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The Complete Notebooks of Henry James, edited by Leon Edel and Lyall H. Powers (Oxford University: $24.95; 608 pp., illustrated)

January 18, 1987|John Carlos Rowe | Rowe teaches at Irvine and has written three books concerned with Henry James, the most recent, "The Theoretical Dimensions of Henry James" (University of Wisconsin Press)

In 1947, three years after pub lishing "Henry James: The Major Phases" (1944), F. O. Matthiessen published three collections of writings by Henry James and his family: "The American Novels and Stories of Henry James," "The James Family" and, with Kenneth B. Murdock, "The Notebooks of Henry James." Matthiessen aimed them at the literate reader, although the last work became a scholarly resource of inestimable value. The scholarly apparatus in this first publication of "The Notebooks" admittedly is crude by today's standards, but Matthiessen and Murdock provided cogent editorial notes following each entry. These editorial comments combined plot summaries of the stories and novels that grew out of James' working notes, observations on James' process of composition, and occasional speculations about James' use of materials not directly turned into specific works. As a consequence, James' surviving notebooks were transformed into a very readable narrative; Matthiessen and Murdock took the reader into the workshop of a great writer's mind by drawing on their own critical understanding of James' aesthetic values and aims.

Almost 40 years later, Leon Edel and Lyall Powers have published "The Complete Notebooks of Henry James," which is an authoritative scholarly collection of all James' surviving notes and fragments. The Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Henry James and editor of the four-volume "Letters," Edel is the undisputed authority on Henry James. His co-editor, Powers, is a distinguished scholar at the University of Michigan, who has added much to our understanding of James and his contemporaries. Both are superbly well qualified to re-edit James' notebooks. Unfortunately, they have done their scholarly tasks so well that they have sacrificed the general reader, whom Matthiessen and Murdock were so careful to include in what may well be James' most fascinating work.

Edel and Powers quite clearly have "corrected" their predecessors, rejecting Matthiessen and Murdock's conviction that the value of the "Notebooks" was "the ways in which the notes finally became the finished novels or tales." Relying on "more traditional editorial forms," Edel and Powers have eliminated Matthiessen and Murdock's running commentaries on James' notes for his novels and tales. In the place of those interesting, often infuriating, but always readable editorial remarks, Edel and Powers have chosen to substitute only indisputable historical "facts." In addition to the nine notebooks that Matthiessen and Murdock published in 1947 (which included James' plans and projects for literary works between 1878 and 1911), Edel and Powers have added several "detached" notes, such as those for the unfinished novel, "The Ivory Tower," that were previously available only in different anthologies, most long out of print. They also have added: James' "Pocket Diaries" from 1909-1915, which include notes regarding his daily life and business appointments; various notes dictated from 1900-1915; James' hitherto unpublished "Deathbed Dictation" to his long-time secretary, Theodora Bosanquet; and in two appendixes, the fragment of an unpublished story, "Hugh Merrow," and James' cash accounts and list of addresses. Matthiessen and Murdock's 400-page "Notebooks" has grown to more than 600 pages of very diverse materials.

Edel and Powers undoubtedly have provided modern scholars with a "complete" text of James' notes that have survived. More systematically than Matthiessen and Murdock, they decode most of the initials James often used for his contemporaries in these notes and provide historical notes on all the people mentioned. More often than not, however, these editorial notes are of little use to anyone but a specialist. James' comparison of his impressionistic method in the story "The Coxon Fund" with "one of Sargent's pictures" is hardly explained by: "HJ had met John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), the American painter, in Paris in February, 1884." Matthiessen and Murdock don't even footnote "Sargent," but they provide a cogent interpretation of the verbal "impressionism" James achieved in the published story.

Edel and Powers' notes to the nine notebooks concerned primarily with James' literary projects are consistently spare and empirical, but when they turn to the newly published "Pocket Diaries," they become expansive. For example, two closely printed pages of biographical information and psychological analysis are offered for "February, 1909," followed by James' 13 brief entries, ranging from "Hugh Walpole dines, 8 (p.m.)" to "Walked to Sargent's Fulham Road. Delightful call." Nearly one-fourth of "The Complete Notebooks" is occupied by the "Pocket Diaries"; taken together, they have virtually no critical value and very little biographical interest. For the general reader, they are quite simply unreadable.

Scholars will be delighted to have access to all the new materials that Edel and Powers have made available in this new edition of James' notebooks. Ordinary readers will prefer Matthiessen's old "Notebooks" and the impression of James that it so passionately conveyed.

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