HENRY JAMES: Selected Letters

Edited by Leon Edel

Harvard University Press. 446 pp. $29.50

IT IS HARD to write about Henry James because he always said it best himself. His beautifully constructed fictions come wrapped in evocative language of tremendous power and precision. Even today, well over a century since his first novel appeared, he retains his power to enthrall.

Undeniably, however, this exacting writer can be a trial for impatient modern readers. He is for mature tastes, a view expressed by Evelyn Waugh with exceptional felicity: "What an enormous, uncovenanted blessing," Waugh wrote in his diary one Sunday in 1956, "to have kept Henry James for middle age and to turn, as the door shuts behind the departing guest, to a first reading of Portrait of a Lady."

Fortunately, there is now a skeleton key to James' house of fiction, opening up corridors that lead to splendid rooms heaped with literary treasure. That key is his letters. Large batches of them only started to appear in 1974, when James' biographer, Leon Edel, began publishing a four-volume edition of the correspondence, having at last overcome the scruples of James' heirs.

Now we have a condensation of that edition, with the addition of some new material -- in all, 191 letters, the cream of the cream. No longer does anyone have an excuse for ignoring these remnants of literary genius. They are -- let it be said emphatically -- the best letters of any classic American writer, full of intelligent observation, vividly written, unfailingly honest, often playful and humorous, deadly serious about the art of fiction and the high responsibility of the writer and, above all, painting with immense charm and humanity a self-portrait -- or rather, a series of self-portraits, for these letters extend over a lifetime -- of a very unusual person indeed. Their greatest virtue may be their civility. With vulgarity rampant, that's a lot.

A simple way to describe the letters' allure is to imagine that one has an intimate friend, a writer of distinction, who is also a near-relative. This imaginary person does everything life offers, meets everyone and travels widely. As he grows older, he grows emotionally. All the while he writes lengthy, opinionated, self-deprecating letters about his experiences, not neglecting the spice of gossip, and radiating an almost boylike zest for life. "Let us be flexible, dear Grace," he tells a Cambridge friend, "let us be flexible! and even if we don't reach the sun we shall at least have been up in a balloon."

So here we have a person born in Old New York between Washington Square and Broadway, who once was dandled on Emerson's knee. His parents are well off, and the family spends much of its time in Europe. He attends several schools, but his education is really self-education, through reading. He drops out of Harvard Law School and goes to Europe, the center of the world. He hikes over the Alps and gallops horses in the Campagna. He returns to America to write, but eventually flies the parental nest and returns to the Old World to live. He is befriended by Flaubert and Turgenev and, his reputation growing, settles down in London, where he dines with poets and prime ministers. He is captivated by the possibilities of writing plays, and suffers the ignominy of being booed in public after a flop. At the end of life, he is the artist whom other writers revere as "the Master." He is celebrated as a supreme stylist, the chronicler of the new world's love affair with the old and the progenitor of the modern psychological novel. But he lives to see 19th-century liberal ideas of progress vanish in the trenches of Flanders.

THE TIME has come to quote. Here is the enthusiasm of the young traveler -- he is 26: at Oxford he spends "the afternoon in various college gardens . . . . They are places to lie down on the grass forever, in the happy belief that the world is all an English garden and time a fine old English afternoon."

In Rome: "At last -- for the first time -- I live! It beats everything: It leaves the Rome of your fancy -- your education nowhere. It makes Venice -- Florence -- Oxford -- London -- seem like little cities of pasteboard. I went reeling and moaning thro' the streets, in a fever of enjoyment . . . . I've seen the Tiber hurrying along, as swift and as dirty as history."

He does not romanticize the great of this world. After a long weekend at Mentmore, the country home of Lord Rosebery, a future prime minister who married a Rothschild heiress, he tells his mother their "chief effect upon me is to sharpen my desire to distinguish myself by personal achievement, of however limited a character. It is the only answer one can make to their atrocious good fortune."

As he ages, somber chords begin to be struck. To Grace Norton he counsels, "remember that every life is a special problem which is not yours but another's and content yourself with the terrible algebra of your own." To Leslie Stephen, on the death of his wife -- Virginia Woolf's mother -- he writes, "There is no happiness in this horrible world but the happiness we have had -- the very present is ever in the jaws of fate."

And on another death, that of William Wetmore Storey, a wealthy American sculptor: "I saw poor W.W. in Rome sixteen months ago and he was the ghost, only of his old clownship -- very silent and vague and gentle. It was very sad and the Barberini very empty and shabby. What will become of that great unsettled population of statues, which his children don't love nor covet? There were hundreds of them in his studio, and they will be loose upon the world. Well -- he had fifty years of Rome and that is something."

He visits America in 1904 and is struck by rural New England's beauty: "this glorious golden autumn, with weather like tinkling crystal and colours like molten jewels." On the guns of August 1914: "Black and hideous to me is the tragedy that gathers, and I'm sick beyond cure to have lived on to see it. You and I, the ornaments of our generation, should have been spared the wreck of our belief that through the long years we had seen civilization grow and the worst become impossible. The tide that bore us along was then all the while moving to this as its grand Niagara."

Henry James would not have been pleased with this invasion of his desk. Toward the end of his life he burned 40 years of letters, producing a cloud of tantalizing mystery about his private life. The inner James can be glimpsed here, but only just. These glimpses, like the famous passage, "the port from which I set out {was} the essential loneliness of my life -- and it seems to be the port . . . to which my course again finally directs itself," are of immense dignity and forcefulness -- though they reveal nothing in detail.

Yet James, through these letters, beckons the reader to the great themes of the masterly stories and novels. There, he once wrote, the writer "with every track covered, every paper burnt and every letter unanswered, will, in the tower of art, the invulnerable granite, stand, without a sally, the siege of all the years."

Reid Beddow is an assistant editor of Book World.