A sufferable snob - Henry James

Could there be a more ambitious publishing project? In 2006, the University of Nebraska Press began issuing a series of volumes entitled The Complete Letters of Henry James under the editorship of Pierre A. Walker and Greg W. Zacharias; this year saw the publication of the eighth volume.1 According to the editors, there currently exist no fewer than 10,423 “known letters” from the hand of Henry James. Some of them are in manuscript, have never been published, and are held in “at least 132 repositories and private collections”; others, the original manuscripts of which may or may not have been lost or destroyed, have previously appeared in print, either in Leon Edel’s definitive biography of James or in some other book or journal (over two hundred in all). Walker and Zacharias, whose book will include every last one of these missives, expect their series to run to “at least 140 individual volumes.” The math here is easy: since the first eight volumes have taken eight years to bring out, the entire set of 140 volumes can, at the present rate, be expected to take some 140 years to complete.

Before one even begins to respond to the contents of The Complete Letters themselves, one feels obliged to respond to these remarkable numbers. They reflect not only an extraordinary dedication to serious literary scholarship, but also, one has to conclude, a touching faith that, over the course of the next few generations, books, libraries, university presses, and universities will continue to exist in more or less their present form; that, moreover, there will still be scholars and common readers who care enough about James to be interested in perusing the epistolary record of his life; and that, finally, our species itself will survive long enough to allow the editors to finish their work. To contemplate the scope of this endeavor is to reflect, indeed, that if the scientists currently laboring to extend the human lifespan significantly manage to attain their goal within a few decades, and if Walker and Zacharias—or, more likely, their successors—succeed in speeding up production somewhat, a few individuals alive today may actually live to see the very last volume of this series roll off the presses. At which point the only remaining problem, aside from the cost (at present, the volumes retail for between $80 and $130 apiece), will be shelf space: the first eight volumes take up about thirty centimeters, or one foot, on a shelf; 140 volumes of this size will take up a full eighteen and a half feet—in other words, an entire bookcase three feet wide and six shelves high, with an extra half-dozen or so volumes left over to be piled up on top.

In these arguably post-literary and unarguably decadent times, of course, the temptation to chaff an enterprise such as this is to be expected—either as a symptom of that decadence or as a reflection of the insecurity which many of us quite justifiably feel, when faced with that decadence, about the future of serious cultural endeavors and, indeed, of Western civilization itself. Viewed from this perspective, these volumes emerge as a vote for optimism, for hope—or, at the very least, as an attempt to light a candle rather than curse the darkness. And who, after all, could be more deserving of this treatment—this tribute—than Henry James, the very personification of civilized sensibility? If the cynic in many of us, then, might be unable to avoid gently scoffing at this venture, the part of us that, in spite of everything, continues to believe in, participate in, and stand up for the life of the mind and the experience of art feels moved to bow down in admiration. For let’s face it: alongside Walker and Zacharias, the biographer Robert Caro, who has spent forty years painstakingly chronicling the first fifty-five years of Lyndon B. Johnson’s life, is a low-attention-span underachiever; alongside these Complete Letters, the very mapping of the human genome looks almost like a high school science project.

This edition is not just notable for its astonishing ambition, however; even at this early stage, it must also be reckoned a signal achievement. By every measure, the volumes we have so far are simply outstanding in every major respect. The books are physically beautiful inside and out; Walker and Zacharias have edited the letters to within an inch of their lives, identifying the people, places, and works mentioned therein and employing an elaborate procedure called “plain-text editing” (used previously for the correspondence of Mark Twain) in which a battery of symbols indicate the author’s cancellations, insertions, and so on. In addition, each volume contains a biographical register, a list of works cited, and an extensive index. Yes, some of the letters are of considerably greater interest than others, and when scrutinizing some of the more interesting ones, the reader may momentarily lament the paucity of context (What exactly, one wants to know, is James replying to? What reply did he receive?); yet that desire is quickly quashed by the thought of a Complete Letters consisting of 280 volumes instead of 140.

One potentially puzzling feature deserves mention: The Complete Letters are divided not just into volumes but into groups of volumes, so that the first two volumes in the set are labeled Volumes 1 and 2 of the Complete Letters of Henry James, 1855–1872; the next three volumes are labeled Volumes 1, 2, and 3 of The Complete Letters of Henry James, 1872–1876; and so on. There is, in other words, no overall numbering system. Each of these groups of volumes comes with a bonus: its own thirty- to forty-page introduction by a veteran Jamesian (one, Millicent Bell, is a nonagenarian; two others are professors emeriti) who contextualizes and supplements the letters by summing up the developments in the Master’s life during the period the volumes cover—his travels, his social encounters, his writings, the critical reception thereof, and the general progress of his literary career—and contemplates the significance of this period to the life and career as a whole. Inevitably, each of these experts, in addition to guiding us through a chapter of James’s life, brings his or her own distinctive perspective to the job. The result is an embarrassment of critical and biographical riches, in which postmodernism, blessedly, has yet to raise its ugly head.

Next year will mark the centenary of James’s death. Given that armies of academics, during these hundred years, have eagerly picked over his literary remains, it’s rather surprising how many very arresting items here have never been published or even cited before. One reason for this, we’re told at the outset, is that “the James family . . . held an interest in preserving a certain public image of their ancestor.” Not that the letters included in these first eight volumes—which (with the exception of one brief note from his childhood) take James from age fourteen to age thirty-six—contain anything particularly scandalous or anything that dramatically alters our picture of him. Through this portion of his correspondence, at least, he appears to be on good terms with his entire family, writing frequently and cheerfully to each of his parents separately as well as to his older brother William and sister Alice (but only once to his youngest brother, Bob, and not at all to his brother Wilky); yes, one occasionally detects a soupçon of friction or frustration in his notes to editors, but the tone never gets remotely ugly; and though he exchanges letters with a wide range of friends and colleagues, at no point does any unpleasantness arise between them, whether over literary, political, or personal subjects.

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