Letters From an Unlikely Literary Friendship - Henry James and Edith Wharton Letters: 1900-1915
Henry James and Edith Wharton
To her, he was ''Cherest Maitre.'' To him, she was ''Dear and unsurpassably distinguished old Friend!'' ''admirable Confrere,'' ''Princesse Rapprochee!'' ''the Firebird'' and ''Dearly beloved Edith.''
Few of their mutual acquaintances could have predicted that such a warm, affectionate friendship would develop between Henry James and Edith Wharton - a friendship lovingly documented by this meticulously edited collection of their letters. Although their novels portrayed similarly well-to-do social circles, although both left America to live in Europe, there was little else initially to draw the two writers together. Indeed, they had twice attended the same dinner parties in the closing years of the 19th century without James so much as noticing the shy young woman who was then known as the wife of Teddy Wharton.
By the turn of the century, the two had begun a polite literary correspondence, with James urging the younger writer to stick to America as a subject: ''I egg you on in, your study of the American life that surrounds you. Let yourself go in it & at it - it's an untouched field, really.''
''Use to the full your ironic and satiric gifts,'' he added, ''they form a most valuable (I hold) & beneficent engine.''
As Wharton began to establish herself as a writer, however, artistic differences and envy threatened to eat away at the blossoming friendship. Wharton despaired of critics' ''continued cry that I am an echo of Mr. James.'' She took issue with his increasingly rarefied esthetics. (''Everything, in the latest novels, had to be fitted into a predestined design,'' she wrote, ''and design, in his strict geometrical sense, is to me one of the least important things in fiction.'') And in 1904 she told her editor that she had been unable to read anything James had written in the last 10 years.
James, on his part, professed admiration for Wharton's work, but the tone of his encouragement tended to underscore their artistic differences. He singled out ''The Reef'' as his favorite of her novels - clearly the most Jamesian of her efforts - while somewhat condescendingly observing that her masterwork, ''The House of Mirth,'' was ''better written than composed.'' Already covetous of her social position and independent wealth, James was to become even more envious of the wide readership and fat advances she achieved so quickly in her career - a career that had begun not, like his own, as a sacred commitment to literature but as a means of escape from a suffocating marriage.
After learning that the earnings from one of her novels paid for her luxurious touring car, James remarked that proceeds from ''The Wings of the Dove'' had enabled him to buy a small wheelbarrow in which his guests' luggage might be transported from the local railroad station to his house. ''It needs a coat of paint,'' he wrote. ''With the proceeds of my next novel I shall have it painted.''
Happily enough, none of these petty differences seemed to diminish the growing affection Wharton and James possessed for each other. Although James unfortunately burned most of Wharton's correspondence -in 1909, during a fit of depression, he burned most of his personal papers -his letters and her few remaining ones indicate that they shared not only an interest in literary matters but also a concern for each other's domestic ups and downs and a love of gossip.
In fact one of the charming aspects of this volume is that it shows just how susceptible James, that severe high priest of Art, could be to the stuff of ordinary life. His letters are filled with references to dreaded trips to the dentist (''the process arrests the flow of soul''), with catty appraisals of dinner party guests and exasperated complaints about the hardships of travel. As time goes by, the combination of failing health and an arduous work schedule would force James to withdraw almost exclusively to the solitude of his home in England, where he depended upon Wharton and other friends to bring him news of the outside world.
As these letters indicate, the friendship between James and Wharton spanned particularly difficult periods in their lives, and the two writers provided each other with much needed emotional support. Wharton's affair with their mutual friend Morton Fullerton was passionate but tempestuous and brief; and her ill-matched marriage to Teddy Wharton ended in 1913, after he embezzled large sums of money from her and showed growing signs of mental instability. James counseled her throughout these travails, while Wharton helped see him through the severe depressions that overtook him toward the end of his life. In addition to providing him with companionship and good will, she campaigned (unsuccessfully) to win him the Nobel Prize, secretly persuaded Scribner's to divert some of her own royalties to provide him with an $8,000 advance for ''an important American novel'' and made elaborate plans for a celebration of his 70th birthday that were supposed to help alleviate his financial worries. ...