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The Henry James Review 21.3 (2000) 290-297

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The Leon Edel Papers at McGill University 1

Steven H. Jobe, Hanover College

In May of 1989 Montreal's McGill University purchased from Leon Edel a life's worth of literary and professional papers, with the understanding that he would forward materials as his need for them passed. Now, on the fourth floor of the McLennan Library, in the Rare Books and Special Collections Division, in boxes opened only for cursory examination and in folders and notebooks yet uncataloged, there abides almost seventy years worth of the accumulated correspondence, research files, photo files, drafts, galleys, proofs, diaries, journals, and memoirs of the late Edel (1907-98), biographer and editor of Henry James, student of the Bloomsbury circle, editor of the diaries of Edmund Wilson, and McGill graduate (B.A. 1927, M.A. 1928). While there are additional small caches of Edel's correspondence in the Alderman Library at the University of Virginia and in the Butler Library at Columbia University, those sparse records are dwarfed by the ninety-two containers of diverse materials at McGill. 2

This mountain of paper is in large measure the consequence of McGill's pursuit of Edel's Canadiana, the principal files of which would fill a single filing cabinet drawer. Edel was one of the last surviving members of the "Montreal Group," predominantly McGill students and alumni who in the mid-1920s were instrumental in the development of Canadian poetic modernism. Before a 1928 Province of Quebec Scholarship took him to Paris and the Sorbonne, he helped to found and to manage the short-lived McGill Fortnightly Review, the periodical that gave public voice to a new generation of poets intent--in Edel's words--on "torpedoing" the prevailing sentimental verse. And he has since remained in correspondence with and written frequently on his Montreal confrères. Having already failed to anticipate Canada's National Archives in Ottawa in securing the papers of poets A. J. M. Smith, F. R. Scott, A. M. Klein and other members of the "Group," McGill was eager, and fortunate, to acquire the last such significant archive. For Edel was alternately courting and courted by the National Archives as early as 1973 and as late as 1985 before McGill arranged to purchase his papers. [End Page 290]

Part of the price of obtaining the Canadiana, though, was the need to embrace the more cumbersome Jamesiana as well. That McGill should acquire, by default if you will, Edel's enormous James material is only poetically just, though, inasmuch as the University first directed his career toward James. In 1927 Edel was intoxicated with a smuggled copy of Ulysses and intent on writing his master's thesis on the modernist novel. But University policy against graduate work on living writers sent him to a wholly unfamiliar writer who had obligingly died in 1916. In James he found not only a precursor to the "moderns" but the subject for a life's work (Edel, "How" 160-64). In turn, McGill's archivists and curators now have before them a goodly portion of their own lives' work if the papers are ever to be sorted, described, and cataloged for efficient use.

McGill literally received good weight for its money from a scholar who thirty years ago disparaged the times as "the age of the archive," when the aggressive courtship of still-living writers by libraries had caused a commodification of literary papers and justified the preservation of items that, in Edel's opinion, might just as well have been consigned to the fireplace or to the wastebasket (Age 8). What Edel elsewhere referred to as the "paper madness of modern times" had fostered the tendency of "saving the dishwater with the dishes" ("On the Use" 43, 46). And now something of the same kind of indiscriminate hoarding has occurred in Edel's own case. The volume of tear sheets of James's works, of photocopied material available elsewhere, and of typescripts, proofs, galleys, unbound signatures, and review clippings of Edel's many works...


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