Henry James (ca. 1863) via

Could there be a more ambitious publishing project? In 2006, the University of Nebraska Press began issuing a series of volumes entitled The Complete Letters of Henry James under the editorship of Pierre A. Walker and Greg W. Zacharias; this year saw the publication of the eighth volume.1 According to the editors, there currently exist no fewer than 10,423 “known letters” from the hand of Henry James. Some of them are in manuscript, have never been published, and are held in “at least 132 repositories and private collections”; others, the original manuscripts of which may or may not have been lost or destroyed, have previously appeared in print, either in Leon Edel’s definitive biography of James or in some other book or journal (over two hundred in all). Walker and Zacharias, whose book will include every last one of these missives, expect their series to run to “at least 140 individual volumes.” The math here is easy: since the first eight volumes have taken eight years to bring out, the entire set of 140 volumes can, at the present rate, be expected to take some 140 years to complete.

Before one even begins to respond to the contents of The Complete Letters themselves, one feels obliged to respond to these remarkable numbers. They reflect not only an extraordinary dedication to serious literary scholarship, but also, one has to conclude, a touching faith that, over the course of the next few generations, books, libraries, university presses, and universities will continue to exist in more or less their present form; that, moreover, there will still be scholars and common readers who care enough about James to be interested in perusing the epistolary record of his life; and that, finally, our species itself will survive long enough to allow the editors to finish their work. To contemplate the scope of this endeavor is to reflect, indeed, that if the scientists currently laboring to extend the human lifespan significantly manage to attain their goal within a few decades, and if Walker and Zacharias—or, more likely, their successors—succeed in speeding up production somewhat, a few individuals alive today may actually live to see the very last volume of this series roll off the presses. At which point the only remaining problem, aside from the cost (at present, the volumes retail for between $80 and $130 apiece), will be shelf space: the first eight volumes take up about thirty centimeters, or one foot, on a shelf; 140 volumes of this size will take up a full eighteen and a half feet—in other words, an entire bookcase three feet wide and six shelves high, with an extra half-dozen or so volumes left over to be piled up on top.

In these arguably post-literary and unarguably decadent times, of course, the temptation to chaff an enterprise such as this is to be expected—either as a symptom of that decadence or as a reflection of the insecurity which many of us quite justifiably feel, when faced with that decadence, about the future of serious cultural endeavors and, indeed, of Western civilization itself. Viewed from this perspective, these volumes emerge as a vote for optimism, for hope—or, at the very least, as an attempt to light a candle rather than curse the darkness. And who, after all, could be more deserving of this treatment—this tribute—than Henry James, the very personification of civilized sensibility? If the cynic in many of us, then, might be unable to avoid gently scoffing at this venture, the part of us that, in spite of everything, continues to believe in, participate in, and stand up for the life of the mind and the experience of art feels moved to bow down in admiration. For let’s face it: alongside Walker and Zacharias, the biographer Robert Caro, who has spent forty years painstakingly chronicling the first fifty-five years of Lyndon B. Johnson’s life, is a low-attention-span underachiever; alongside these Complete Letters, the very mapping of the human genome looks almost like a high school science project.

This edition is not just notable for its astonishing ambition, however; even at this early stage, it must also be reckoned a signal achievement. By every measure, the volumes we have so far are simply outstanding in every major respect. The books are physically beautiful inside and out; Walker and Zacharias have edited the letters to within an inch of their lives, identifying the people, places, and works mentioned therein and employing an elaborate procedure called “plain-text editing” (used previously for the correspondence of Mark Twain) in which a battery of symbols indicate the author’s cancellations, insertions, and so on. In addition, each volume contains a biographical register, a list of works cited, and an extensive index. Yes, some of the letters are of considerably greater interest than others, and when scrutinizing some of the more interesting ones, the reader may momentarily lament the paucity of context (What exactly, one wants to know, is James replying to? What reply did he receive?); yet that desire is quickly quashed by the thought of a Complete Letters consisting of 280 volumes instead of 140.

