In 1911, a Boston publisher called Gorham Press brought out a small scarlet-bound book with gilt-edged pages. The title was written in gold lettering on the cover: “The Henry James Year Book.” Inside were quotations from James’s novels, stories, and essays, one for every day of the year, “selected and arranged” by Evelyn Garnaut Smalley. Smalley had arranged for the work’s publication, too: Gorham was a vanity press avant la lettre. She was a family friend of James’s, as well as a devotee of his work. Her father, a prominent American journalist living in London, had introduced the newly expatriated James to English society some four decades earlier, when Smalley was a child.
The “Year Book” was not a commercial success, and though two other presses have reissued the work since—one, in England, in 1912, and another, in Pennsylvania, in 1970—it has largely escaped the notice of even the most enthusiastic James readers and scholars. (It isn’t, for instance, mentioned in Leon Edel’s five-volume biography of James—and neither is Smalley, though her father makes several appearances.) But earlier this year, the centenary of James’s death, the University of Chicago Press brought out a new edition of the “Year Book,” with a foreword from Michael Gorra, a professor of English at Smith College and the author of “Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece.” The work also has a new title: “The Daily Henry James: A Year of Quotes from the Work of the Master.”
“The Daily Henry James” is barely two hundred pages. There are generally four or five calendar dates per spread, and under each date is the title of a work by James, its year of publication, and a quotation from that work. Each month begins with a seasonally appropriate quotation. (November, for example, offers a meditation on the “romance of a winter afternoon in London.”) A few other quotations are matched with similarly relevant dates, but otherwise they occur in no particular order: you bounce around from “The Awkward Age” (1899) to “Roderick Hudson” (1875) to “The Ambassadors” (1903). Snatches of dialogue (“ ‘It’s so charming being liked,’ she went on, ‘without being approved’ ”) and descriptions of characters (“His idea of loyalty was that he should scarcely smoke a cigar unless his friend were there to take another, and he felt rather mean if he went round alone to get shaved”) sit alongside extracts from his essays (on Trollope: “His great, his inestimable merit was complete appreciation of the usual”). Rather sweetly, the longest daily quotation arrives on James’s birthday, April 15th: a passage from “Washington Square” describing a childhood spent around the Square, as James’s was.
How does one read such a book? Are you supposed to open it to the relevant page every morning? Open it occasionally at random or read it straight through? I went first to my birthday, hoping for something that would resonate. I found this: “Against Americans I have nothing to say; some of them are the best thing the world contains. That’s precisely why one can choose.” I read this as a tacit endorsement of my choice, a couple of years ago, to move from England to America. Then I went to the birthdays of my friends and family, whose quotations were disappointingly irrelevant. It felt like checking the horoscope.
“The Henry James Year Book,” the original 1911 publication, was meant to be used, not just read. Harvard’s Houghton Library, devoted to rare books and manuscripts, has a first edition, and I went to see it after flipping through “The Daily Henry James” for a while. In the earlier book, each quotation occupies its own red-ruled box, which takes up half a page, and under each quotation is a blank space, for the book’s owner to write down the birthdays of those she knows. (“The Year Book” was not an appointments diary, good only for a single year: its dates are not matched with days of the week, and no year is specified.) The “Year Book” is odd, but it’s not unique: a number of authors received similar treatment in the later decades of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. The publication in England of the “Tennyson Birthday Book,” in 1878, inspired a George Eliot birthday book later that year. Its editor, a Scotsman named Alexander Main, had already had great success anthologizing Eliot: his “Wise, Witty and Tender Sayings in Prose and Verse, Selected from the Works of George Eliot,” published in 1871, went through ten editions in twenty-five years. In the preface to that anthology, Main declares his hope that the book will be a guide to wisdom and virtue.
By contrast, Smalley focusses on James’s ability to delight. In her preface, she writes of the “happiness” she enjoyed while working on the book and the “pleasure” she hopes its readers will experience. Gorra, too, stresses the pleasure that readers can find in the anthology, which, he suggests, derives from its decontextualizing method: because observations from James’s fiction about human nature are here detached from any particular situation, we can better appreciate their “epigrammatic force,” as well as “the extraordinary precision” of his descriptive prose, his “sheer ability to make us see,” which can be “easy to miss when caught by the flow of a narrative.”
There’s something to this. “When you love in a deeper and intenser way, then you are, in the same proportion, jealous,” an unspecified character from “The Golden Bowl” says in the entry for October 11th. “When, however, you love in the most abysmal and unutterable way of all—why then you’re beyond everything, and nothing can pull you down.” Without knowing who makes this remark (it’s Maggie Verver), or the context for her words (she’s talking to her father about her marriage), we don’t know how to interpret this observation. Is the speaker someone toward whom we should feel sympathetic or skeptical? (Sympathetic, if you’re wondering.) Someone whose views on love we should believe or dismiss? (It’s complicated.) And so, instead, we sit, for a moment, with this notion on its own. What is the relation between love and jealousy? Does the greatest love pass beyond jealousy?
In his preface to the New York edition of “Roderick Hudson,” James wrote, “Really, universally, relations stop nowhere, and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw . . . the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so.” In “The Daily Henry James,” relations begin nowhere: the fragments have no connection to one another, and don’t add up to any meaningful narrative. The result is that the book offers Jamesian atmosphere rather than Jamesian plots: flicking through the anthology, you experience the elements that make up James’s novels in the way that you might experience them in real life. You see characters briefly, as at a party or in the street; virtually every page provides an observation on the American character, a description of the grounds of an English country house, a fastidious young man reflecting on the character of a great artist, or someone pondering what one should do with youth, wealth, and beauty.
I was reminded, as I turned the pages, of “Dickens’s Dream,” the 1875 watercolor by Robert William Buss, in which a sleeping Charles Dickens sits in a chair in his study, characters from his novels surrounding his head and spreading out into the corners of the room. Buss died before he could finish the painting, so only Dickens and the characters closest to him are in color; the other characters are faint black-and-white sketches, filling the air in a Dickensian miasma. A red-jacketed Paul Dombey appears to sit at the end of Little Nell’s deathbed, which hovers above Dickens’s knee. On the other side of the room, Harold Skimpole frolics above the writing desk, while by his side Captain Cuttle squats and Mr. Dombey raises a top hat. Today, the worlds of nineteenth-century novelists come in 3-D, too: there’s the annual ten-day Jane Austen Festival, offering attendees the chance to explore the Bath of Austen’s novels, as well as to learn the dances and crafts that her characters would have practiced. Until it closed last month, Dickens World, a themed attraction in Kent, England, promised visitors a tour through the “atmospheric streets, courtyards and alleyways of Victorian England.”
Dickens World layered Dickens’s novels and Dickens’s life, putting Peggotty’s Boat-house, from “David Copperfield,” alongside a mocked-up blacking factory, like the one in which Dickens worked as a child. “The Daily Henry James” suggests to readers a similar doubleness. When you hold the little book in your hands, you hold small shards of works that, in their complete form, would take up an entire shelf, but you also hold a piece of the publishing culture of James’s time. The new version retains Smalley’s original preface, as well as letters of introduction that were printed in the 1911 edition, from James himself and William Dean Howells. (James signs off his very enthusiastic, very Jamesian letter of introduction with “I take the thing for a very charming and illuminating tribute to the literary performance of–henry james.”) These remind us that the book is a reproduction of a hundred-year-old anthology—and the removal of the original anthology’s blank spaces turns the work into a museum piece, discouraging twenty-first-century annotations.
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