In 1905, past sixty, James had written much and was eminent—at least with those who really knew what literature was—and Scribner’s was bringing out his “works” as though he were already an acknowledged classic, in twenty-four volumes bound in plum-colored cloth. For The New York Edition he had set himself the task of reviewing—and revising—what he had done since he published Roderick Hudson (1875), his first important novel, and he was also writing a set of prefaces. He was curious about his own artistic history. Where had all those stories and novels come from? What had been the “germ”—as he called it—that had started each one and how had it been planted? How had it grown to be the thing he was rereading?
Luckily, he had saved his old notebooks, with their crowded record of his literary projects. Here, for example, was the page that related how, at the fireside of the Archbishop of Canterbury one winter evening, the subject of ghost stories had come up, and the old prelate remembered a tale a woman had told him about some young children haunted by the ghosts of wicked servants who had corrupted them. The result had been “The Turn of the Screw.” In Florence, Eugene Lee-Hamilton had told James a curious true story about a certain Captain Silsbee, a Boston Shelley worshiper, who had laid siege to an aged “çi-devant mistress” of Byron and her niece in the hope of securing letters in their possession. After the older woman’s death the younger—an old maid of fifty—offered him the letters if he would marry her. Out of this he had made “The Aspern Papers.” Edmund Gosse had mentioned that John Addington Symonds’s wife, a rigid, “Calvinistic” moralist, had hated his “aesthetic” views—it was the basis for “The Author of Beltraffio.” And Mrs. Duncan Stewart had had a maid who delighted in the conversation at her mistress’s table, and was sadly cut off, banished to her own class, at her death—from which he had got his idea for “Brooksmith.” There were fifty such nearly forgotten entries.
But how different each suggestion was from the literary work provoked by it! Musing over such creative displacements, often arrived at by a process he could hardly have predicted, James reflected,
The habitual teller of tales finds these things in old note-books—which however but shifts the burden a step; since how, and under what inspiration, did they first wake up in these rude cradles? One’s notes, as all writers remember, sometimes explicitly mention, sometimes indirectly reveal, and sometimes wholly dissimulate, such clues and such obligations. The search for these last indeed, through faded or pencilled pages, is perhaps one of the sweetest of our more pensive pleasures. Then we chance on some idea we have afterwards treated; then, greeting it with tenderness, we wonder at the first form of a motive that was to lead us so far and to show, no doubt, to eyes not our own, for so other; then we heave the deep sigh of relief over all that is never, thank goodness, to be done again. Would we have embarked on that stream had we known?—and what mightn’t we have made of this one hadn’t we known! How, in a proportion of cases, could we have dreamed “there might be something”?—and why, in another proportion, didn’t we try what there might be….
The readers of these familiar James stories will wonder in turn, looking back at the same notebooks, preserved in the Harvard University library and published in 1947 and now again. “The Turn of the Screw” deals so teasingly with the archbishop’s haunted children that it has become a classic trap for the critic desiring positive answers. In “The Aspern Papers,” James’s narrator is the manuscript hunter whose self-deceiving egotism makes him one of those Jamesian characters who are blind to life’s best gifts. And so with the changed motif of “The Author of Beltraffio,” which converts the Symonds’s incompatibility into a frightening tale in which a mother murders her child in order to protect him from his father’s ideas—and sardonically represents James’s view of the deep quarrel between respectability and the artist. Brooksmith becomes a butler who has the experience of Mrs. Stewart’s maid, but who also illustrates, more seriously than one would have expected, the dependence of culture upon privilege.
The notebooks only occasionally indicate James’s later expansion of and deviation from the stories he had started. But he sometimes kept track of his more complicated subjects as they grew in his mind. In the case of What Maisie Knew, with its probing analysis of the plight of innocence, James’s notebook exhibits not only the original germ, but his subsequent enlargements and changes as they come close to his final vision. He would lay his idea by and then come back to it weeks or months later, each time thinking of the story in a new way. A dinner-table companion had told him about the situation of the child of divorced parents who have equal custody of her, and who remarry. He imagines, immediately, what might happen if the parents die and are replaced for the child by the new spouses—but still no story leaps from the idea. Nine months after collecting the original “little acorn,” however, James comes back to the situation. He sees that the parents must stay alive in order to quarrel over the child, but they are then to lose interest, handing it over to the stepparents. But it is not until almost two and a half years later that James suddenly sees where to center the story—in the jungle of adult betrayal—and he outlines a succession of dramatic scenes. “Everything,” he writes, “takes place before Maisie to reveal the strange, fatal, complicating action of the child’s vulnerability.” Nine months later, again, before he has actually written the opening chapters, he goes back to his notebook to revise the complex play of relations among Maisie’s four parents; and he continues to commit his thoughts about further changes to his notebooks for three months more until the work is finished.