One potentially puzzling feature deserves mention: The Complete Letters are divided not just into volumes but into groups of volumes, so that the first two volumes in the set are labeled Volumes 1 and 2 of the Complete Letters of Henry James, 1855–1872; the next three volumes are labeled Volumes 1, 2, and 3 of The Complete Letters of Henry James, 1872–1876; and so on. There is, in other words, no overall numbering system. Each of these groups of volumes comes with a bonus: its own thirty- to forty-page introduction by a veteran Jamesian (one, Millicent Bell, is a nonagenarian; two others are professors emeriti) who contextualizes and supplements the letters by summing up the developments in the Master’s life during the period the volumes cover—his travels, his social encounters, his writings, the critical reception thereof, and the general progress of his literary career—and contemplates the significance of this period to the life and career as a whole. Inevitably, each of these experts, in addition to guiding us through a chapter of James’s life, brings his or her own distinctive perspective to the job. The result is an embarrassment of critical and biographical riches, in which postmodernism, blessedly, has yet to raise its ugly head.

Next year will mark the centenary of James’s death. Given that armies of academics, during these hundred years, have eagerly picked over his literary remains, it’s rather surprising how many very arresting items here have never been published or even cited before. One reason for this, we’re told at the outset, is that “the James family . . . held an interest in preserving a certain public image of their ancestor.” Not that the letters included in these first eight volumes—which (with the exception of one brief note from his childhood) take James from age fourteen to age thirty-six—contain anything particularly scandalous or anything that dramatically alters our picture of him. Through this portion of his correspondence, at least, he appears to be on good terms with his entire family, writing frequently and cheerfully to each of his parents separately as well as to his older brother William and sister Alice (but only once to his youngest brother, Bob, and not at all to his brother Wilky); yes, one occasionally detects a soupçon of friction or frustration in his notes to editors, but the tone never gets remotely ugly; and though he exchanges letters with a wide range of friends and colleagues, at no point does any unpleasantness arise between them, whether over literary, political, or personal subjects.

The first volume finds the teenage James attending school in Europe, after which he spends years traveling alone, busily and enthusiastically, on the continent, with a couple of relatively uneventful and disconsolate interludes back in the United States. During his first years as a professional tourist, his production of journalism for such markets as the North American Review—richly descriptive accounts of Old World art and architecture and long, probing reviews of books like Matthew Arnold’s Essays in Criticism—is well-nigh prodigious. He also begins to try his hand at short stories. In time, he begins to cut back on short-form prose in order to concentrate on his novels—Watch and Ward, Roderick Hudson, The American, The Europeans. The eighth and (so far) last volume covers the time span during which, in James’s own view, his “real career” as an author started: he published what would turn out to be the greatest success in his entire œuvre, Daisy Miller, which created a scandal in the United States (where he was seen as having drawn an unflattering portrait of young American women) and opened doors for the young enfant terrible across Europe. By the end of the volume, he’s about to come out with his most substantial work yet, Portrait of a Lady.

The James we meet in these letters is very much the James we already know, preoccupied with art and taste and with the cities and cultures he encounters. At age seventeen, in 1860, attending school in Bonn, he confides to his boyhood friend Thomas Sergeant Perry that his German classmates “are almost a different race from boys of their own age at home. They have . . . more book learning, but less general knowledge which comes from unrestrained reading and less of the quality which we call smartness.” France was more to his taste: in 1867, he calls Paris “the city of my dreams”; five years later, he feels that the French enjoy “a denser civilization than our own”; in 1876, he confides that the more time he spends in France, “the better I like the French, personally, but the more convinced I am for [sic] their bottomless superficiality.” As for Italy, it enchanted him from the beginning: Venice, while “quite the Venice of one’s dreams,” was so “exceptional” that he couldn’t “reconcile it with common civilization”; Florence he found “the most feminine of cities,” speaking “with that same soft low voice which is such an excellent thing in women.” And Rome? It made “Venice—Florence—Oxford—London seem like little cities of paste-board.” On his first visit to the Eternal City, he went every day to the Vatican—not for reasons of piety, unless one chooses to file his rapture over fine paintings and statuary, imposing ruins, “charming” cathedrals, and even the very cobbles of old streets and the floors of ancient buildings under the category of religion.

