Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Consigned to the Flames II: Henry James

Following yesterday's dream evocation of the James brothers, a reminder that Henry James was quite an enthusiastic burner of letters, draft manuscripts, and personal papers. Philip Horne lays out the case in his introduction to Henry James: A Life in Letters (2001):
In the following letters, James mentions as friends or familiars a number of people he seems very likely to have corresponded with, people he knew well, or had business relations with, like his relations the Tweedys, J. M. Barrie, Charles Milnes Gaskell, Alice Bartlett (later Warren), Auguste Laugel, J. Comyns Carr and Charles Frohmann. Yet no letters to any of these have been traced, while in the letters that survive there are numerous references to further (still untraced) letters that James has written or means to write. It may be that some recipients acted on the instruction to "Burn this" (or some comic variation on that formula) that James attached to frankly gossiping letters--letters that are often of particular interest to later readers. Having delivered himself on the subject of the play Votes for Women (1907) by Elizabeth Robins, James commands his correspondent Lucy Clifford, "Only repeat me, quote me, betray me not--and burn my letter with fire or candle (if you have either! Otherwise wade out into the sea with it and soak the ink out of it.)" In 1910, moreover, after his health had begun to decline, James, who was deeply concerned with privacy, had a large bonfire in which he burned a great number of personal documents and manuscripts, doubtless including letters from him that he had retrieved from the effects of correspondents who had died (notably his sister Alice and his close friend Constance Fenimore Woolson.)
The final bonfires, in 1909 and 1910, were reportedly prompted by the shock James received from studying a batch of Byron's letters and papers. Though one assumes James's personal peccadilloes couldn't have held a candle to Byron's extensive transgressions, the fear of their exposure was enough to send him, match in hand, to the burning barrel. As James himself explained to an inquiry from his friend Annie Adams Fields about some letters from Sarah Orne Jewett,
I kept almost all letters for years--till my receptacles would no longer hold them, then I made a gigantic bonfire and have been easier in mind since--save as to a certain residuum which had to survive.


  1. Levi -- Are you familiar with the line from Bulgakov's Master and Margarita: "Manuscripts don't burn." (I was a Russian major for four years and this is the only line of prose I remember in the original Russian.)

    You probably know about it already, but these burning posts of yours always remind me of that novel.

  2. What about the near incineration of LOLITA and CARRIE (saved, respectively, by Véra and Tabitha, if these stories are to be believed)?

  3. Michael,
    Thanks for supplying such a great line! I didn't already know it because I've actually never read Master and Margarita. In fact, just this week a friend forbade me to re-read War and Peace (which I'd planned to do this winter) until I'd read Bulgakov.

    And Ed, I knew about Lolita, but I didn't know about Carrie. Perhaps I should start a different series, of Fireproof Books?

  4. You are in for a treat with Master and Margarita. It's quite wonderful.

    This also makes me think of the Ralph Ellison manuscript that did burn -- the long awaited follow-up to Invisible Man that burned in a house fire. The thumbnail biography claims that Ellison was emotionally devastated, and could never quite reconstruct the manuscript to his satisfaction, and then basically spent 25-30 years on what would become Juneteenth -- at least that's the story I recall.