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  • From Family Papers to Archive: The James Letters1
  • Brian Crane

Funded through a bequest from Waldron Phoenix Belknap in 1949, the Harvard University Press’s Belknap imprint was introduced to publish “books of long-lasting importance, superior in scholarship and physical production, chosen whether or not they might be profitable” (“Brief History”). Thomas Wilson, one of the press’s most important directors, oversaw the founding of the imprint and expressed his goal for it in more practical terms in a speech delivered upon the release of one of the first major Belknap volumes, the Diary and Autobiography of John Adams:

If I am to be remembered, I should like to be remembered as the man who realized that The John Adams Papers must have a uniform, dignified letterpress edition—that they must not be dispersed, volume by volume, among many publishers with consequent changes of emphasis and format, and necessary loss of public impact and historical influence.

(qtd. in Hall 144, 146)

To Henry James scholars, Belknap is surely most familiar as the publisher of Leon Edel’s four volumes of letters. Wilson contracted with Edel to prepare these volumes as the Adams Diary and Autobiography were nearing completion, and his goals for the two projects were certainly similar. As with the Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, the James volumes were to present important archival documents in a unified format that avoided the pitfalls of piecemeal publication. The James project did, however, pose certain difficulties. Perhaps most significantly, the number of extant letters was deemed too great to allow for a complete edition. But both Edel and Wilson agreed that a four-volume selection could provide a representative and useful survey of the central body of literary letters, especially if care was taken in the arrangement to allow for the later addition of supplementary volumes. Confident and enthusiastic, Edel negotiated royalties with the James family’s literary agents at Paul Reynolds Inc. and then signed a contract with the Harvard Press in 1958.2 [End Page 144]

The eventual publication of the Belknap volumes was not, however, certain. The imprint was new, its funding precarious, and, however much the mission statement discounted profits as a factor for choosing projects, financial considerations were very much on Wilson’s mind. The volumes needed to be prestigious, which meant they should include major letters newly published, and, perhaps most importantly, they needed to sell. This last he stressed when Edel requested that the international copyrights to the finished volumes be reserved for him so that he could offer the English printing to his long-time friend and publisher Rupert Hart-Davis. Wilson flatly refused to give up these rights, writing:

this is a monstrous collection of letters; money is going to be lost; less money will be lost if the original publisher controls the world market, particularly the two parts of the market—the United States and the British Commonwealth—in which the book can expect to find the great majority of its readers.3


The returns on the Diary and Autobiography would quickly prove Wilson’s concern was well founded. He spent $664,000 in Belknap funds to produce these volumes, but their sale would generate only $456,000 in revenue (Hall 148). For the Belknap press to survive, the disparity between cost and returns had to be kept to a minimum in projects such as Edel’s.

Regarded from the vantage of hindsight, it seems prophetic that copyright should be raised so early in the project, since the management of the James family copyrights would be the source of all major conflicts stemming from Edel’s work on the contracted volumes. In 1958, however, neither Wilson nor Edel had reason to believe copyright conflicts would ever arise. Edel had negotiated royalties with Reynolds’s firm and had a long-standing priority agreement with the James family that he was confident would ensure that James’s major literary letters would first appear in the Belknap volumes.

This priority arrangement dated back to the early thirties. Henry James III,4 the James estate’s first literary executor, had been impressed by Edel’s doctoral dissertation, written in French at...


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