Henry James: Letters Volume I, 1843-1875
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 and cosmopolitan ideas at the dinner table, after Thackeray and Emerson visiting in the nursery, what did a young author need more than to be left alone to write—and to write letters home?
The copiousness of these letters and in these letters, the flow, the incomparable but finally deadening Jamesian flow, comes from the heady mixture of unconscious genius and the perfect confidence of early love received and given inside a family full of genius. But just as it is not exciting to overhear lovers gushing to each other, so James’s constant literary demonstrativeness of how attached he is as a son, brother, friend, tends to wear us down. If society is “the land of consideration,” as he says somewhere, he was certainly a past master at showing consideration. He could summon up verbal emotions on order, imitate and exploit his own eloquence.
Letters are weighty formal things, really, irrevocable acts—more so in our century than they were in the days when every personal message was by letter. For James the formality of a letter—a way of handling someone—became an instrument he could play at will. But this fluidity of demonstrative affection or interest leaves out the friction so natural in other people’s letters—and lives. What we are most aware of is the special effort James is putting out, the intense self-consciousness of being Henry James at his desk.
This driving self-aware effort to put himself over, this omnipresent I pushing ahead from the determination not just to see but to be seen doing it, this is the great American literary presence of the author in his own work. The awareness of writing even a letter that will be better than someone else’s letter, of writing for glory out of one’s sacred experiences alone! Byron and Keats in their wonderful letters managed to forget themselves in the theme, the subject matter; James in even his best letters is the subject matter: certainly his ambition is, and ambition and style became identical.
James was more American than he knew. His self-driving self-rootedness reminds us of the peculiar significance given to individualism on this continent, of the still undescribed physical isolation of the American writer. The literary ego, like so many American egos, came from the sense of the self as a prime datum of Protestant theology. Nothing between me and “Nature,” said Emerson. Just the “me” and the “not-me,” said Whitman. James, being a fledgling novelist and “student of society,” needed something new: Europe. But his mind rested in the same polar oppositions. “The port from which I set out,” he was to say in 1900, “was that of the essential loneliness of my life…. This loneliness [is] deeper than my ‘genius,’ deeper than my ‘discipline,’ deeper than my pride, deeper, above all, than the deep cotermining of art.”
James had great love in childhood and in these letters shows great lovingness toward the world, openness to experience. His “loneliness” was not deprivation for him but the deepest kind of privacy, the self left to tally itself endlessly. The “world” was “disponible“—serviceable, attachable. And left him unattached. James said about Howells, whom he flattered but secretly disparaged, that Howells lacked the really “grasping imagination.” Which Henry James said he had. What he meant was not direct knowledge of sex and politics and business, but the ability to find anything “disponible“—anything that could be connected to his own unrelenting consciousness. You must never rest. Be one of those on whom nothing is ever lost. Work, work it all out in words that if pressed hard enough will yield an implicit secret.
But it all started, the Jamesian confidence, in a kind of divine innocence, trustingness, lovingness, an immersion in his earliest affections, that left him free to attach “everything” else. How easily he was to say of the novelist that “all life” is before him! This generosity was a principle with him more than a specific gift for illuminating what he had not experienced. Despite his overflowing style, his wish to overflow into life, his privacy left James always the beholder, the watcher, the spy trying to guess what went on in other people’s beds, the bachelor of art who would turn his inner convolutions into the pretense of “perfect” form. “All life” could be articulated, he said handsomely; the “all” was still undifferentiated. The social experience on which he depended is still very limited in these letters.
It is this lack of obvious or open friction and conflict in James that explains why Edel’s biography is so elegant, consecutive. Like James’s correspondence, it is a series of “handled” scenes. It is not an objective critical assessment of the man in his social circumstances but a loving recapitulation of the artist as seen by himself. James said fondly, “I cherish the moment and evoke the image and repaint the scene.” James gave his biographer very few secrets to work up. James’s “homoeroticism” was too obviously sublimated in his furious industry. Maybe there was little enough to sublimate. Balzac grumbled to his mistress that he did not have time to write her a love letter, so he sent a love scene from the novel he was writing. James always had time, and the disposition, to write gushing letters.
Edel’s biography shows a submission to James’s genteel society; one longs for a crisper evaluation of James’s social debts. Cynthia Ozick has pointed out Leonard Woolf’s exaggerated feeling of social duty to his illustrious wife Virginia. “Society” can be a problem for Jews writing about Henry James: James himself had a social problem with the English. Despite Edel’s early methodological emphasis on “psychology” and the rivalry between the two gifted brothers, his book attests to James’s power over him more than it is an objective evaluation of James. In his personal adherence to the “rivalry” theme (Edel himself has a brother who is a professional philosopher), he can say in a headnote to James’s letters from the “Grand Tour”: “The Civil War had sharpened a desire in young Americans for new scenes, foreign places, an escape from the guilt of fratricidal war.” He says nothing of the new prosperity that made it possible after 1865, as after 1945, for Americans to travel abroad.
I wish that somewhere, in his many pages on Henry James, Edel had opened up the problem of the genteel tradition. Obviously James was intellectually as removed from his friend Oliver Wendell Holmes and his friend Henry Adams as he was from his brother William. But he relied on the “Cambridge set” (the James family house on Quincy Street faced the Harvard Yard) for company, for introductions. Norton and Lowell knew the Victorian notables. His velvety tact with the glacially refined Charles Eliot Norton, with the important Atlantic editor Howells, shows over and over what James was to confess was “the twaddle of graciousness.”
Nevertheless, James could not use Norton’s aesthetic. He could not use his brother William’s obsession with speculative philosophy as self-therapy. He amazes us, a century after these letters of the 1870s, by his determination to seek out what he could use, what he could find “attachable.” Europe was the great subject that he could “write up,” it was news from afar. From Europe he sent back reviews of French novels, Parisian impressions to the Tribune, notes on anything “characteristic.” He wrote for the Galaxy, the Independent, the Atlantic, Scribner’s. Nothing interfered with the endless driving of his pen. There is not a hint in these letters of a flirtation, of a totally unexpected involvement with a stranger. He complains of having to eat his restaurant meals alone. He complains that American “society” abroad is an “thin” as it is in Cambridge. He moves about endlessly—Baden-Baden, Bad Homburg, Ravenna, Perugia, Rome, Paris, London.
Europe was never seen by Thoreau, Dickinson, Whitman, Lincoln, but for “your lone and loving exile. H. J.” anything in Europe was material. The flow never stopped. “There is no flaw to our prosperity,” he writes. Everything was working for him, and in letters he could always put a good face on everything. “The even flow of destiny which bends us so caressingly forward.”