By 1895, HENRY JAMES had developed into a literary lion if not yet into the Master of his final two decades. The third volume of the Letters illustrates the process. We meet his friends, sit at his elbow at dinner parties, learn about his literary prejudices, watch him flatter notables whose company he enjoys, suffer with him his writing frustrations, listen to him explain himself on matters ranging from his American identity to his disinterest in marriage.

"You write me in mystic mazes of wit and grace," he appealed to Morton Fullerton in 1893, "which tell me nothing whatever about yourself, your life, your occupations or impressions." By that time James, 53, was beginning to develop the mystic mazes, and the wit and grace, of his own later style, but there was no apparent reluctance to reveal himself. One letter, in fact, shows him so depressed after his failure to make it as a playwright that Leon Edel could not use it in his earlier single-volume, Selected Letters. James' nephew (and executor) found it "too sad."

Henry James was well aware that letters of his literary peers were being preserved, posthumously edited and published. Yet at least through the present volume of his collected (but far from complete) letters -- as full and as definitive a selection as we are likely to have for many years, given the economics of publishing -- he seems to ignore the fate, or the future, of his own correspondence. There are rare exceptions, of course -- as when a letter is immediately perceived as a future embarrassment. "You had better, by the way," he warns Grace Norton in 1886, "consign to the flames, this gossiping page, intended only for your diversion, and not for the reprobation of posterity." From the distance of an ocean, or even an English Channel, a letter in the pre-Xerox age was often intended for a circle of readers who exchanged letters from the same writer. William James was often asked to pass letters from his brother to others, and Henry James sometimes added to the envelope samples of his own mail which he wanted correspondents to see, these escaping the pyres of his papers he later ignited to restrict future critics and biographers.

Since an injunction to "burn this" has always been tantamount to a request to preserve something carefully, and James in any case was a celebrated writer by his forties, many of his letters, in his characteristic large, fast scrawl, survive. One, to Robert Louis Stevenson, complains that James' young friend fails to describe fully enough "people, things, objects, faces, bodies, costumes, feathers, gestures, manners." We seldom back that vividness in James' own letters; however, one reads in vain through his pages of late-Victorian high gossip for insights into his own writings. When James talks about his work, it is usually to declare that "no work of art can ever be justified" -- explained as art. Reacting to his lack of popularity, he rationalizes, "One has always a 'public' enough if one has an audible vibration -- even if it should only come from one's self." The milieu is there, but the inner or the outer life of the artist which triggers the work is seldom visible -- except when Edel interposes with a helpful annotation that James here "adumbrates an idea" that will develop into a tale or novel.

On view in James' letters is the developing life of a writer who is becoming a public personality -- his personal and professional experiences, and the registration of his sympathies and sensitivities. His love affair with London is unaffected by his recognition that "dear old stupid, satisfactory London" is also "a big black inferno of fog, mud, drunkenness and pauperism." His continuing romance with Italy is undiminished by what he sees happening to American friends who remain there too long. As with his own fictional creation, Daisy Miller, Italy takes his contemporaries Lizzie Boott via disease and Constance Fenimore Woolson via suicide. But the wealthy dowagers who pose no sexual threat and to whom he is a social pet live on into elderly hostesshood. His love affair with his own language is reinforced by absence, and we see him developing a style which is almost a second tongue -- a fact which makes his observation to the French scholar Urbain Mengin additionally poignant. "One's own language," he tells Mengin, "is one's mother, but the language one adopts, as a career, as a study, in one's wife."

Language was, of course, James' only wife -- a condition he recognized early. "Sooner or later," he predicted accurately, "I shall take a house, but there is no hurry, and when I do a conjugal Mrs. H. [J.] is not among the articles of furniture that I shall put into it." Instead, he would utilize other people's homes, gradually weaning himself from the "gilded bondage of the country house" and becoming attached to the less pretentious dwellings of close friends. "Will alight precipitately at 5:38 from the deliberate 1.50," he telegraphs host Edwin Abbey in his most mandarin prose.

Abbey, a Philadelphia artist like another Jamesian friend, J. S. Sargent, would become one of James' favorite persons in London; and he is most interesting in these letters for his likes and dislikes. He dances attendance upon poet and one-time Minister to Great Britain, James Russell Lowell, who appears almost a father-figure, and he dotes, necessarily from a distance, upon the prose and person of Robert Louis Stevenson. Both die in the course of the volume. "What is our darkness," James would write in condolence to Fanny Stevenson in Samoa, "to the extinction of your magnificent light?" He is eloquent, too, in his contempt. Meredith is "insufferable and unprofitable . . . utterly blighting in me the indispensable principle of respect," while Pater "has a phosphorescence, not a flame," and Wilde is the "simply inevitable mechanical Oscar" who enables the pit and gallery to "feel quite 'decadent' and 'raffine' and they enjoy the sensation as a change from the stodgy."

Ironically it is Wilde's An Ideal Husband which James would attend at the Haymarket early in 1895 in order to wait nearby through the permiere of his own Guy Donville, an unexpected disaster. Unaware, he answered audience calls for the author only to become the butt of heartbreaking catcalls and boos. And it would be Oscar's The Importance of Being Earnest which would replace the shipwrecked Guy Domville at the St. James' Theatre.

The winter of James' spirit would follow. Stage success was the dream-antidote for his failure to find a broad commercial audience to his fiction. "I'm the last hand that the magazines . . . seem to want," he confessed to the successful William Dean Howells. "I'm utterly out of it here -- and Scribner the Century, , the Cosmopolitan, will have nothing to say to me." Book publishers were equally unwilling to risk him, and the sense of total professional defeat was profound. He had recognized his desolation in a letter to an elderly friend in which he spoke of the pathetic life and death, in London, of his sister Alice in 1892. "Even with everything that made life an unspeakable weariness to her, she contributed constantly, infinitely," he confided, "to the interest, the consolation, as it were, in disappointment and depression, of my own existence." The next decade would see James write himself out of adversity -- but for that we must await Leon Edel's fourth volume.