The Library of America continues to be the most astonishing, ambitious and admirable publishing venture in many a year.
Its aim is nothing less than to present the complete works of preeminent American writers from the beginnings until now, in uniform, usable and enduring volumes. The books are at that marvels of mass printing, with sewn bindings that let the books lie open although they run to as many as 1,500 pages. The type is pleasingly, restfully readable, on thin but opaque acid-free paper that is promised to stay white and unbrittle for 200 years.
The series is also a hit, with more than half a million copies of its first 21 volumes sold so far--an amazing figure for books that sell for $27.50 and are not exactly pop entertainment.
The Library, under the general editorship of Harvard’s Prof. Daniel Aron, has become not simply a new housing for the best of our literary past but a treasure house of discoveries and rediscoveries of work long out of print or scattered and not handily available.
One of the briskest sellers, thanks in part to its selection by a book club, has been a volume of the writings of Thomas Jefferson, who re-emerges from coins, bills, stamps and legend to become a warmly human voice and a real if ghostly presence in his works.
The latest titles, the 22nd and 23rd in the series, continue the library’s presentation of the complete Henry James. An earlier volume embraced his first novels (1871-1880), including his delightful novella, “Watch and Ward,” and “The Europeans.” A fourth James volume, due out in the fall, will reprint “The Bostonians” and other novels from the year 1881-86.
The current book collects James’ literary criticism, spanning his whole literary life, from the youthful but precociously sedate reviewer to the elder statesman of letters writing introductions to his collected works.
The first volume is organized as “Essays on Literature,” “American Writers” and “English Writers,” the second as “French Writers,” “Other European Writers” and those candid and instructive prefaces to the first major American edition of his works, published in New York between 1907 and 1909.
The James volumes have been assembled and edited by his principal biographer, Leon Edel, with the assistance of Mark Wilson. The notes, full and often unusually interesting, are at the back, where they don’t distract from the text, and there is an extended chronology, virtually a biography in digest form, as well. Seldom has scholarship been less pedantic.
What seems most striking to the general reader about James the critic is the breadth of his gaze and the catholicity of his tastes. Born in 1843 when Nathaniel Hawthorne, one of his literary heroes, was alive and writing well, James reviewed new works by writers as disparate in time and place as Emile Zola and Compton MacKenzie, Harriett Beecher Stowe and H. G. Wells. James died in 1916, at the age of 73.
Zola was distinctly not to his taste. “The obstacles to interest in ‘Nana’ constitute a formidable body,” James wrote in 1880, “and the most comprehensive way to express them is to say that the work is inconceivably and inordinately dull.”
James went on to argue that dullness was not necessarily bad, and indeed that there were some splendid dull books, like George Eliot’s “Romola” (“a very easy book to lay down”). There is dullness and dullness, James said. But James was careful and balanced in his judgments, and he had no doubt that Zola was an important artist--"but never was an artist so dirty.” It was just that, for James, Zola’s potential greatness was vitiated by his dark pessimism.
“On what authority,” James demanded, “does M. Zola represent nature to us as a combination of the cesspool and the house of prostitution?”
James was not much happier with Balzac, although he admitted that Balzac, despite what James could only regard as a dismal if consistent vulgarity, did create a succession of memorable characters.
If he wrote his novels as a social critic with ear and eye attuned to the subtlest nuances of character, behavior and relationships, James wrote literary criticism as a novelist who had thought deeply about the art. His own standards and aspirations were high, and one of the most illuminating pieces in the first volume is “The Art of Fiction,” written in 1884 when he was 41, living in London and in confident command of his powers.
The novel, he said, “seems to me the most magnificent form of art.” His advice to the novice: “Write from experience and experience only. . . . Try to be one of those people on whom nothing is lost.”
This was crucial advice because, James said, “the air of reality (solidity of specification) seems to me to be the supreme virtue of the novel--the merit on which all its other merits . . . helplessly and submissively depend. . . . The cultivation of this success, the study of this exquisite process, form, to my taste, the beginning and the end of the art of the novelist. They are his inspiration, his despair, his reward, his torment, his delight.”
The Jamesian criticism is not always easy going. In his essays as in his fictions, the prose gains sonority, complexity and density with each passing year. He is ever more ponderously precise and the reader grows restless for what seems by comparison the headlong passion of his essay on the novel.
Yet, if James can’t compete with, say, the lacerating invective of Mark Twain on the works of J. Fenimore Cooper, he could deal out the asperities, as on Zola. We may wince retrospectively for one Nassau W. Senior, the first professor of political economy at Oxford, who ill-advisedly gathered some of his magazine pieces on novelists into an 1864 volume called “Essay on Fiction,” which fell under James’ cold eye.
“Mr. Senior’s papers may incur the fate to which we are told that inanimate bodies, after long burial, are liable on exposure to the air--they crumble into nothing,” wrote Henry James.
James is persuasive; he leaves no doubt, in a long review, that Mr. Senior had foolishly strayed off the turf he presumably knew best. For James is the model of a critic: devoted, patient, learned, exhaustive, sensitive, stern, demanding and, above and beyond all else, judicious to the last qualifying phrase. And, just as the reader’s eyes threaten to glaze over, James can offer the gift of surprise, a word or two of poetic economy and delight.
Like Shaw on music long silent, James is rewarding to browse through not only on the still-read giants, Hawthorne, Flaubert, Stevenson, but on the forgotten figures like the unlucky Senior or Alvan Southworth on African travel.
As the films made from his novels also suggest, James transcends his time, which is the reason for being of the Library of America. Re-reading him re-evokes a spacious, gracious, optimistic time.
Forthcoming Library of America titles include Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, Thoreau, W. E. B. Dubois, the novels of Edith Wharton and those of William Faulkner 1930-35.