Henry James Letters

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2228

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...

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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, bruised, sickened, disgusted as one is left by the intense, the cruel ordeal of a first night that . . . has, in a few brutal moments, not gone well.”

Wrapping the cloak of serious artistry about his wounds, James blamed “the stupid public” that ran after theater “so helpless, so crude, so bad, so clumsy, feeble and vulgar,” that it could not support his plays. Turning the financial defeat into verification of his high art, James retreated from the state no richer but not without some less tangible profit. At the urging of William Archer, the drama critic, James had read Henrik Ibsen with serious appreciation, and Ibsen’s symbolism would have a marked effect on his late period fiction from The Spoils of Poynton to The Golden Bowl.

It was not only financial necessity that turned James away from his American audience. Throughout the 1883-1895 period, he was becoming increasingly international in his interests and his observations. His only significant American correspondents not completely personal were his old friend, William Dean Howells, and his fellow anglophile, James Russell Lowell. As his acquaintance with British and continental authors widened, so did his essays and reviews from the period, including pieces on Gustave Flaubert, Guy de Maupassant, George Eliot, Ivan Turgenev, the Goncourt Journals, and Robert Louis Stevenson. His only American subject was a memorial essay on Lowell. Other than Howells’ fiction, James read little of current American writers unless they were forced upon him by obsequious dedications. By preference he turned to John Addington Symonds, Thomas Carlyle, and Matthew Arnold in England, and to Honoré de Balzac, Émile Zola, Turgenev, and Maupassant on the Continent. He mourns the death of Robert Louis Stevenson and attends Robert Browning’s funeral, but the death of Walt Whitman goes unnoticed. James is quick to recognize the rise of Rudyard Kipling, with whom he is soon dining. Yet, not a single novelist of the American 1890’s appears in his reading. Aside from the election of Grover Cleveland, James takes little note of any American events. Yet, he becomes a dispassionate but keen observer of British politics.

Although he found the English air “positively putrid with politics,” and Prime Minister Gladstone, “a dreary incubus,” James was in the company of Gladstone as house guest of Lord Rosebery, where he played uncle to Gladstone’s daughter. His political interests, however, were not merely social. He followed the convolutions of the Irish Question avidly. Quite accurately, he saw home rule as a “huge black monster, and civil war seems . . . to be really in the air.” When Parnell, the Irish parliamentarian, was tried over some forged letters condoning the Phoenix Park murders, James attended the court, not that his interests were ever purely political. Although the details of the political events and scandals might be too “hideous and abominable” to “infect the pure air” of his brother’s America, James felt he had “profited by them much as a novelist.” Ever the realist, James was always on the look out for fresh material. As early as 1885, he saw that the British Empire was in its death throes. To Grace Norton, he wrote:The possible malheurs, reverses, dangers, embarrassments, the ’decline’ . . . of old England, go to my heart, and I can imagine no spectacle more touching, more thrilling and even dramatic, than to see this great precarious, artificial empire . . . struggling with forces which, perhaps, in the long run will prove too many for it . . . the drama will be well worth watching from such a good, near standpoint as I have here.

Here were substantial bones for the realist to gnaw upon, as he indeed does in story and novel. Had James returned to America in 1890, he would have been morally and artistically unable to write in the vein of Frank Norris, Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, and Jack London. By remaining in England, he found the subject matter and point of view to sustain him through the late period.

Somewhat ironically, James simultaneously participates in the demise of his own art form—the drawing-room novel—when he helps open the French pipeline to America. Throughout the period in letter, review, and essay, James exposes American readers to Flaubert, Balzac, Zola, Alphonse Daudet, Goncourt, Maupassant, and Turgenev (in French). It will be Turgenev—“a really inspiring model”—who, in fact, inspires Sherwood Anderson and Hemingway. Zola and company fascinated James with their experiments in naturalism. The proper Bostonian respected their serious honesty, even if their subject matter offended him: “the handling of unclean things.” Balzac he praised as the founder of “our modern effort.” Maupassant’s Bel-Ami was read with “utmost relish” in spite of its horrors, like the lovemaking of Madame Walter. James’s period prudishness was a constant restraint to his complete endorsement of the French naturalists, but he knew that they were on the leading edge of the new fiction. Naturalism would be the future. In his essays, James urged Americans to read these Frenchmen in spite of their jaded morality. Directly or indirectly, James contributed to the education of the next generation—Dreiser, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Anderson, Gertrude Stein, Hemingway—who learned well their French lesson and in doing so, made James temporarily obsolete.

