Henry James’s Letters: What’s the Point of Publishing Them?

Henry James was a prolific epistolarian: it is estimated that he wrote as many as 40,000 letters in his lifetime. While many are lost, editors currently have access to more than 10,000 letters, and the University of Nebraska Press has recently published the first two volumes of what will exceed 140 volumes of letters! (Volume 1 and Volume 2; a review in the London Review of Books.)

I’m a huge fan of Henry James – he is one of my favorite authors in the English language – and find current collections of his letters interesting. But what’s the point of publishing 140 volumes of his correspondence, especially when the first two volumes are available at the price $90 and $95 respectively. One commenter wrote, about these first two volumes, “[T]he general public has been deprived of James’s full epistolary record until now…”

Can one really say that these books are for the general public? Those with bank accounts like Croesus, perhaps, and Methuselan life-spans, perhaps; at the rate of publication, it will take decades for this set to be published. These books are certainly not for the general public, but rather for scholars, and for libraries. In today’s world, what sense is there in publishing such texts in book form, especially when additional letters will be found in the future, which will not be able to be inserted in to the books in the correct chronological order? After all, the academics behind this project don’t make any money from it; why not just publish it on the Internet, and, eventually, on CD or DVD?

No, there’s something perverse about this. While I would welcome the chance to read some of these letters, there seems no logic in making expensive books, and killing trees, to provide all of them to a handful of scholars. It’s a shame that academia is so behind the times: this sort of work should be available on the web, for free, to all those who are interested, not just to those in ivory towers with the means to have their university purchase them.

Visit my Reading Henry James website.