New York Times Book Review
Henry James: A Life in Lettersby Henry James
This collection of Henry James's letters-more than half of which have never been published-offers a vivid picture of his life of passionate creation and the complex world in which he lived. Through his exchanges with writers such as William Dean Howells, Henry Adams, Robert Louis Stevenson, H. G. Wells, and Edith Wharton, as well as presidents, prime ministers,… See more details below
This collection of Henry James's letters-more than half of which have never been published-offers a vivid picture of his life of passionate creation and the complex world in which he lived. Through his exchanges with writers such as William Dean Howells, Henry Adams, Robert Louis Stevenson, H. G. Wells, and Edith Wharton, as well as presidents, prime ministers, bishops, painters, and great ladies and actresses, we gain a fascinating glimpse of James's views on sex, politics, and friendship as well as his novels and the art of writing. These letters constitute a landmark of James scholarship and the real and best biography of this most complex and compelling artist.
Author Biography: Henry James (1843-1916) was born in New York City. In 1865, he began writing reviews and stories for American journals. 1875 found him settled in Paris, then London, where he was very popular in society. He became a British citizen in 1915. He was a highly prolific writer of novels, short stories, and letters.
Author Biography: Philip Horne was educated at Cambridge University and is currently a reader in English literature at University College London. He edited the Penguin Classics edition of The Tragic Muse.
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Henry James (hereafter HJ) was born on 15 April 1843 at 21 Washington Place in New York City. He was a grandson of the strict Presbyterian William James of Albany (d. 1832), an Irish immigrant who amassed a large fortune ($1,300,000 and much land), but also a son of Henry James `Senior' (1811-82), fifth of a generation of eleven children which abstained from business in what HJ called a `rupture with my grandfather's tradition and attitude'. Henry James Senior had rebelled against his father's moralistic prescriptions and been forced to contest a punitive last will and testament to obtain his share of the estate, money he then used to follow his calling as a peripatetic Swedenborgian philosopher and social controversialist, a friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thomas Carlyle among other notable figures of the time.
HJ was the second of Henry James Senior's five children by his wife Mary (née Walsh, 1810-82). His elder brother was the future psychologist and philosopher William James (hereafter WJ), 1842-1910; his younger siblings were, in order, Garth Wilkinson James ('Wilky'), 1845-83; Robertson James (`Bob'), 1846-1910; and the remarkable Alice James (hereafter AJ), 1848-92. The young Jameses seldom remained long in one place; their restless father, moving between Manhattan and Albany, between America and Europe, took them through a succession of eccentric family homes New York, Paris, London, Geneva, Boulogne, Bonn, Newport (Rhode Island), Cambridge (Massachusetts).
In the letters that follow we pick up HJ as a young author, shortly before histwenty-first birthday. About 11 July 1863 HJ had been drafted in Newport for army service in the Civil War, but then exempted on 29 August by reason of physical disability (probably a back strain). It was in 1964 that `Henry James Junior' (as HJ was known till 1883) began his career in print, after a false start at Harvard Law School in 1862-3. He can already describe himself as `a literary man'.
1. To Thomas Sergeant Perry
25 March 1864
Colby MS Published HJL I, 49-51
The James family had returned in summer 1858 from one of their educational sessions in Europe and spent a year in Newport, Rhode Island, which became their main home for some years (from October 1859 to September 1860 they were again in Europe). HJ made friends at the Rev. W. C. Leverett's school there with Thomas Sergeant Perry (1845-1928). WJ and (to a small extent) HJ studied painting in Newport with the French-trained William Morris Hunt (1824-79). Another student in Hunt's studio, as HJ recalled in 1914, was the friendly, Francophile artist and `man of the world' John La Farge (1835-1910), reader of Browning and Balzac, who became `at once ... quite the most interesting person we knew', and who in 1860 married Perry's elder sister Margaret (1840-1925). The extraordinarily well-read Perry was `from the first an exemplary ... and a discouraging friend'. Literary ambition and youthful high spirits inform the HJ-Perry correspondence.