The differences between a James novel and the wisp of suggestion that generated it are, of course, enormous. What became The Golden Bowl had at first seemed to be a subject for a short fiction, a nouvelle, based on the story someone had told him about the simultaneous engagements of a father and a daughter. Twelve years after setting down the idea, James began to work on the suggestive father-daughter relation, but imagined now a crossover of attachments between the sposi. Similarly, James found the first “dropped grain of suggestion” for The Ambassadors in his notebooks for 1895—the account Jonathan Sturges gave him of how William Dean Howells, visiting Paris, had confessed his regret at having missed what the ripe French scene offered to the young and ready and urged the young man, “Live all you can!” When, six years later, he had written his novel, James told Howells how those words, found on the notebook page, had suggested “the start” of his subject: “I noted them to that end, as I note everything, and years afterwards (that is three or four) the subject sprang at me one day, out of my notebook.” Again, he had glimpsed, when he first made the entry, a subject for a slight, short fiction, a “sujet de nouvelle…something, of a tiny kind,” for a group of stories about elderly personages. What developed, however, was also one of James’s longest fictions, his most elaborated study of character. Howells had quite disappeared from this full-blown version of his first idea though James would assure his friend, “Nevertheless your initials figure in my little note, and if you hadn’t said the five words to Jonathan he wouldn’t have had them (most sympathetically and interestingly) to relate, and I shouldn’t have had them to work in my imagination.”* And though Howells’s recorded words reappear in the novel, they have a different importance from that foreseen by James, for the fictional hero who speaks them is given a second chance, goes on to “live,” by his powers of imagination, in an unanticipated way.
One is struck, going back to the notebooks, by the slenderness of some of these first hints. James, it is clear, understood both the value and the dangers of his plot ideas and often preferred to have only the barest wisp of a motif rather than a thick slice of actuality to start with. In the examples I have mentioned none of the persons in the anecdotes, with the exception of Howells, was personally known to him, and he makes it clear in the notebooks that he was determined to repress all resemblance between his old friend and the hero of The Ambassadors, to start simply with the situation suggested in Sturges’s story.
James had, in fact, a fear of using too much of the suggestive material, and believed the germinal idea should be no more than a touch of the needle, whose “fineness it is that it communicates the virus of suggestion, anything more than the minimum of which spoils the operation.” His favorite cue was a bit of gossip abstractly illustrating human nature or the oddity of fate, without the actual case brought into close focus to block his imagination. Since he dined out frequently he was continually hearing such stories, the secular parables of the worldly London where he lived out his maturity and middle age. He did not want to know more about the persons concerned than could be related between courses. “Most of the stories straining to shape under my hand have sprung from a single small seed…a mere floating particle in the stream of talk,” he writes, thinking of a fellow diner’s description of a squabble over family property between a mother and son, which germinated into The Spoils of Poynton. If the story went on too long, provided too much, he sometimes, he wrote in his preface, found himself saying under his breath, “It’s the perfect little workable thing, but she’ll strangle it in the cradle, even while she pretends, all so cheeringly, to rock it; wherefore I’ll stay her hand while yet there’s time.”
Still he would insist that a writer must be supremely attentive. “Be someone on whom nothing is lost,” was his advice to the young writer. “To note” was properly a process that made the most of the imagination of the note taker. Like Lambert Strether, James himself might be said to have missed what others call “adventure.” But when, at the end of The Ambassadors, Strether declares that he has resolved to get nothing for himself out of his involvements in Paris, his friend Maria Gostrey tells him—as James might have told himself—“But with your wonderful impressions you’ll have got a great deal.” So the novelist can exclaim in a rapturous agony, “Ah, the terrible law of the artist—the law of fructification, of fertilization, the law by which everything is grist to his mill—the law, in short, of the acceptance of all experience, of all suffering, of all life, of all suggestion and sensation and illumination.”
