In the Preface to the New York edition of The Aspern Papers, Henry James wrote, “The historian, essentially, wants more documents than he can really use; the dramatist only wants more liberties than he can really take.” So the tension between author and the character he has created: the unnamed scholar craves original documents, violating the privacy of those around him; yet novelist James based his work perhaps a little too closely on a real event, as James did for The Aspern Papers. How much privacy are even the famous entitled to?
Those were some of the issues discussed during our hour-and-a-half Another Look discussion, which included audience questions, on Monday, August 24. Panelists included Tobias Wolff, Robert Pogue Harrison, Elena Danielson, and Cynthia Haven.
Our wide-ranging conversation considered privacy in the cyberworld, the role of letters in the Jamesian world, the ruthlessness of scholarly acquisitiveness, and much more.
An astonishing 457 people registered for our first-ever Zoom event, featuring James’s 1888 classic. Not everyone could make it, but we sure were glad to see so many of you join us! Altogether, you would have made for a very, very crowded room at Encina Hall’s Bechtel Conference Room, our usual venue – and we were grateful that the virtual world had room for you all.
You meant to come but didn’t? You attended, but you want a chance to see it again? Here’s your chance: go here. That’s right, we’re live. Said translator Diana Seneschal, writing from Hungary: “I watched it this afternoon. It was wonderful. I loved the discussion of privacy, hero-worship, letter-writing, telegraphs, archives, Venice vs. Florence, the narrator’s hypocrisy, his failure at the end, the ‘fourth wall,’ the question of why James didn’t include Aspern’s poems, and more.”
We also received a thoughtful email from literary scholar Elizabeth Conquest, a former Another Look panelist. She speaks with authority: she is currently editing the Selected Letters of her husband, the Stanford poet and historian Robert Conquest:
At which point, exactly, does a deceased author become public property? During their lives libel laws provide some protection to authors, but once dead unscrupulous editors can libel them and invent stories without penalty. Such editors also fail to ask permission from an author’s estate when they publish private letters. As a result many authors go to great lengths to protect themselves from critical vultures who, like the novella’s editor, often hover over the literary remains of the famous dead or dying, waiting for the moment to dive down to a repast that will feed their professional ambitions and fill their scholarly bellies. As she catches the editor rifling through her desk, Juliana’s exclamation “Ah you publishing scoundrel!” issues a magnificent plea for the private life, and a rebuke to the unconscionable demand of such editors: “Let us pry.”
But pry they do. In the penultimate stanza of his poem “At the Grave of Henry James”, W.H. Auden touches on what authors can expect after their deaths:
All will be judged. Master of nuance and scruple,
Pray for me and for all writers living or dead;
Because there are many whose works
Are in better taste than their lives. . .
It seems to me that The Aspern Papers reflects James’s own preoccupation with the posthumous power of letters in the revision of reputations. For the 1908 New York Edition of The Novels and Tales of Henry James, in addition to writing a new Preface to the novella, and pairing it with three other new companion tales (each a story of someone’s deception and the harm it causes), James made significant revisions to the original text, snipping out or inserting short phrases or sentences and replacing many words with ones more connotatively loaded. These make even more obvious than before that the story is not primarily about the ‘visitable past’ but about the narrator, his manipulations and morality (or lack thereof), and his loss. A year later James began to deal with the whole issue of what would happen to his private and professional life after he was dead and could no longer control the public’s study of it (or the publishing world’s access to it), re-enacting the narrative of The Aspern Papers by burning in his own backyard many of his own manuscripts along with letters from family and friends, while requesting in turn that his correspondents do him the favor of destroying his letters “to protect his privacy.”
Meanwhile, stay tuned for any future plans we may have. If you’re not on our mailing list already, please join on the link on the horizontal bar at the top of the page. We’ll keep you posted.
And again, here’s the link: https://bit.ly/2QEbt95