Like all transitions, the 1883-1895 period for James was strewn with dead ends, closing doors, and dead friends. A man in his forties is always witness to the passing of the previous generation, but for James this rite was particularly painful, for he knew so many of the old order: George Meredith, Walter Pater, Robert Browning, and the actress, Fanny Kemble. Other deaths were closer to home. The period began with the death of his father; it closed with the lingering death of his sister, Alice James. In between, he lost close friends unexpectedly: Robert Louis Stevenson, Constance Woolson, and Elizabeth Boott. These last three touched him more deeply than his letters will allow him to admit, for James’s sense of decorum does not permit him to become maudlin. Always the arbiter of taste, he could imagine nothing worse than being bored or boring, nothing more onerous than the lack of discretion.

In spite of which, James gossips throughout the letters, sometimes instructing the recipient to burn the epistle. As in his fiction, he is continually doing character sketches of the famous and the forgotten, most of which he would be chagrined to see in print. For example, he finds Elizabeth Boott’s husband to be “illiterate, ignorant and not a gentleman (though an excellent fellow . . . ).” Famous names are dropped like spices into the letters home to give them more zest: Matthew Arnold, Robert Browning, Burne-Jones, John Singer Sargent. The reader, however, discovers little about them. James is more concerned with observing himself in the act of observing. He attends the Paris Exhibition of 1889, but tells us nothing of it. He travels extensively, but does not give us a guide. Sometimes the sources for fictional characters will appear in the letters, but with far less frequency than one would hope for.

More interesting to the scholar are James’s comments on his own art; these, too, are infrequent, but pithy. Using the public taste as his whipping boy, he never doubts his own genius, nor does he ever lose sight of his purpose: the “direct impression of life.” When an old friend dies, he says he will some day “put her into a book.” She too is grist for the mill. The novelist has his own “particular window” on life—a room with a view. It is the view that matters. The letters become precisely such a view: the reader observes the artist in the act of observing. Or, as James realized, “An individual so capable as I am of the uncanniest self-effacement in . . . the passion of observation, always exposes himself a little to looking like a dupe. . . .” Thereby the collection becomes one more James novel, and as with so much of his fiction, there is no little ambiguity. As the mask changes for each correspondent, the reader is never quite certain which narrator is the true James.

Henry James Letters

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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) provoked two replies defending his artist’s imagination against Shaw’s “socialistic” and “scientific” bias. After assuring Shaw that the receipt of his letter has constituted a “great event” for him, he explains with exquisite patience that his decision to have the hero of his play murdered by a ghost is not the defect Shaw takes it to be. For Shaw, the denouement discourages; for James, the total effect of the play encourages. Shaw accused James of evading the issue and maintained that James could just as well allow the hero to kill the ghost. James demurred, and the play was not performed. The dispute hinged on two notions of what the audience might be expected to accept. Shaw, lover of paradox and ironic wit, could not tolerate an ambiguity that might send the theatergoer home confused; James expected his audience to see through his hero’s apparent defeat to a larger victory. The response he hoped for may have been more appropriate to tragedy, and The Saloon was not substantial enough to count as tragedy, a dramatic form largely alien to Shaw and the Shavian audience. James, who had emerged from a period of unsuccessful writing for the theater, did not, of course, possess Shaw’s dramatic sense.

James was on higher ground in an exchange with Wells late in his life. The two men had corresponded—amicably, as James supposed—since 1898, but one day in the summer of 1915, James discovered that Wells had hurled a satirical dart at him in his new book Boon (1915). Finding himself ridiculed in print, accused of “copious emptiness,” James immediately took up his pen. How could a friend, especially one on whom he had lavished congratulations at the appearance of each new book, respond so unkindly and—what troubled him more—so publicly? The tone of his letter is perplexed, as if James hoped to elicit an adequate explanation of Wells’s treachery.

Wells’s reply (printed in a note) argued that James’s view of literary art was gaining ascendancy over his own more utilitarian one and needed deflating. As the master of his art, James was the obvious target. He, Wells, represented the “journalists” of the world against the “artists.” Offering a quasi-apology, he closes as James’s “warm if rebellious and resentful admirer.” To this letter, James replied more sharply. Wells had not justified his ill-mannered book, and his aesthetic made no sense. He closed with a coolness signaling the end of the long correspondence, and although Wells wrote once more (the letter has not survived: James destroyed most of the letters written to him), James had nothing more to say.

