Revision as a “Living Affair” in Henry James’s New York Edition
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Revision as a “Living Affair” in Henry James’s New York Edition

Compare Philip Roth’s and Henry James’s attitudes toward revising their work for their collected editions. When a New York Times reporter asked if he had gone back over his earlier novels, “Mr. Roth said he had deliberately not reread these early works. ‘That would have been a bad idea,’ he explained, ‘because . . . I would have been tempted to make changes. But that part of my life is long gone and closed. Whatever those books are, they are’” (McGrath). Henry James, who had two collected editions of his work published during his lifetime, reread and revised the bulk of his published work for the New York Edition and wrote to Robert Herrick, “I shouldn’t have planned my edition at all unless I had felt close revision . . . to be an indispensable part of it” (LL 416). For Roth, revision is a temptation to be resisted; for James it was an artistic necessity.

The difference between Roth and James on revision is not a matter merely of personal preference. This essay argues that there are historical and philosophical components to the difference as well. Roth and James are both interested in maintaining the integrity and relevance of their writing, but their strategies for doing so are diametrically opposed. Roth takes what I will be calling a preservationist approach, which views the past as past and believes it requires protection from abuse, while James employs a revisionist one that believes that works of art remain vital within a culture by undergoing change rather than petrifaction. At issue here are not only the security of the author’s legacy but also different understandings of tradition, literary property, textuality, and authorship. James was writing at a time when these were issues of intense public debate in the form of arguments over the nature of copyright. He undertook the revision of his selective and collective edition in the wake of the establishment of the first international copyright agreements and a Supreme Court decision that justified copyright more as a form of personal property than as a boon to the progress of culture and knowledge. Michael Anesko and Stuart Culver have made significant contributions to James scholarship by revealing the interplay of copyright law and other market forces with the production of the New York Edition. This essay [End Page 163] builds on their work by putting the establishment of copyright and its philosophical and commercial context into dialogue with James’s theory and practice of revision. While his formalism was very much in step with the theory undergirding copyright law at the turn of the century, his attitudes toward literary property, textual identity, and posterity were very much out of step with the developments of copyright laws and the general cultural shift to a more historicist outlook.

James’s revisionism was a genuine alternative to preservationism; it was also a failure. Perhaps no more ironic sign of the failure of James’s revisionism exists than that the Library of America edition of James’s complete works prints the earlier, unrevised editions of his books. The series editor explains, “This volume reprints the works of a young Henry James just beginning his long and productive career. The earlier versions offer the best opportunity to recapture that beginning” (HJN1 1269).1 It is a decision that many contemporary editors would approve and that would surely be endorsed by Hershel Parker, the most vocal proponent of the earlier editions’ superiority over the New York Edition. It is also a decision that completely contradicts James’s position on not only his own but all works of art.

This essay is not particularly interested in resolving the question of which edition of James’s texts should be published or read. I agree with Philip Horne’s more measured claim that “the criteria for judgment . . . are challengingly relative” (46). We cannot make a generalization across the entire corpus of works that will hold for all cases. More interesting are the ways James’s revisions and the negative reactions to them spoke and continue to speak to different, even competing, concepts of the author, of the...