The Letters of Henry James
selected and edited by Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1920, Two vols. 8vo, xxiv-f434, xv-511 pp. Portraits. $10.00.. New York:
IT is excellent that Henry James has been Liken at his word, which is this: ‘The best letters seem to me the most delightful of all written things — and those that are not the1 best the most negligible. If a correspondence, in other words, has not the real charm. I would n’t have it. published even privately; if it has, on the other hand, I would give it all the glory of the greatest literature.’
These letters do possess ‘the real charm.’ They have, moreover, a singular equality of value. In most collections of the kind the letter-writer shows himself at his best with one correspondent, at his less good with another, at his worst with a third; so that, after a little experience, the reader is enabled by the mere superscription to make a shrewd guess at the quality of the letter that is to follow. Here this familiar guide-post fails. The letters are ‘wonderfully’ those of a man so individual in his habit of thought and word that he betrayed the smallest fluctuations of personality in his intercourse with his many and various friends; a man, besides, who took his whole art of expression with a seriousness that banished all dealings with the second-best. Whether written by band or in the ‘grim legibility’ of ‘Remingtonese,’ — the practice of dictation having ‘crept into’ his ‘existence through the crevice of a lame hand,’ — his letters are a succession of triumphs in the vanishing art they represent.
They ripple with humor as a wheatfield ripples in the wind. But their most distinctive characteristic is the wealth of affection with which they overflow. This was poured out to his friends with a generosity that warms even the heart of the bystander, the reader of cold print. What must it have meant to those who tore open the original envelopes and looked for the first time upon the words they contained? It was the least English characteristic quality of Henry James — this gift of warm expression, in unique and genuine terms of endearment. The Celtic strain in his blood may well explain it. To this, and to his nomadic education, may possibly be ascribed the preponderance of his sympathies with all French and Italian influences and appeals; for there is no corresponding response to what other ‘lettered’ men of his generation were wont to find in Greece and Rome. In the arts related to his own forms of literature, painting seems to have spoken most directly to him. There is little evidence of a response to poetry, and there was apparently none to music. There are, on the other hand, innumerable illustrations of his own beliefs and practices in the art of fiction.
If his affection lapped round his friends, it positively enveloped the members of his own family. The letters addressed to them reveal a brother and uncle in whom the essential man, heartily loving and beloved, stands most clearly forth. Taken with all the others, they constitute an important body of completely characteristic autobiography. His books outside the field of fiction, the Notes of a Son and a Brother and its fellows, have now received the addition which will render a formal Life of him superfluous. Mr. Lubbock has performed his task of creative editing with admirable taste and sympathetic insight.
Were there space within the narrow confines of this notice for quotations, it might readily be made to sparkle with felicities. A place would have to be found also for the extraordinarily cogent, lucid, and direct statement of the reasons which led to one of the most decisive actions of Henry James’s comparatively uneventful life, his becoming a British citizen. But this and many other tokens of the true importance and significance of these volumes in the domain of literature and biography may now and here be merely suggested. M. H.