- Painting the Novel: The Fine Art of Fiction in Henry James’s Prefaces by Henry James
In 1878 Tolstoy wrote a letter to S. A. Rachinsky defending the design of Anna Karenina. Rachinsky had said the novel lacked structure. Tolstoy replied: “On the contrary, I take pride in the architectonics. The vaults are thrown up in such a way that one cannot notice where the link is” (754). From the start of his career to the finish, Tolstoy did his best to hide the considerable craft behind his fiction. Henry James, in contrast, brought his vaults and links to our fullest notice. He didn’t so much pioneer his techniques as he pioneered the sharpening of our regard for them.
In particular, of course, the eighteen prefaces that he wrote for the New York Edition of 1907–1909 form one of the most influential descriptions of literary methods in the history of the novel. Most fiction writers, even ones who don’t like James or have never read him, now start from a position of serious and sustained attention to narrative structure and character viewpoint. The prefaces have been critical to developing the intensity of that attention. They’re also responsible for giving the New York Edition much of its full significance and for helping create the framework through which we read nearly everything James wrote. In their impact both on other writers and on the James canon, the prefaces rank among the key achievements in modern literature.
Wiseblood Books now offers a new collection of the prefaces, in a low-cost paperback that seems directed mainly at students in creative writing courses. The prefaces have been published separately before, notably by Charles Scribner’s Sons, in the 1934 edition that features the classic R. P. Blackmur introduction. The full text of the Scribner’s edition is available online at the Internet Archive and was reissued in print in 2011 with a new foreword by Colm Tóibín. The Library of America, back in [End Page E-6] 1984, also included all the prefaces in its second volume of James’s literary criticism. More recently, Adrian Dover, on his site The Ladder, has provided an excellent web edition of the prefaces, with links to the novels and stories.
The new Wiseblood volume is a welcome addition to these versions, in part because it comes at us with an appealing brashness. The engaging and offbeat introduction by Angela Cybulski considers the prefaces mostly as a source of literary and moral guidance for aspiring authors. Cybulski tells us nothing about the place of the prefaces in James’s career and doesn’t mention the New York Edition even in passing. She cuts the prefaces off from their traditional harbors of biographical information and critical background, sets them adrift on their own merits. In addition, Wiseblood’s textual decisions, such as the change of the New York Edition’s mistaken “Maisie is of 1907” to the correct “Maisie is of 1897,” are made silently, without explanation (169). So is the omission of the most expendable preface, the one for “The Author of Beltraffio” and the other short works in volume 16. Overall, the edition is stripped-down in a way that feels appropriate to James. It mirrors the odd elisions that characterize his fiction, the refusals to provide all the expected details. It also throws into relief the prefaces themselves, divorced from the usual explications, the footnotes and asides on how James has shaped or hidden his private history. Combined with Cybulski’s introduction, the unadorned text suggests a cheerful challenge to academic and biographical interpretations of James, a quiet insistence that the prefaces be taken at their word. This won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it’s good to see an independent literary publisher like Wiseblood offering an idiosyncratic and personal approach to this most idiosyncratic and personal of writers.
At the same time, Cybulski catches much of the appeal of the prefaces for novelists. James, she notes, “possesses a charming, even...