By contrast, he deplored, at least initially, London’s “foggy Philistinism” and “grimy ugliness,” although he confessed in 1869 that he was “getting . . . absolutely to adore the English” and further admitted: “The more I see of the continent, the more I value England”—explaining, a year later, that what made England admirable was “the exquisite finish of the composition of things,” whereas “what moves you in Italy is the very license & laxity of poetical passion.” As drawn as the Master was, in other words, to the unmastered ardor of the Mediterranean peoples, he recognized the chilly precincts of Old Blighty, in the end (which is to say, at the end of the beginning), as the natural auctorial turf for a man to whom passion was not something simply to be experienced, not simply a matter of letting go, but, rather, something to be explored dispassionately—a task that called for poise, precision, polish. Settling, eventually, in London, James called the British people in 1878 “the strongest and richest race in the world” and said that his “dream is to arrive at the ability to be, in some degree, its moral portrait-painter!”

Yet his native land was ever in his thoughts. Early on, writing to Perry from school in Bonn, he expressed disapproval of precisely the kind of alienation he was, at that very moment, undergoing: “I think that if we are to live in America it is about time we boys should take up our abode there; the more I see of this estrangement of American youngsters from the land of their birth, the less I believe in it. It should also be the land of their breeding.” Seven years later, he told Perry that he counted his American identity “a great blessing” and “an excellent preparation for culture,” because Americans have about them “something distinctive & homogeneous” in their “moral consciousness,” as well as an “unprecedented spiritual lightness and vigour.”

We have exquisite qualities as a race, and it seems to me that we are ahead of the European races in the fact that more than either of them we can deal freely with forms of civilization not our own, can pick and choose and assimilate and in short (aesthetically &c) claim our property wherever we find it. To have no national stamp has hitherto been a defect & a drawback; but I think it not unlikely that American writers may yet indicate that a vast intellectual fusion and synthesis of the various national tendencies of the world is the condition of more important achievements than any we have seen.

This said, however, he was capable of feeling quite unassimilated: in 1872, he admits to experiencing, while abroad, a sense “of being an outsider, of incomplete, baffled enjoyment as if the country, in resentment of your selfish irresponsible attitude towards it, were determined to give up but a fraction of its secrets.” And again: “I am forever running my nose here into the uncompromising, incomprehensible foreign-ness of things. I feel helplessly hopelessly American. . . . The old-world faces, manners and accents about me make me feel like the denizen of another planet.” And again: Europe “is forever teaching” the lesson “that you must rest content with the flimsiest knowledge of her treasures and the most superficial insight into her character.” And yet he never flagged in his effort to gain what insight he could. These eight volumes are the most direct record we will ever have of this happy travail, and they offer the reader an opportunity to serve as James’s traveling companion (his only one)—accompanying him, day after day, year after year, as he wanders the cities of Europe, then returns to his room at some caravansary to shoot off to some distant friend or relative a detailed account of the architecture and art and (occasionally) the locals. His loneliness, let it be said, is palpable; more than once, he refers to the “essential loneliness of my life”; his “loneliness,” he tells one correspondent, is “deeper . . . than anything else” about him; his walks, he informs another, “would be pleasanter if I had a companion; it is rather dreary forever poking about alone.” These cries of solitude are at once touching and bemusing: traveling alone in a strange place for a few days, even a shy young person, one reflects, will inevitably meet and pass a relaxed and friendly hour or two with this or that stranger at a watering hole or on a museum line or at an evening’s lodging-place; not James. The James of these letters is a young man learning to live alone, indeed consciously cultivating a distinctive quality of personal isolation, even in the midst of increasing opportunities for social concourse; he is a budding scribe “electing,” as Edel put it, “the observer’s role rather than the actor’s.” Yes, of course he runs across people, but almost consistently he observes them—as he does the ruins, the buildings, the paintings—rather than engaging with them as fellow human beings. Indeed, it’s sometimes as if the persons he happens upon are the objects (stopping at one hostelry, he describes the other wayfarers in detail, summing up, with an almost chilling clinical detachment, that he’s come across “nothing very valuable in the human line”), while the cities are the living organisms:

I am more than ever “penetrated” with Paris.
France which I used to love—but somehow love no more.
Ah the way Italy kept tugging at my heart! . . . I know I really care for her.

