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The Henry James Review 21.3 (2000) 279-289

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Leon Edel and the "Policing" of the Henry James Letters 1

Pierre A. Walker, Salem State College

For as long as I have done archival research on Henry James I have en-countered rumors of a "dark side" to Leon Edel's influence on James studies. Edel, these rumors go, did his best to control and limit access to James archival material and to prevent publications by other scholars that would have "scooped" his own ongoing projects.

While the content of these rumors is no doubt familiar to many James scholars, some of the actual truth of the matter lies in the papers of the Paul R. Reynolds literary agency at Columbia University. These papers are a treasure trove for anyone interested in the publication and dramatization during the middle of the twentieth century of the James brothers' writings, relations amongst the James descendants, and Edel's relationship to the family and to the publication of Henry James's letters.

Reynolds directed one of the oldest and most renowned literary agencies in the United States. At some time before his death in 1947, William James's eldest son, Henry, appointed Reynolds's agency to handle literary matters concerning both the uncle, Henry, and the father, William. Reynolds was fully empowered to establish contracts with publishers, theaters, movie producers, broadcasters, etc., for the reproduction of James material, and, for a commission of 10 percent, he distributed royalties and fees collected to the heirs.

As an agent, Reynolds's activities were motivated by money; he often identifies himself in his correspondence as "a money man." During his agency, he had little contact with most of the James heirs, beyond sending checks and annual statements. Billy James (William Jr.) did take an interest in family literary matters, and there is a considerable correspondence between Reynolds and him. Billy also communicated with James scholars and appears, generally, to have supported and approved their research. He did, clearly, think highly of Edel's work. [End Page 279]

Reynolds had an agent in London, Innes Rose, of Farquarson's, who handled British and some Commonwealth matters. Rose's agency proved to be a complication for Reynolds and the Jameses when Rose approved Michael Swan's request to quote unpublished letters by the novelist in his article about Henry James and Hendrik Andersen (published in London Magazine). Swan did not realize that Rose was only empowered to give him permission for the British market, and when he sold the article to Harper's Bazaar he affirmed that he had received appropriate permission to quote the James material in the article (Cabell). When Harper's Bazaar published the article in the U.S., though, Billy and Reynolds were both upset, and the Reynolds Papers include a flurry of correspondence on this matter between Billy, Reynolds, Harper's Bazaar, Swan, Rose, and various lawyers.

This, then, is the context in which, during the 1950s, Edel began to publish collections of Henry James letters. The earliest correspondence in the collection between Reynolds and Edel involves the fees Edel's publishers paid Reynolds for permission to publish James letters in Edel's first volume of Henry James Selected Letters (LE-SL2) and in his and Gordon Ray's volume of Henry James's and H. G. Wells's correspondence. But the story of Edel and other scholars' quotation and publication of James letters really begins with his project to publish four volumes of Henry James letters with Harvard University Press.

The first record of the four-volume Letters in the Reynolds Papers is a 3 February 1958 letter from Edel to Oliver Swan, Reynolds's assistant, outlining the project and opening the negotiation of a permission fee. Not long after, Edel signed a contract for the four-volume Letters with Harvard University Press and agreed to turn over to Reynolds 10 percent from his (i.e., Edel's) royalties (LE-OS1, LE-OS2, OS-LE).

Reynolds did not give Edel exclusive access to James's letters. Edel obviously was...


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