The Magazine

The Master’s Voices

Henry James gets the scholarly treatment.

Mar 26, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 27 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
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Among the scholarly and critical books that continue to crowd the Henry James shelf in university libraries, this new one by Michael Anesko deserves a significant place. Monopolizing the Master tells the story of what happened to Henry James’s legacy after his death in England in 1916 at the age of 72.

Photo of Jeremy Northam and Uma Thurman in ‘The Golden Bowl’

Jeremy Northam, Uma Thurman in ‘The Golden Bowl’ (2000)

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Not long before he died, he declared that he had long thought of “launching a curse not less explicit than Shakespeare’s own on any such as try to move my bones.” Expressing his “abhorrence” of any biography of himself, and of giving to the world instances of his private correspondence, he destroyed reams of letters from family and friends. Such vigorous disposal activities may have been somewhat health-related, and Anesko describes them in a colorful manner: “At particular moments of medical crisis, plumes of smoke would rise from his chimney or waft from the cottage corner of the garden at Lamb House, where the caretaker could keep a watchful eye on the Master’s epistolary bonfires.” James’s watchful eye was most fully extended to his own work when, in the New York Edition of his writings (1907-09), he oversaw and wrote prefaces to the books of his he thought most worth preserving. The edition was to be, as he put it, “a sort of plea for Criticism, for Discrimination, for Appreciation on other than infantine lines.” But the revision and reissuing of his books also constituted, suggests Anesko, both an artistic and a commercial “attempt to monopolize himself by patenting a style for futurity.” Revised, books would remain longer in copyright, thus making them, in James’s words, some “twenty or thirty years younger.”

As is well-known, the New York Edition, which excluded seven of his novels and half of his stories, was a resounding commercial failure, as suggested by James’s first remittance check from Scribner’s for $35. His attempt to exert control over how a reader should read his works, in the prefaces he wrote for the edition, was part of a larger pattern. He and his family—especially nephew Harry and sister-in-law Alice—tried (in Anesko’s words) “to control the representation of themselves to curious outsiders.” There had been an earlier attempt by Katharine Loring, companion for many years to Henry’s sister Alice, to publish Alice’s diary after her death in 1892; in the face of her brothers’ disapproval, the diary remained unpublished for 40 years. Then, after William’s death (1910), when Henry set about writing the second volume of his memoir, Notes of a Son and Brother, he proceeded to “improve” William’s letters by substituting various “preferred expressions” of his own. Through such rewriting, his brother’s intention might “flower before me as into the only terms that honourably expressed it.” William’s son Harry was appalled, and Henry apologized, promising never again to stray from his “proper work,” although 16 excerpts from the emended letters found their way into the memoir.

James died in 1916, having become a British subject as an act of loyalty to his adopted land and in reproof of America’s not having entered the war. Although he had burned so many of the letters addressed to him, there were thousands of his own extant; for example, Edmund Gosse presented the James family with no less than 400, yet William’s wife and daughter, who had taken on the solicitation of letters, seemed relatively uninterested. Gosse told Edith Wharton that they were upset about James’s English citizenship and wanted to emphasize instead the writer’s American aspect. After complicated machinations, a suitable candidate to edit the letters, the choice of both Wharton and Gosse, was found in the person of Percy Lubbock, one of the Master’s disciples who had written respectfully about James’s American roots.