There is, to be sure, the very occasional departure from this pattern. On a train to Marseille, James meets “an unhappy young Englishman” and, in James’s account, wins the fellow’s “eternal gratitude . . . by paying him a few little attentions on the way, at the hotel at Marseille & on our departure next morning.” What, if anything, is lurking behind this brief, suggestive statement, upon which James does not deign to elaborate? We do know that in his later years, James corresponded with several young men who had artistic aspirations and for whom he plainly had a more than avuncular affection; an entire collection of these missives, Dearly Beloved Friends: Henry James’s Letters to Younger Men, was published in 2004. Are there other such letters, even more graphic than the ones included in that book, waiting in the wings? Are these the letters that the James family was so eager, for so long, to keep under wraps? Even in these early volumes, in which the accounts of the men and women he observes are almost thoroughly free of any hint that they belong to the same genus as himself, we find James exulting over “the beauty of the Italian race, especially in the men,” declaring that “no one looks handsome in Rome—beside the Romans,” and describing a certain matador as nothing less than a “gorgeous being.”

Eventually, to be sure, as he becomes a celebrated author, James begins to meet many of the other cultural luminaries of his day, among them Emerson, Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Arnold, Maupaussant, Daudet, William Morris, Tennyson, George Eliot, and even Heinrich Schliemann, the discoverer of Troy. Flaubert he considers “an excellent old fellow, simple, naïf,” though he likes “the man better than the artist” (Madame Bovary is too spicy for his tastes); Ruskin is “weakness pure & simple”; Darwin is “the sweetest, simplest, gentlest old Englishman you ever saw”; Browning he dismisses as a “chattering and self-complacent” gossip whose conversation isn’t “very beautifully worded”; he likes Zola personally but deplores the “indecency” of his work—though he tells Perry that L’Assommoir “is worth it if your stomach can stand it.” (In life, of course, James, the most sufferable of snobs, gave wide berth to the uncouth types—“vulgar” is a favorite term of description in these pages—whom Zola actively sought out as material for his novels.) James’s favorite colleague of all, and the one who appears to have been closest to an actual friend, was Turgenev, whom he found “adorable” and “angelic.”

But even most of these distinguished personages were principally subject matter for his fiction—as, needless to say, were the rich and titled swells whose doors were, at first, firmly closed to him, but who, after Daisy Miller, senthim more dinner invitations than he was able to accept. “[L]iving & talking & observing,” he asserts in one of these letters, are not goals in themselves but means to the production of art; in 1877, having sat above the salt at more than a few spiffy soirées, he could still aver that, thus far, he’d “formed no intimacies—not even any close acquaintances.” Even as he became familiar with the parlors and dining rooms of the great houses that he visited with greater and greater regularity, neither in his life nor in these letters did he follow any of the people he met in those homes into a bedroom or kitchen.

So, then, it goes. As James comes into his own, we hear him shift gradually from a voice that could be that of almost any decently educated young American tourist of his time—avid, guileless—into something more contrived, calculated, complex: the self-conscious, supremely civilized voice of the self-created cosmopolitan. With the passing of years, we watch him discover his comfort zone and learn to use language as a shield to protect himself from the uncomfortable, the unsayable; in the last of these eight volumes, when he’s putting down roots in London and turning out ever more accomplished fiction, the letters, too, get better—richer, wittier, more colorful, vigorous, and engaging—leading us to look forward even more fervently to the richesse to come.

Then there is the matter of world events—the headline news that’s happening even as James is busy pondering pillars and contemplating cupolas. Reading his letters of 1861–65, one remembers, and finds oneself unhesitatingly affirming, T. S. Eliot’s famous remark that James had “a mind so fine that no idea could violate it”: he’s so preoccupied with art and culture that you’d never imagine these missives were composed at a time when his nation was being torn apart by a violent and bloody Civil War in which not one but two of his brothers were fighting. Similarly, in 1870–71, he roams the Riviera, responding reflectively to every charming prospect, while giving barely a nod to the ongoing Franco-Prussian War. “Every one is extremely absorbed in political matters,” he writes from Paris during a period of political upheaval, as if taking note of some baffling, bemusing fad; during the conflict over the results of the 1876 U.S. presidential election, he tells his mother, as if sympathizing with her assumed boredom, “I suppose you hear nothing but Tilden & Hayes.” In time, however, all this changes; James starts paying more attention to such developments—in part, perhaps, because his social circle comes to include an increasing number of MPs and civil servants, including William Gladstone himself. (Meanwhile, Gladstone’s opposite number, Disraeli, is the target of what may be the harshest barbs in any of these volumes and is also the occasion of one of the three or four instances here of explicit anti-Semitism: James calls him “the tawdry old Jew who is at the head of this great old British Empire.” The unpleasantness of these interjections is palliated somewhat by the knowledge that, in later years, a more mature James would publicly, and bravely, side with Zola in the Dreyfus affair.)