From 1860, according to Perry's reminiscences, HJ `was continually writing stories, mainly of a romantic kind. The heroes were for the most part villains, but they were white lambs by the side of the sophisticated heroines, who seemed to have read all Balzac in the cradle and to be positively dripping with lurid crimes.' (LHJ I, 8.) In the autumn of 1862 HJ joined the Harvard Law School in the event only for part of a year. A 1909 fragment, `The Turning Point of my Life', marks this as his beginning in literary production: `I brought away with me certain rolls of manuscript that were quite shamelessly not so many bundles of notes on the perusal of so many calfskin volumes.' HJ had already published one (anonymous) story by the time of this letter, `A Tragedy of Error' in The Continental Monthly, a short-lived magazine edited by Mrs Martha Elizabeth Duncan Walker Cook, in February 1864 (the magazine expired in this same year). Leon Edel suggests that the `modern novel' mentioned in this letter may be HJ's second published story, `The Story of a Year', published in the Atlantic Monthly in March 1865 and that the Atlantic made difficulties before printing it.
Newport, Friday, March 25th 1864. Dear Sarge Your second letter quite put me to the blush. (If you examine my paper with Willie's microscope you will see that it reflects a faint ruby tinge.) I had been meaning to give some sort of civil answer to your first, from day to day; but my pen, ink and paper yea, even my small stock of wits were engaged in advance. The printer's devil was knocking at the door. You know a literary man can't call his time his own. I wonder that you have enough for letter writing. What I mean is that I had made up my mind to finish a certain task or die in the attempt. The task is unfinished: and I have embraced the alternative. This [is] a spiritual, supernatural message. I write with a pen snatched from my angel-wing. It is very pleasant up here but rather lonely, the only other inhabitants being Shakespeare, Goethe and Charles Lamb. There are no women. Thackeray was up for a few days but was turned out for calling me a snob because I walked arm-in-arm with Shakespeare. I am rather sorry, for I am dying to hear the end of Denis Duval: that is an earthly expression. Now I am immortal. Heigh-ho. I am lucky in having Goethe all to myself, for I am the only one who speaks German. I translate a good many of Elia's puns. I don't think G. quite relishes them. Elia is delicious. He always flies about with a pen in his ear a relic of his clerkship days. He looks a good deal like the picture of the harpies in Doré's Dante. He and W. S. have great times together. Elia is forever spouting out quotations from the Plays, which Shake never recognises.
Nay, to speak seriously, or at least, soberly, the task I mentioned was to rewrite that modern novel I spoke of to you and get it off my hands within a certain number of days. To do this I had to husband my (physical) writing powers. I failed; still, it is almost finished and will go in a day or two. I have given it my best pains: bothered over it too much. On the whole, it is a failure, I think; tho' nobody will know this, perhaps, but myself. Do not expect anything: it is a simple story, simply told. As yet it hath no name and I am hopeless of one. Why use that vile word novelette. It reminds me of chemisette. Why not say historiette outright? Or why not call it a bob-tale? I shall take the liberty of asking the Atlantic people to send their letter of reject. or accept. to you. I cannot again stand the pressure of avowed authorship (for the present;) and their answer could not come here unobserved. Do not speak to Willie of this. I will not begin again the old song about being lonely; although just now I am quite so; Wilkie is gone to New York. As for John La Farge, he comes to Newport so seldom that his company goes for little. I think I shall run up to Boston some day to see him. Do come down some Saturday, as you say. Now that the Spring is waking up to some sense of her duty it is good to be out of doors. I walk a little every day, and by sitting and standing and staring and lingering and sniffing the air, contrive to get a certain amount of exercise. The great event since you went off has been a grand Sanitary concert: here the Rhodian Sappho loved or at least flirted, and sung. Here your humble servant performed the duties of one: attired like an English footman, he showed folks to their seats.
I am impatient for your Wasson-killer. My friend, read the 4th Act of the Mercht. of Venice and be merciful. What a fearful state for a man! I wonder if he is aware of your presence in the world; if he sniffs you from afar. I suppose he is attacked with epileptic fits and unaccountable tremblings. He may die before your article comes out: in which case it could serve for an epitaph. A propos of Wasson, Father has been having quite a correspondence with your old love Miss Gail Hamilton, or Mary Abby Dodge. I believe I told you while you were here that he had written her an anonymous letter, suggested by one of her articles. A short time ago, he received a letter from her saying that she had just been reading the "Substance and Shadow," and that she was convinced that the letter and the book were by the same hand; and thanking him warmly for both. Then he answered her; and yesterday heard from her again: a very good, healthy letter, with a promise of her next book.
Monday. So much I wrote yesterday. To-day I saw John and got your 3d letter!!! Oh beloved Friend! Oh joyous tidings! Oh magnanimous youth! Halleluia! Oh laggard time! Come! Come! Come to your H.J.