James did not realize that his sly epistolary needling of Wells through the years was bound to provoke retaliation sooner or later; in his sustained and sometimes extravagant applause for each of Wells’s literary achievements could be read a supercilious undercurrent. James had greeted one of Wells’s novels three years earlier, for example, by insisting that Wells impelled him to a “complete abdication” of his usual critical principles. Again, the Jamesian ambiguity had unsettled a rival. Wells could not—at least should not—have doubted the sincerity of James’s friendship, but he must have grown steadily more restive under the accumulation of discordant notes in James’s style of appreciation. Edel and Gordon N. Ray have documented the two men’s relationship in Henry James and H. G. Wells: A Record of Their Friendship, Their Debate on the Art of Fiction, and Their Quarrel (1958), but readers of the present volume will find that James’s final two letters, along with nine earlier ones, establish the temperamental and artistic gulf between the two men.

Wells may have realized at the time that the critical consensus which he saw forming in favor of James would grow and that his readers’ chuckles over the now forgotten Boon and the relative popularity of his books in his lifetime would mark the limits of his victory. Implicitly in James’s earlier letters to him and explicitly in the final two letters is an assertion of his own “fulness” as a novelist and the superiority of art to journalism as an interpreter of life. Had the quarrel erupted earlier, perhaps James would have crafted a novel about the competition between two such writers and discovered and expressed therein the psychology underlying Wells’s satire, but such a response was beyond the strength of the aging and enervated artist of the early World War I years.

Edel stresses in his introduction what he sees as James’s sexual awakening, occurring only when the bachelor novelist had reached his mid-fifties and manifesting itself both in his fiction and in the letters, especially those to young male friends such as Andersen, Walpole, and Jocelyn Persse. It seems unlikely that James ever consummated any sexual relationship, but the intimate tone, the many references to touching and hugging in these letters reveal a great fund of affection which he did not attempt to conceal or control so discreetly as he had in earlier years. Whether or not readers of this fourth volume accept Edel’s conclusions, they will sense a warm and sympathetic man who placed friendship with scores of men and women only below dedication to his art in his hierarchy of values.

The deepest and most enduring relationship of all was that with brother William. Separated usually by an ocean, the two corresponded regularly and at length. Henry’s letters are addressed sometimes to William, sometimes to his wife, sometimes to both, but tone and contents vary little. The diversity of the brothers’ interests guaranteed that the two would quarrel only in the good-natured and offhand way of those who have little in common professionally and therefore no need to compete, and familial matters dominate their exchanges. What the letters depict is nothing more or less than brotherly love. Prostrated by William’s death in 1910, Henry vowed an even deeper attachment to the rest of the family.

Edel has also printed as one appendix “The Deathbed Dictation,” following James’s two successive strokes early in December of 1915. Two of these exercises purport to be letters from Napoléon Bonaparte to his brother and sister, identical in style, but one signed “Napoléone,” the other “Henry James.” It is easy to understand both James’s executor’s motive for keeping them out of print in his own lifetime and Edel’s for finally revealing them. In his biography of the novelist, Edel discusses James’s Napoleonic traits, among which the urge to control people with his pen as Napoléon did with political and military power can be observed in the letters. The last dictation, two and a half months before his death, is a sadly disordered affair, but even here James expresses his well-founded confidence in the value of his work. “These final and faded remarks all have some interest and some character,” he insisted a few minutes before giving up at last the activity by which and for he had lived.

Numerous as these letters are—upward of two thousand in the four volumes—they represent only a fraction of even extant letters. To the question of whether they represent James fairly, the only alternative to trusting Edel would be to retrace the editor’s steps between libraries and private holdings scattered widely across two continents, a task to which Edel devoted substantial portions of his time for a half century. There is not likely to be a more comprehensive collection. Scholars will continue to study James’s relationships with individual correspondents and bring them into a finer focus, but Edel has rendered impertinent any further general edition of the letters. If the selection that concludes here is not God’s plenty, it is certainly man’s.

This volume is a self-portrait of an artist in his last two decades. During these years he reached his creative peak, collected and revised his fiction for posterity, endured simultaneously the physical onslaught of old age and the psychological one of general war, and only in his final weeks receded into silence. There is a considerable amount of James here, but to those who have succumbed to the fascination of this particular “inexhaustible sensibility” (to quote his description of the artist in a letter to Henry Adams) there can be no question of too much James.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 49

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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