Henry James: Letters Volume I, 1843-1875
edited by Leon Edel
Harvard University Press, 493 pp., $15.00
Italians like to say that an edited writer or text is “in the care of” the editor. Henry James has been in the care of Leon Edel for more than forty years. As long ago as 1934, Edith Wharton’s autobiography, A Backward Glance, noted Edel’s interest in James. His doctorate in France on James’s “années dramatiques” was earned in 1932. Our shelves totter not just with James but with Edel: the five-volume biography, Edel’s editing of the Complete Plays, of the Complete Tales (twelve volumes), of the Selected Letters, of the Parisian Sketches, of James’s Ghostly Tales, of the Henry James Reader, of Alice James’s Diary.
Now we have the first of four projected volumes of James’s correspondence. The two-volume Letters of Henry James published by Scribner’s in 1920 were edited by the English critic Percy Lubbock under the constant watchful intervention of William James’s son, another Henry. Lubbock worked from typescripts, not the original letters. Mrs. William James’s disapproval of Edith Wharton and “Harry” James’s own reservations about his uncle’s effusiveness managed to cut out a lot of what James had written in letters day after day, night after night. Anyone can see from James’s ingratiatingly bountiful, caressing, lonely epistolary style that there was more to the letters that Lubbock had cut. There had to be many, many more letters.
A great mountain of letters was made available to Edel for his biography; the extraordinary amount of personal (if hardly incriminating) information in the five volumes comes out of the letters. There are thousands. Edel’s necessary selection just from the letters up to 1875 does print each letter entire. We must be thankful that there will be only three volumes more. There may yet be a chance to do something else in what is left of the twentieth century except read Henry James’s deadeningly uninterruptable purr to every relative, editor, and friend with whom (since he was usually in Europe and alone) he felt compelled to be in touch.
James said he “lived with pen in hand.” The point (for me) about James’s abundance even in this “first” period is not that he wrote “too much,” not that he wrote more letters than other nineteenth-century colossi of the pen (I suspect he did), but that the letters are too much the same. They repeat to excess the innocent emotions and the calculating literary ambition that nourished his ceaseless productivity. James assuredly had all the family he would ever need in the parents, brother, sister to whom he wrote letter after letter overflowing with love, duty, gratitude, intellectual delight, family jokes. The Jameses made as exceptional a family tie as they did books, and they knew that as Jameses they just were. “H. J., Jr.” was an eagerly loving, smiling, rejoicing star—if not yet the greatest star—in this constellation. After such family happiness in earliest youth, so many travels and European hotels …