2. To Charles Eliot Norton
11 November 
Houghton MS or MC Unpublished
In May 1864 the whole James family moved to 13 Ashburton Place, Boston. HJ made his critical as well as fictional début in print in this year, when the world of American magazines was about to become freshly active following the end of the Civil War in April 1865. He also made influential friends. In Notes of a Son and Brother he recalled his thrill at `the offered cup of editorial sweetness': `I had addressed in trembling hope my first fond attempt at literary criticism to Charles Eliot Norton, who had lately ... come to the rescue of the North American Review, submerged in a stale tradition and gasping for life, and he had not only published it in his very next number the interval for me of breathless brevity but had expressed the liveliest further hospitality, the gage of which was thus at once his welcome to me at home.' In October 1864 the North American Review, published like the Atlantic by Ticknor & Fields and which Norton edited with James Russell Lowell (1819-91) from 1864 to 1868, printed HJ's review of Nassau W. Senior's Essays on Fiction. Norton (1827-1908) devoted his life to what HJ called in a 1908 memorial essay `the civilising mission' a friend and editor of Ruskin, he wrote on medieval art and culture and translated Dante. His relations with HJ's father were prickly. He was soon to be a co-founder (with Edwin Lawrence Godkin (1831-1902)) of the Nation (New York) in 1865; the HJ of 1915 recalled, `I contributed, in my young innocence, an "important" article to the first number of the enterprise' (LC II, 178). HJ subsequently became a regular contributor.
HJ was in Northampton, Massachusetts (where he later set the opening of Roderick Hudson) as `a patient in a "Water Cure"' for the constipation that plagued him, together with back problems, in his early years.
Northampton, November 11th
My dear Mr. Norton.
I herewith transmit, in accordance with your request, the long-awaited notice of Azarian. Like many long awaited things it is not such a success as might be desired. It was written at a disadvantage. You will, however, judge of it for yourself. I have in my mind a much better notice wh. may one of these days get uttered a propos of something else. I will send the two remaining notices, viz: those of "Emily Chester" and the "Gypsies of the Danes' Dyke" before the end of the month. I hope you will not regret it if on these likewise, conscience should compel me to be `severe.'
Most truly your's
Henry James jr.
3. To Lilla Cabot (later Perry)
Colby MS Unpublished
HJ's second published story signed this time was `The Story of a Year' in the Atlantic Monthly of March 1865.
Lilla Cabot (1848-1933), daughter of the Boston surgeon Dr Samuel Cabot, was a poet and talented painter. Her mother was a cousin of the eminent poet, Harvard professor and diplomat James Russell Lowell (1819-91). Her brother Arthur Tracy Cabot (d. 1912), who graduated from Harvard in 1872, was to become a doctor and a Fellow of the American Academy. In the spring of 1874 she married HJ's close friend Thomas Sergeant Perry. She kept the following letter for many years, and wrote on the envelope: `May first letter flora H. James when I was a schoolgirl. I was staying with Aunt Anna Lowell and was going to Harvard Square to post some letters after supper in late May. I heard steps running after me and H.J. asked if he might go with me. After posting the letters I said goodnight as I had to go to my cousin's for a locket I had left there the night before. He proposed that I sh'ld. let him go with me and go for a walk afterwards. I got my locket and dropped it when he picked it up and gave it to me. I was a shy girl and feeling embarrassed by his man of the world manner and by knowing he was "an author" I accidentally dropped it again and this time he picked it up and put it in his pocket and said it was the will of Providence he sh'ld always keep it. I had the dignity of shy youth and said nothing meaning to ask for it again when he took me home from our walk but we went to the top of a hill to see a view he knew of and he talked so interestingly that we did not get home till 10.30 and I hurried into the house and forgot the locket till the next morning when I wrote him a stiff little note asking him to give my locket to the bearer and finding it very stiff and prudish I added in a P.S. "Did you see Miss Poke's poem in the Cambridge Chronicle this morning called the "Rape of a locket". This is his reply and I kept it because I knew he was an Author! My brother who was my messenger (he was in college & had come to call on me) said "Well Lilla I never knew a man take so long to write a short note". But never was a note read with such pride! H. James seemed so grown up to me! Seldom has any note been kept so long but the author's celebrity has quite justified my youthful sense of its value.'