Nothing was more different from his own method than the reportorial habit, the open notebook, of the literary “naturalists” of his time; he did not keep their kind of notebook. He implies as much in his preface to The Princess Casamassima, which casts as wide a net upon the social scene as anything else he ever wrote. The fruit of his walks through London streets, his interest in the lower classes and in social movements—even an underground anarchist conspiracy—it is a novel remote from the London he frequented. Yet precisely here he rejected the obsession with literal observation of his French contemporaries, Zola and his circle, whose “notes” were all too obvious in their writing. His own emphasis on the inner responses of his characters resulted in a different kind of recording.
The surviving notes for The Princess Casamassima are of the briefest kind, and James makes the observation, “I have never yet become engaged in a novel in which, after I had begun to write and send off my MS., the details had remained so vague.” Yet his vagueness about the milieu he had undertaken to depict proved no handicap. In the preface to the New York Edition he declared,
My notes then…were exactly my gathered impressions and stirred perceptions, the deposit in my working imagination of all my visual and all my constructive sense of London. The very plan of the book had in fact directly confronted me with the rich principle of the Note, and was to do much to clear up, once for all, my practical view of it. If one was to undertake to tell tales and to report with truth on the human scene, it could be but because “notes” had been from the cradle the ineluctable consequence of one’s greatest inward energy: to take them was as natural as to look, to think, to feel, to recognize, to remember, as to perform any act of understanding…. Notes had been in other words the things one couldn’t not take…. I recall pulling no wires, knocking at no closed doors, applying for no “authentic” information; but I recall also on the other hand the practice of never missing an opportunity to add a drop, however small, to the bucket of my impressions or to renew my sense of being able to dip into it. To haunt the great city and by this habit to penetrate it…that, positively was to groan at times under the weight of one’s accumulations.
In the case of the great work of his early years, The Portrait of a Lady, there does not seem to have been any particular suggestion provided as a start—unless, of course, it has been lost. He refers vaguely only to “an old beginning made long before” he began to write the novel in Florence in 1879; the notebook only exhibits an already well-developed partial scenario. If there was any “germ” it seems less likely to have been a plot idea than a vision of a character, as he suggests when he looks, twenty-eight years later, for the novel’s “dim first move”:
Trying to recover here, for recognition, the germ of my idea, I see that it must have consisted not at all in any conceit of a “plot,” nefarious name, in any flash, upon the fancy, of a set of relations, or in any one of those situations that, by a logic of their own, immediately fall, for the fabulist, into movement, into a march or a rush, a patter of quick steps; but altogether in the sense of a single character, the character and aspect of a particular engaging young woman, to which all the usual elements of a “subject,” certainly of a setting, were to need to be super-added. Quite as interesting as the young woman herself, at her best, do I find, I must again repeat, this projection of memory upon the whole matter of the growth, in one’s imagination, of some such apology for a motive. These are the fascinations of the fabulist’s art, these lurking forces of expansion, these necessities of upspringing in the seed, these beautiful determinations, on the part of the idea entertained, to grow as tall as possible…. Thus I had my vivid individual—vivid, so strangely, in spite of being still at large, not confined by the conditions, not engaged in the tangle, to which we look for much of the impress that constitutes an identity.
The tone also suggests that his visionary feminine figure may have originated in some real person, like his cousin Minny Temple, or like Clover Hooper, the wife of Henry Adams, or perhaps was a fusing of his many impressions of “the American girl” who was the object of his interested observation at home and abroad. But in view of his belief that experience was not something to be dumped directly into art, it is not surprising that no actual episode of his private life, no exact rendition of a close friend or relative is to be found among his notebook leads.
Yet the psychic energy of his writing comes, as with all great art, out of deep personal sources even where the subject seems most impersonal. James was reading, one day, the memoirs of Napoleon’s General Marbot, and thought it might be interesting to tell the story of a man who rejects the military traditions of his family but manages in the very act of rejection to perform a deed of valor. The result, a ghost story called “Owen Wingrave,” is strong, mostly because of the character of the protagonist—who springs from where? Not from the historic general, one may guess, but from James’s own horror of violence, felt as a young man during the Civil War, in which he did not participate. James recalled later that the story had been precipitated simply by a kind of hallucination—in the “immense mild summer rustle and ever so softened London hum” of Kensington Gardens—of a quiet young man with a book, with whom, one may guess, James felt a nostalgic identification.
