The Complete Notebooks of Henry James

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1944

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...

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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 are filled with anecdotes of New England cultural and intellectual life.

James was a voracious observer and recorder of the life around him, and he made ample use of suggestions for stories provided by friends both American and European. The notebooks alternate between plot outline and criticism, with a steady running commentary in which James explains to himself the methodology he must follow to turn this raw material into art. Infrequently, but dramatically, James is likely to burst into apostrophe: “Oh art, art,” he writes in 1885, “what difficulties are like thine; but, at the same time, what consolation and encouragements, also, are like thine? Without thee, for me, the world would be, indeed, a howling desert.” Once in a while, James uses his notebook as a commonplace book, copying out important passages from other works which he found particularly interesting.

If one reads the notebooks from beginning to end, one can follow the progress of dozens of James’s stories from conception to finished product. Most appear initially as brief observations, which James mulls over until he finds a suitable theme and method for presenting it. Some stories appear only once; others take shape in the course of several passages, as characters and incidents change and assume more definite form.

Readers of The Complete Notebooks of Henry James who are well versed in James’s oeuvre will experience frequent pleasurable shocks of recognition, as they see the seeds that sprouted into the literary flowers for which James is acclaimed. Amid long lists of characters, lists which James had a habit of making, presumably to provide himself with a ready stockpile from which to choose, one finds (interspersed among entries that have no apparent significance) such evocative entries as “Marcher” and “Strether.” Similarly, one needs no footnote to call attention to the relationship between the “ghost story” which James heard from the Archbishop of Canterbury and The Turn of the Screw (1898), or that between Jonathan Sturges’ remarks about William Dean Howells’ impressions of European life and The Ambassadors. Such discoveries will sustain the interest of the aficionado of James’s fiction.

It is also possible to trace in these entries several recurring themes that reveal something of the artist and his concerns. For example, stories of James’s disappointment over failing as a dramatist are corroborated in his notes. An 1881 entry in the first American notebook displays his eagerness for such a career: “After long years of waiting . . .” he notes, “I find myself able to put into execution the most cherished of all my projects—that of beginning to work for the stage. . . . None has given me brighter hopes,” he confesses to himself, “none has given me sweeter emotions.” “The field is common,” he reminds himself in a note eight years later, “but it is wide and free.” Sometimes he finds himself frustrated that the necessity to meet the demands of publishers hounding him for his fiction prevented him from mounting a “genuine and sustained attack on the theatre.”

The poor showing which he made as a dramatist, culminating with the closing of Guy Domville on its opening night in January, 1895, may have driven him from active work for the stage, but it did not quell his passion for wanting to make all his work dramatic. Perhaps it was the sense of completeness, a sense that the drama was a carefully knit form, that appealed to James. From his earliest notes, he seems obsessed with the idea of form in his fiction. He admires Guy de Maupassant as a master of the short story because the Frenchman is able to shape his incidents carefully, building toward a single effect. Many of James’s musings in the notebooks are over his own methods, as he moves from the discovery of an idea to its final embodiment in a story where an appropriate action illuminates the social or moral theme he wishes to illustrate in the work. A surprisingly large number of the entries deal with his concern for working out his ideas within certain mechanical limits: The pages of The Complete Notebooks abound with reminders that stories must be a certain length, or that a certain number of chapters (and no more) must be given to moving forward specific elements of the plot.

The notebooks also afford the discerning reader some moments of amusement. Interspersed amid the comments on mechanics and the detailed plotting of the stories, novels, and plays are James’s observations of various people and professions that have earned his admiration—or his disdain. One of the latter professions is—perhaps predictably—the publishing industry, especially the popular press. Adding to the outcry over an open letter about Venetian society written by Mary McClellan for the New York World, James lashes out at her for being “irreflective and irresponsible.” He goes on to note that, as a chronicler of his age, he must deal in his fiction with people such as McClellan, who in her role as a journalist is symptomatic of a sad phenomenon: “the invasion, the impudence and shamelessness, of the newspaper and the interviewer, the devouring publicity of life, the extinction of all sense between public and private.” Paradoxically, though, he writes on more than one occasion of the limits to which he can go with his stories if they are to appear in American magazines, where a false sense of morality has resulted in needless prudery. For journals such as Harper’s Magazine, he has nothing but contempt; there the editors refuse to accept works on difficult or delicate subjects, preferring to stick with “slighter,” “safer,” and hence “inferior” materials. One writes for Harper’s Magazine, James notes sadly, for no reason “save the sole pecuniary one,” since “the company one keeps in their magazine is of a most paralysing dreariness.” One need only survey a newsstand today to see that not much has changed.

To turn from the notebooks to the pocket diaries may be something of a letdown. These small books served a dual function for James. Most of the entries are short memoranda of meetings and appointments, or reminders of presents to send or money to repay. They are of greater interest to the biographer than to the literary critic. Even so, the claims of the editors that one can construct an “entire Edwardian and post-Edwardian social and literary history” from these “brief and hasty jottings” seem a bit farfetched. Nevertheless, those wishing to know all there is to know about Henry James will be grateful for their inclusion in this volume, as they will be for the editors’ decision to print the various dictated notes, notes to publishers, and the unfinished story “Hugh Merrow.” While it may be hard to imagine another biographer retracing the ground that Leon Edel has so carefully covered, the history of the scholarly profession suggests that such will be the case—perhaps not in the near future, but certainly within a century. When that happens, the new biographer will find The Complete Notebooks of Henry James an invaluable sourcebook.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 48

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.

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