My dear Miss Cabot
I had of course wildly dreamed of keeping, wearing & cherishing your locket but I must part from it just as I'm getting used to it. In sterner truth I had quite forgotten having taken it it was sojourning sweetly in my waistcoat pocket, just over my heart, when your note was handed me. I'm sorry you should have had the trouble of sending for it though I can't altogether regret an accident which has opened a correspondence between us. Who can tell where it may end? I don't say when: I hope never never till I cease to be your most faithful
H. James jr.
I will look up Miss Poke's poem. It was very kind of her not to have written a Dunciad, à mon adresse.
4. To Charles Eliot Norton
31 July 
Houghton MS Published HJL I, 61
In July 1865 HJ had three (unsigned) pieces on Matthew Arnold, Louisa M. Alcott and Goethe in the North American Review, edited by Norton and James Russell Lowell, as well as two in issues of the weekly Nation, which Norton and Godkin started in that month.
13 Ashburton Pl.
My dear Mr. Norton.
Would the N.A.R. like a notice of Thoreau's Letters fr. an outside, i.e. an extra-Concord point of view? Unless some such view is taken, I fear the lesson of the book will be lost. I will be glad to take it, if you so desire, according to my lights. I should also be well pleased to have you suggest any other book for criticism. As I start tomorrow for the Wh. Mts., will you be so good as to address me, at your leisure, North-Conway, N.H.?
With kind regards to Mrs. Norton, believe me
very faithfully your's
H James jr
I importune you thus early, lest some Thoreau-ite should be before me. Only remember my offer & answer at yr. perfect convenience.
5. To Thomas Sergeant Perry
Friday morn 
Colby MS Published TSPB, 276-7
When he got to North Conway, New Hampshire, in the White Mountains, HJ spent part of what he would remember in Notes of a Son and Brother as a `splendid American summer' with (among others-) Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935.), a future chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, John Chipman Gray (1839-1915), a Harvard law professor to be, and HJ's brilliant, troubled, exciting cousin Minny Temple (1845-70) (with an escorting aunt, and three sisters). They made up a 'fraternising, endlessly conversing group ... under the rustling pines'. It is not clear which `romance' HJ is writing of here; his next fiction to be published was `A Landscape Painter' in the Atlantic Monthly of February 1866. I have provisionally dated this as after HJ's time in North Conway.
A myriad thanks, dear Boy, for your heaven-inspired letter. Of course it is more delightful than I can say to hear your good opinion of the romance; which I value infinitely more than a chorus of promiscuous praise. But what I am especially grateful for is the fact that you should have written to me at the dictate of a mood of feeling so kindly & expansive. "Keep a doin' of it." I have had nothing in a very long time please me so much as yr. expression so full and so spontaneous of confidence & sympathy.
Yr. letter touches upon great questions.
The Book of Job! I know it but little. W. Holmes has often spoken of its charms to me.
I appreciate yr. sense of mystery I delight in seeing you ferment. One day a rich wine will come of it. I should like to see you before you go to Newport but put not yrself out. Give my love to your visitors.
6. To Charles Eliot Norton
28 February 
Houghton MS Published HJL I, 63-4
HJ had written to Norton in October, the day after his review of Schérer's Nouvelles Études sur la littérature contemporaine had appeared in the Nation, proposing `an article on "Recent French Criticism"', `a review say of Sainte-Beuve, Taine, Renan (as an Essayist) and Schérer' (HJL I, 62). HJ was in the future to write on all these figures: Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1804-69), Hippolyte Adolphe Taine (1828-93), Ernest Renan 0823-92) and Edmond Schérer (1815-89).
Boston, February 28th
My dear Mr. Norton:
I undertake a begging-letter. I beg in the first place that you will out of the abundance of your kindness, allow me to retract my proposal to deal critically with Mrs. Stowe, in the N.A.R. I have been re-reading two or three of her books & altho' I see them to be full of pleasant qualities, they lack those solid merits wh. an indistinct recollection of them had caused me to attribute to them; & it is only such merits as these that in my present state of intellectual exhaustion consequent upon having pumped up faint praise for a succession of vapid novels in the Nation, will restore vigour & enthusiasm to my pen. The fact of the proposal having been (as I believe) mine, makes me regret my indisposition both the more & the less: the less because it reminds me that you had probably not set your heart upon the article. If its omission will cause an aching void in the Review (or anywhere else) I will of course apply myself to the task. Otherwise I beseech you to avert your gaze & allow me to back out gracefully. I will promise for the future, not to undertake reviews without a better knowledge of the facts of the case.
