We now have the first two volumes of what will eventually be a 140-plus-volume set of the complete letters of Henry James. The entire collection of some ten thousand letters will be published by the University of Nebraska Press over the coming years. (The largest previous collection was Leon Edel’s four volumes of 1,084 letters published between 1974 and 1984.) This set will bring together letters scattered across many different archives and from many different books, some out of print; a quarter of the letters have never been published previously. The volumes are beautiful, solidly put together, with big type, wide margins, and copious annotations remarking on cross-outs and misspellings and new words written over old ones. All the foreign phrases are translated and potted biographies of the people mentioned are supplied. If James refers, for instance, to a story he’s written, the editors provide the reader in a note with the full name of the story and where it was published and when. At the end of each volume are an index, a bibliography of works cited, a biographical register, and even genealogical charts of the families intertwined with the James family.
In an effort to make the printed letters as close as possible to the holographs, the editors have adopted a system called “plain-text editing,” originated by Robert H. Hirst in his version of Mark Twain’s Letters. There are no emendations to correct spelling or punctuation errors or just errors of fact (though the mistakes are flagged in the notes). A simple line indicates where a word has been crossed out. Drawings that James included are rendered. The result of all this faithfulness to the original letters may seem a bit fussy but the text is easy to read and scholars who can’t consult the holographs or microfiches will be grateful for the variants. The net effect is to bring a high seriousness to letters that were usually dashed off; certainly the scholars preparing these volumes will have spent many more hours on each letter than did either James or the recipients he was addressing.
The letters are to close friends such as Minny Temple, the whole Sedgwick clan, Charles Eliot Norton and his various family members, and Thomas Sergeant Perry (one of Henry’s—and William’s—best friends, someone to whom Henry would write faithfully for nearly fifty years). Many of the letters, however, are addressed to his mother and father, his sister Alice, his older brother William, and occasionally to his two younger brothers or his Aunt Kate. Of course people write letters when they are traveling or when their friends and family members are abroad, which was the case of the letters in these two volumes, which cover the years from 1855 to 1872 and are devoted mainly to Henry’s European wanderings through England, France, Switzerland, and Italy, with time out for visits back to the United States.
Like all travelers he falls into the bad habit of comparing the characters of the various nationalities. He is…
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