine notebooks that have survived and are now part of the James papers at the Houghton Library of Harvard University. Included also are detached notes that were discovered with the notebooks; notes for various works with which James struggled during the later years of his life; proposals he submitted to various publishers for some of his works, including his famous “Project for a Novel,” the draft outline of The Ambassadors (1903); the pocket diaries James kept from 1909 until 1915; and his “deathbed dictations.”

Surprisingly, even in a volume of this size, editorial intrusion is slight. Edel and Powers offer separate introductory remarks, the former on the discovery of the notebooks and on James’s method of note taking, the latter on the method of editing. The headnotes to each section sketch out the general content and provide sufficient information to place each notebook biographically. Edel’s essay offers some revealing insights into the way in which James’s changes in his writing style—near the end of the nineteenth century he hired a secretary to take dictation, and he eventually dictated directly to a typist—affected his note taking, changing the notebooks from confidential commentary to more cryptic jottings, often made in his pocket diaries.

Within that portion of the book that reproduces the notebooks and diaries, editorializing is so infrequent that it surprises. For example, remarking on James’s inability to produce a story from notes on which he obviously worked long and hard, the editors observe: “The thing [the story] never did come, probably because of HJ’s [James’s] inherent inability to manage the details of macho male sexuality.” Readers who expect much of this kind of assessment, however, will be disappointed. Instead, James’s comments are left to speak for themselves.

That editorial method seems most appropriate. The nine notebooks themselves are, of course, invaluable as clues to the creative process that underlies James’s work as a writer, and it is on the text itself that the reader’s primary interest is focused. In the first American notebook, one of two that he kept on separate visits to the country he abandoned for the more inspirational shores of Great Britain and the European continent, James writes to himself that he “ought to endeavour to keep, to a certain extent, a record of passing impressions. . . . To catch and keep something of life—that’s what I mean.” At least in the early notebooks, James felt that when he made his entries he was “tak[ing] a sheet of paper, as it were, into my confidence.” As a result, many of these notes read as if they were addressed to another person, one who is alternately addressed as a “dear friend” or “confidante.” The style is often one of direct address.

On occasion, James uses the notebooks as a kind of diary, and one can glean from autobiographical revelations his reaction to a variety of personal situations—hopes fulfilled or shattered. The two American notebooks make particularly interesting reading for the social historian, as they...

(The entire section is 1944 words.)


Booklist. LXXXIII, November 15, 1986, p. 467.

Choice. XXIV, May, 1987, p. 1396.

Library Journal. CXI, December, 1986, p. 112.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 18, 1987, p. 9.

The New York Times Book Review. XCII, December 28, 1986, p. 10.

The New Yorker. LXIII, March 9, 1987, p. 101.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXX, October 24, 1986, p. 66.

The Washington Post Book World. XVI, December 28, 1986, p. 1.