A cache of recently discovered Henry James letters

The Morgan Library & Museum, MA 8728.
Photography by Graham S. Haber, 2016.

A few months ago, the Morgan acquired a group of letters from Henry James to George Higginson and his wife, Emily. These fourteen unpublished letters—written between 1892 and 1911—represent the second largest group of letters by the novelist that the institution has ever acquired. The recipients of these letters are obscure figures even to the deepest students of James’s life and work: George Higginson is not mentioned in Leon Edel’s five-volume biography of James, and he warrants only a footnote in his four-volume edition of James’s letters. Edel notes only that Higginson was a remote cousin of James, the grandson of Jeannette James Barker, step-sister of Henry James Sr. It is, therefore, highly unlikely that Edel was aware of the existence of these letters. Nevertheless, the advent of this correspondence suggests a larger place for Higginson in James’s life.

Some of James’s letters to his cousin concern the death of his sister Alice in 1892, and his brother William in 1910. Others include his thoughts on the life that George and Emily Higginson are leading in America, and offer advice on their European travels. The letters—garrulous, familiar, and occasionally poignant—provide an insight into James’s emotions amid several major events of his life and reveal what we might call the avuncular side of his personality.

James stayed with his cousins at their home in Winnetka, Illinois, during his lecture tour of the United States in 1905, his first visit to his native land in twenty years. In their turn, the Higginsons visited James at Lamb House, his home in Rye, Sussex, when they were en route to Paris. On August 3, 1906, James told Higginson how much pleasure the visit had given him and expressed his hope that “Paris will have been really convenient, & completely rewarding, & not too hot or too complicated or too monstrous. The Louvre is monstrous—but a monster you will probably have spent most of your time stroking the ears & pulling the tail of! I envy you the freshness of that impression. I had it 1st too long ago.” In a subsequent letter, he remarked: “At my age, as you’ll see one of these years, the weeks & the months pass like the telegraph-posts at a car-window.”

My favorite is an evocative letter written on Christmas Day 1911 from the Reform Club in London. As he sat “doing letters” he described the scene: “this still soft Xmas morning . . . London presents its usual (at this moment) vast vacancy & quietude; the whole population (some say 4 million) flies to the country & abroad & the result for those who artfully stay still, is delightful in respect to peace & ease.” He reported that his health had much improved since they last saw him because “I hibernate no more, & shall never again hibernate, at Rye – I treated myself for years to too much of that – which meant an excess of solitude & confinement. Here I can circulate as well as brood.”

The critic V. S. Pritchett observed that “James was presentable and publishable in his very socks. His life was an arrangement in words, born to circulate.” These letters to Higginson will eventually be published in The Complete Letters of Henry James, an impressively ambitious project that aims to fill “a gap in literary studies today by presenting in a critical and scholarly edition the complete letters of one of the great novelists and letter writers of the English language.” The University of Nebraska Press is publishing the edition in volumes of approximately seventy-five letters each, with informative notes and textual commentary. So far, nine volumes—covering the years 1855 to 1880—have appeared. With over 10,000 extant Henry James letters, by my reckoning this edition will run to over 130 volumes! In the meantime, you can read these newly acquired Henry James letters (and many others in the Morgan’s collection) by making an appointment with the Sherman Fairchild Reading Room.

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