And this remark applies somewhat to the second clause of my petition.
To come at it, at once: I am loth, moi chétif, to engage with the French critics next June or at all, for the present.
I honestly feel incompetent to the enterprise. That is, I could of course put together a certain number of inoffensive commonplaces & uncontested facts about them, & the article would stand written. But I had rather not touch them till I feel that I can do it easily & without stretching: for except under these circumstances, what I should write would be stiff and laboured. I have written the Taine part of the review & it fails signally to satisfy me & would fail equally to satisfy you. I therefore would feel very grateful to you for sinking the scheme just now.
Do not think me either very lazy or very fastidious, but believe me simply tolerably shrewd where the interests of the Review are concerned. Do not trouble yourself, if my representations satisfy you, to answer. I will take your silence for a merciful assent, & not for that of contempt for the instability of my character, or as a token of your having cut my acquaintance.
Ever most truly your's
H. James jr.
7. To William Conant Church
21 May 1866
NYPL MS Unpublished
In 1866 the James family had while they searched for a permanent home what HJ would recall as `a long summer, from May to November, spent at the then rural retreat of Swampscott, forty minutes by train northward from Boston'. Thirty-nine years later, at Coronado Beach, California, HJ would recall `that (probably August) day when I went up to Boston from Swampscott and called in Charles St. for news of O.W.H., then on his 1st flushed and charming visit in England, and saw his mother in the cool dim matted drawingroom of that house (passed, never, since, without the sense), and got the news, of all his London, his general English, success and felicity, and vibrated so with the wonder and romance and curiosity and dim weak tender (oh, tender!) envy of it, that my walk up the hill, afterwards, up Mount Vernon St. and probably to Athenaeum was all coloured and gilded, and humming with it, and the emotion, exquisite of its kind, so remained with me that I always think of that occasion, that hour, as a sovereign contribution to the germ of that inward romantic principle which was to determine, so much later on (ten years!), my own vision-haunted migration.' (N, 239.) (`O.W.H.' was Oliver Wendell Holmes.)
Church (1836-1917) and his brother, Francis Pharcellus Church (1839-1906), were founder-editors of The Galaxy, a New York magazine which first appeared on 1 May 1866, and where the story in question here, `A Day of Days', appeared on 15 June 1866.
Dear Sir: I have at your request added 5 M.S. pages (as few as I could) to my story. I agree with you on reflection, that it will be the better for them & I enclose them herewith.
Henry James jr.
W. C. Church esq.
May 21st, '66
P.S. Suppose (if it is not too late too make a change) you call the story: -- Tom Ludlow's Letters, instead of the actual title. Isn't it a better name?
8. To Wil1iam Dean Howells
10 May 
Houghton MS Published LFL, 59
The Ohioan William Dean Howells (1837-1920), like HJ the literary son of a Swedenborgian father, had returned in 1865 from a consular post in Venice (the reward for a campaign biography of Lincoln) and had found a position at the new Nation in New York under E. L. Godkin. Then from 1 March 1866, he moved to Boston to become assistant editor of the Atlantic Monthly under James T. Fields. Charles Eliot Norton helped him find a house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. HJ and he met in the summer of 1866, around the time of Howells's great success with Venetian Life, and forged an alliance. In November 1866 the James family moved again, to the house they had found at 20 Quincy Street, Cambridge. By December Howells was telling E. C. Stedman of a talk with HJ `two or three hours long, in which we settled the true principles of literary art' (SLWDH I, 271). In 1867 came Italian Journeys, the `papers' referred to in this, the earliest letter from HJ to Howells known to survive.
Cambridge May 10th
Thanks again for your papers They are utterly charming, & a 100 times the most graceful, witty and poetical things yet written in this land. I especially liked the chapter on Ferrara. Que n'y suis-je-pas! But they are all delightful and I await the rest. Your manner seems to me quite your own & yet it reminds one vaguely of all kinds of pleasant & poignant associations. Thou hast the gift "go always!" I like the real levity of your lightness & the real feeling of your soberness; and I admire the delicacy of your touch always & everywhere.
The worst of it is that it is almost too sympathetic. You intimate, you suggest so many of the refinements of the reality, that the reader's soul is racked by this superfluous enjoyment. But as I say, I think I can stand another batch.
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