Only once, in the autobiography left unfinished at his death, does James confess to a subterranean personal motive in his writing. In Notes of a Son and Brother, he refers to the literary perpetuation of his cousin, Minny Temple, who died of tuberculosis in her early twenties, in The Wings of the Dove, whose dying Milly Theale bears her initials. James’s notes about The Wings of the Dove don’t mention Minny Temple but begin with the idea, simply, of a dying young woman who protests, “Oh, let me live!” like “a creature dragged shrieking to the guillotine”—which was not at all the style of his stoical cousin. In succeeding notebook entries James elaborates a plot against Milly Theale by the man she is in love with and his mistress; this never happened to Minny Temple. Yet in the novel melodrama becomes poetry. The invented characters become complicated to the point where victimizer is also victim and the victim herself becomes an agent of retribution, and where the two young women, instead of being jealous rivals, are almost in love with each other, and the young man becomes the center of the tragedy. But the reincarnated “dove” remains the exquisite mystery Minny Temple had been for James.
In the deepest sense, James started not so much from the notebook’s plot idea as from the effort to discover some enactment for an inner “accumulation” of pain and love. The Wings of the Dove is “about” much more than a particular memory, but Minny Temple had remained for him, he wrote in his autobiography, “the supreme case of a taste for life as life,” and this taste he gives to Milly Theale.
James is elusive in his art and in his notes on his art, though now and then his voice is full of emotion as he appeals to his own genius, which he names “mon bon.” As though separating this other from the rest of his personality—in a way to be expressed in one of his ghost stories about an artist with a worldly double, “The Private Life”—he tells himself, in his notebooks,
I have only to let myself go! So I have said to myself all my life—so I said to myself in the far-off days of my fermenting and passionate youth. Yet I have never fully done it. The sense of it—of the need of it—rolls over me at times with commanding force: it seems the formula of my salvation, of what remains to me of a future. I am in full possession of accumulated resources—I have only to use them, to insist, to persist, to do something more—to do much more—than I have done…. All life is—at my age, with all one’s artistic soul the record of it—in one’s pocket, as it were. Go on, my boy, and strike hard; have a rich and long St. Martin’s Summer. Try everything, do everything, render everything—be an artist, be distinguished, to the last…. I have only to live and to work, to look and to feel, to gather, to note.
Two exceptional notebooks, the journals kept during his visits to America in 1881–1882 and 1904–1905, are more directly personal. Though these notebooks also refer to contemplated literary compositions—to James’s autobiographical volumes and The American Scene—they are more truly diaries, each prompted by James’s emotion on reencountering his homeland and by his need to reaffirm his decision to live in Europe. Sitting in his Boston hotel room in November 1881, writing, after six years of absence, in an “unspotted blank-book” brought with him from London, he recalls his near and remote past and confirms his resolution. “I needed to see again les miens, to revive my relations with them, and my sense of the consequences that these relations entail. Such relations, such consequences, are a part of one’s life, and the best life, the most complete, is the one that takes full account of such things.” He will, indeed, look about him, taking in impressions of New England in particular that will make him determine to write a “purely American tale,” The Bostonians, and he will continue his attachment to one of his persistent themes for fiction: the “complex fate” of being American. But his decision is unaltered. “My choice is the old world—my choice, my need, my life.”
He then reviews the period that began in the pivotal year of 1875 when Roderick Hudson appeared. He had tried Paris, though “Paris was only a stopgap,” spending unforgettable hours in the company of Turgenev, Flaubert, and their cenacle, and going assiduously to the Comédie Française. But socially, like many overseas visitors since, he had found it impossible to get out of “the detestable American Paris.” “I should be an eternal outsider,” he realized. The next five years in London were different: “J’y suis absolument comme chez moi.” He traces his growing ease in London society and his trips to the Continent, always writing.
In Cambridge, with his family, his memories go further back as he sits with his journal in his old room:
The feeling of that younger time comes back to me in which I sat here scribbling, dreaming, planning, gazing out upon the world in which my fortune was to seek…. What comes back to me freely, delightfully, is the vision of those untired years. Never did a poor fellow have more; never was an ingenuous youth more passionately and yet more patiently eager for what life might bring.
A few weeks later his mother dies suddenly, and the traveler remembers how confined her life had been, in “that flat, hot, stale and odious Cambridge.”
When James returned again to America in 1904, he was sixty. He had written almost all of his many books, his parents and sister Alice were dead; he had the conscious sense of making a farewell visit, and toured both familiar and unfamiliar places, taking notes for The American Scene. Personal memories again well up: “Why does my pen not drop from my hand on approaching the infinite pity and tragedy of all the past. It does, poor helpless pen, with what it meets of the ineffable, what it meets of the cold Medusa-face of life, of all the life lived, on every side. Basta, basta!” But never, it would seem, does the pen really drop.
