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The Henry James Review 21.3 (2000) 222-233

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Materiality, Reproduction, Lost Meaning, and Henry James's Letters

Greg W. Zacharias, Center for Henry James Studies, Creighton University

Whether value is expressed in terms of markets or meaning, a Henry James letter holds greater value than any of its reproductions. In terms of market value, an actual letter is, of course, worth more than any copy or other representation. In fact, any reproduction, including a published transcription or facsimile, would decrease the market value of that letter. (A recent example of this principle is the parodied appearance of a previously unknown Thomas Jefferson letter, the owner of which is said to have refused to permit facsimile reproduction in Documentary Editing because such reproduction would lessen its worth [see "A New Jefferson Document"].) In terms of meaning, an actual letter carries by merit of its materiality more information, thus more meaning, than any edited version of it could and more than any reproduction--photographic, digital, or any other--would.

The second type of value is what concerns me most here. Both the historical and material nature of James's letters inform their meaning and should be remembered when reading edited texts of the letters. A letter has a materiality that locates it in history and provides a context for its meaning. Thomas Jefferson contended that "The letters of a person, especially of one whose business has been chiefly transacted by letters, form the only full and genuine journal of his life" (qtd. in Boyd, "General View" xi). A letter differs from a literary text such as a poem or novel in the way that it should be read and understood in the sense that there is no "final" or published text other than the one which the writer sealed in an envelope and put into the mail (Tanselle, "Editorial Problem" 204). "Drafts" and "revisions" in the form of authorial changes, on the other hand, may be contained in a single letter text rather than in a series of separate drafts. When the [End Page 222] entirety of information available through James's letters is found interesting by a reader, Jefferson's contention, including the lost meaning he implicitly attributes to published and thus incomplete representations of a letter, may become one important way to think both of published editions of letters and of the original documents themselves.

There may be a range of reasons why a reader might choose to read a particular volume of Henry James letters. These reasons could include, for example, gaining insight into the life or times of James or his correspondents, probing the relation of James's life to art, understanding better James's use of language, seeking the titillation that comes from looking into James's private life, or enjoying an editor's informational notes and introductions. But, whatever the reason, all readers must have in common some desire to read the original documents. What is obvious should at the same time be remembered: the published letter represents the historical document. It is not the document itself. What may not be as obvious is that the representation, reproduced in the published text, can, as Jefferson's remarks imply, be only partial. Nathaniel Hawthorne elaborated this concept of the completeness of the material document and thus the incompleteness of its reproductions when he located the power of the document in its material and historical existence:

Strange, that the mere identity of paper and ink should be so powerful. The same thoughts might look cold and ineffectual, in a printed book. Human nature craves a certain materialism, and clings pertinaciously to what is tangible, as if that were of more importance than the spirit accidentally involved in it. And, in truth, the original manuscript has always something which print itself must inevitably lose. An erasure, even a blot, a casual irregularity of hand, and all such little imperfections of mechanical execution, bring us close to the writer, and perhaps convey some of those subtle imitations for which language has no shape. (qtd. in Boyd, "Editorial...


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