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Editor’s Choice: Henry James’ ‘Autobiographies’ and Other Works

Autobiographies and Other Works by Henry James, edited by Philip Horne, Library of America, 848 Pages, $37.50. We’ve had three decades-plus of the Library of America now and it seems, if anything, more of a wonderment in the 21st century than it ever did when it introduced itself to the world with those permanent thick black beauties devoted to the classic likes of Melville, Hawthorne, Whitman and Twain. What we have long since become accustomed to since – even though it’s appalling that we now take the LOA for granted – is that the Library of America is devoted to the permanent publication of American writing of all sorts, high and low and in the middle. Consider just the last few of the volumes: late novels by James Baldwin, two volumes of books by Women Crime and Suspense Writers of the ’40s and ’50s, Frederick Law Olmsted’s writings on “Landscape, Culture and Society” and, to come soon, the writings of John and Abigail Adams.

Lest anyone need reacquaintance in election season with its original classic American literary purpose, the volume here is both a landmark and a much-needed contribution to the American literary heritage: to wit, what the LOA claims to be “the largest and most comprehensive one-volume edition” of Henry James’ autobiographical writings from the end of his life, after the 1911 death of his older, philosopher brother William. In “A Small Boy and Others,” he begins by telling us that closeness to his recently dead brother means that he’s “in possession of ... a larger handful of the fine substance of history, than I could hope to express.” But then Henry James’ search for the “fine substance of history” in his own family is essential to America’s literary DNA, when you’re talking about a family which, as well as a towering novelist, critic and sensibility, also produced philosopher/psychologist William, philosopher father Henry Sr. and other superior specimens of middle and late-19th century America. It is no small hitch, of course, that the prose of final period Henry James is an eternal legend of 19th century American language at its most ornate and least succinct. Nevertheless, the passing parade here is prodigious. The Library of America doesn’t merely endure it does, up to a point anyway, prevail. – Jeff Simon