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The opening pages of the much-anticipated inaugural two volumes of The Complete Letters of Henry James, edited by Pierre Walker and Greg Zacharias, hold a telling contradiction. By way of his superb biographical introduction, Alfred Habegger insists that in the correspondence we will encounter much of the novelist’s rich “life-giving activity,” but that nonetheless the letters “do not deliver James himself” (1: xvii). The General Editors, in an absorbing overview of their methodology, argue that it could be said of James that in many ways his most genuine biography dwells squarely in his correspondence.
This divergence, on the one hand, speaks to our own disappointments—what we must relinquish when approaching a letter written neither to us nor about experiences in which we have a share. On the other, it speaks to the relation between self and “voice.” When we compose a letter, while we have our listening recipient theoretically in view, we are quite alone, shaping our words perhaps first and foremost to ourselves as a sort of inner correspondent. Surely it’s unclear how a letter composed by the writing “self” differs in essential ways from other doings of the self we spin out by [End Page 212] the day. To “correspond,” then, takes on complex import. As a case in point, we can consider Anthony Hecht’s poem “A Letter,” on its surface, at least, a letter to a lost love. It begins, “I have been wondering / What you are thinking about, and by now suppose / It is certainly not me” (48). Whatever else, at base these lines are written to the speaker himself. With James’s correspondence, then, it seems we get the man as he fashions himself in that moment, in that setting, in relation to that recipient, but ultimately to himself. As the novelist wrote in 1870 to his close Cambridge friend Grace Norton, in a letter that appears in print for the first time in these volumes, “Thinks of me as thinking perpetually of you. Never mind what I’m doing. I live in my thoughts” (2: 301). So yes, arguably no exchange of letters with any single recipient will reveal the whole person. A collective correspondence, however, might go quite far toward offering, if not the authentic man himself, at least something more fully corporeal of James’s inner reality.
It is precisely the comprehensive scope of this project—to collect and publish all of James’s letters in a scholarly edition—that makes these first two volumes and their promise of more to come so remarkable. The call for such an edition was sounded by biographer Fred Kaplan at the 1993 sesquicentennial celebration of James’s birth. We were overdue for a complete collection, he charged, one that could offer a more reliable presentation than those selective assemblages in circulation. Percy Lubbock’s early two volumes from 1920 reflected a heavy editorial hand under the watchful eye of James’s nephew. Leon Edel’s four volumes from the 1970s and 1980s went on to mark a significant step toward a reasonably full culling, but they display, shall we say, certain freedoms and enthusiasms. Edel famously claimed that any letter not in his edition constituted what James himself had styled “the mere twaddle of graciousness” (Walker and Zacharias 1: xlix), a judgment that subsequent scholars have deflated soundly. Edel decided to omit, for instance, an 1871 letter to Grace Norton in which James extrapolates literarily from thoughts about William Dean Howells:
The more I think of it, the more I
tend todeprecate the growing tendency—born of the very desperation of [a] writer—to transfer directly and bodily, without any intellectual transmutation, ⋄⋄⋄⋄all the crude accidents of his life as they successively befall, into the subject matter of literature. Before we are fairly launched here [in America], we are being swamped by the dire vulgarity of it.(Walker and Zacharias 2: 400, previously unpublished)
In 1999, Philip Horne...