For James, the most decisive event of the years covered by these eight volumes was not the War between the States or any European armed conflict but the death, in 1870, from tuberculosis, of his twenty-four-year-old cousin Minnie Temple, who would become something of a prototype for several of the celebrated American heroines of his fiction, from Daisy Miller to Isabel Archer. James had not been exceedingly close to Minnie in life, but in death she assumed, with stunning promptitude, a special meaning for him; it is no exaggeration, iN fACT, to say that, after being informed of her passing, he quickly took possession of her—or, that is, of her memory, or, it should perhaps be said, of her very being, for which she herself had no further use. Thus did James, who (almost surely) never had a woman, acquire one who would forever after be entirely his own, this once-living being—“the very heroine of our common scene”—transformed from a person whose “character may be almost literally said to have been without practical application to life” into a highly useful model for the female protagonists of his own fictions. In a morbidly romantic way, indeed, he soon came to see her premature demise almost as having been fated, and even represented it in terms that could be read as erotic: “her whole life,” he wrote, “seemed to tend & hasten, visibly, audibly, sensibly, to this consummation.” Yes, he mourns her, but there is excitement in his mourning; on some level, it is clear, her death positively thrills him; it has converted her, a creature who, when composed of flesh and blood, was of no direct use or value or even great interest to him, into a monument of stone, akin to the buildings and statues with which he has been communing for years. “Among all my thoughts & conceptions,” he writes In one almost immediately postmortem missive, his prose acutely self-conscious, “I am sure I shall never have one of greater sereneness & purity: her image will preside in my intellect, in fact, as a sort of measure and standard of brightness and repose.” Note that he doesn’t write about Minnie in the way that an ordinary person, author or not, would write about a recently deceased loved one; he writes like an author having a good day, feeling inspired, excitedly fleshing out a new character. After a mere week he informs a correspondent that “I am strangely—most serenely—familiar with the idea of her death.”

What, finally, to make of all this? Nowadays, half the world is on social media; billions of people alive today will leave in cyberspace massive and indelible, if hopelessly dispersed and disorderly, archives of their lives—countless gigabytes precisely documenting, in words and photographs and moving images, their breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, the lives and deaths of their pets, their activities with family, friends, neighbors, and fellow workers, their births and baptisms, marriages and funerals, their vacations, their religious convictions and political views, not to mention their tastes in jokes and in pornography. But who alive today will leave a personal record remotely like this ever-expanding set of Henry James letters, which, so far at least, is not only complete but sublimely coherent and contextualized? When I think about my own lifelong correspondence, much of it posted over the years from a variety of email addresses (some of them now entirely forgotten, along with the passwords), plus my postings on Facebook and my long-ago exchanges with others in chat rooms and listservs in dusty, forgotten corners of the Internet, the sight of these handsome, substantial volumes on the bookshelf has about it a reassuring sense of monumentality, of solidity and permanence, that the scattered remnants of my own exchanges with chums and colleagues, fans and foes, do not. In time, of course, this project will doubtless expand—or migrate—to the Web, and will take its place amid the planet’s electronically (and presumably eternally) stored knowledge. But who will visit it? The kind of delicacy, distinction, and discrimination (in the best sense) that James stood for is an attribute neither of the culturally democratic Net nor of the impatient, historyless, rubbish-loving, short-attention-span postmodern civilization at the center of which it stands. Elitism has become an expletive; the credentialed opinion-mongers of our time tell us that artistic standards are offensive. All too many of today’s young minds receive, at the hands of the teachers and new-media hucksters who shape their minds, a brand of “education” that renders them grievously capable of being violated by just about any idea, or ideology—the more vulgar, the better. Perhaps the more worthwhile question to ask in connection with these letters, then, is not whether future generations will read them, or what those generations will make of them, but what their author would have made of us.

1The Complete Letters of Henry James, edited by Pierre A. Walker and Greg W. Zacharias; University of Nebraska Press, Volumes 1-8 published to date, pricing varies.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 33 Number 10, on page 9
Copyright © 2017 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com

Popular Right Now