James never expected to share such confessional reflections, or even his workshop secrets, with the readers of his books. He burned, almost without exception, all drafts of his published fiction. Though he sometimes wrote extended summaries of his own works for the benefit of his agent and publishers, only one escaped destruction—the 20,000-word synopsis for The Ambassadors that remained by accident in the Harper’s files; a similar treatment of The Wings of the Dove was burned. But the almost continuous series of nine of the notebooks he kept between 1878 and 1911 survives—perhaps because there was still unused material in them. He also left behind extended analyses of plans for the novels he never completed, The Ivory Tower and The Sense of the Past. All this material, including the Ambassadors synopsis, was published forty years ago by Oxford University Press as The Notebooks of Henry James. Now, Oxford has published a new edition of these same texts, along with some additions, under the title The Complete Notebooks of Henry James, to which the jacket adds the supererogatory, “the authoritative and definitive edition.”
It should be made clear, to the credit of the original editors, Kenneth Murdock and F.O. Matthiessen, that their edition remains an irreproachable scholarly presentation of the essential “notebooks.” The new editors, Leon Edel and Lyall H. Powers, have added only a very little. They include “detached notes” and some short, unimportant dictated notes to James’s typist about an unwritten play and the unfinished novels. Though some of this material has been published elsewhere, it is properly joined to the notebook material. But also included is James’s “deathbed dictation,” a transcript by his secretary and his niece of James’s scattered delirious utterances as he lay, felled by a cerebral stroke, during his final weeks. It, too, has already been published, in Volume 4 of Edel’s edition of James’s letters. It is not a letter, but neither is it visibly a note for any writing contemplated by the Master as dissolution took over. Also included in the volume is an unpublished manuscript—not a note for a story but the opening pages of an unfinished story called “Hugh Merrow.” This belongs in a possible collection of James’s literary fragments, along with The Ivory Tower and The Sense of the Past.
More questionable is the addition by Edel and Powers of James’s “pocket diaries,” which are merely date books listing James’s social engagements between 1909 and 1915. Though these include some references to James’s uncertain health during this period (he seems to have felt a need to record the alternation of days in or out of bed) and an occasional remark or two on the engagements in question, there is hardly anything that most readers can find of interest in such a bare record (except for a moment, when, having accompanied his dying brother, William, home to America, he cries out, “Unutterable, unforgettable hour”). Consequently, it has been necessary for the editors to provide an extensive biographical commentary in the form of a running essay that is much longer than James’s little entries. Where the information in this essay is not trivial—which it often is—it is part of an already familiar history in Mr. Edel’s own published life of James, and in other studies. We may enjoy reading under the date of June 4, 1909, “Dine with Morton Fullerton and E.W. Charing Cross Hotel,” when we are told that it signifies James’s attendance at a “tryst” of Edith Wharton and her lover, but this occasion has already been described, particularly by Wharton’s biographers. Most of the entries signify less momentous meetings, and perhaps they should have been left to scholars interested in tracing a great man’s minutest occasions. The section makes an odd 145-page augmentation of the “notebooks.” I found of even smaller general interest James’s address book and cash accounts, which, as presented here, are the rawest of biographical raw materials.
Edel and Powers have made a dubious decision, also, in abandoning the older edition’s strict chronological ordering of James’s notes, which made it easier to see what the writer was setting down from day to day. Although, as the new editors themselves admit, “James would occasionally pick up the notebook nearest at hand—without regard for dates—to jot down an item,” they have treated each notebook as if it were a deliberately composed manuscript. And while the new edition goes very far in providing biographical explanation of the “pocket diaries,” it austerely leaves the reader on his own in interpreting the relation of the notebooks to the works that grew out of them, simply noting the published titles. Of course, there was no need to repeat the work of Murdock and Matthiessen, who had brilliantly analyzed the transmutations in detail, discussing the meaning of James’s changes in a way that has been useful to every serious student of James since. If for no other reason, the contribution of Matthiessen and Murdock’s Notebooks remains of immense value.
November 5, 1987
Letter of August 10, 1901, published in The Letters of Henry James, edited by Leon Edel, Volume 4 (Harvard University Press, 1984), p. 199. The letter does not appear in Henry James Selected Letters, also edited by Leon Edel and published in August by Harvard University Press. ↩