Henry James for Every Day of the Year

October 21, 2016 | 5 books mentioned 5 min read

Reprinted with permission from The Daily Henry James: A Year of Work of the Master. Published by the University of Chicago Press.

The little charmer published this month as The Daily Henry James first appeared as The Henry James Yearbook in 1911, bound in a deep burgundy cloth and with a typeface that matched that of the great New York Edition of James’s works, an edition that had finished its run only two years before. It offers a quotation for each day of the year, many of them apposite to the season though none of them obvious, taken from the full range of James’s production, the criticism and travel writing as well as the novels and tales.

covercoverThe book was put out by the Gorham Press, a Boston publisher that, as a Harvard website delicately puts it, produced its things “at their authors’ expense.” We’d probably call it a vanity press, but in James’s day such books were usually described as having been privately printed, a category that included not only the work of his own father but even such classics as The Education of Henry Adams. Not that the Henry James Yearbook stayed private. H.L. Mencken noticed it in The Smart Set, reviewing it alongside Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes, and in 1912 the English firm of J.M. Dent brought out a trade edition, using sheets imported from Boston.

And then the book more or less vanished. A few older works of criticism list it in their bibliographies, and a small press in Pennsylvania reissued it in 1970. But no scholar has ever paid it much attention, and for decades it survived in the only way that forgotten books do survive: undisturbed in the stacks. Or at least a few of them did, a very few. Today the world’s libraries contain scarcely more than 100 copies, all told, and it might seem little more than a collector’s item, a curiosity. Yet there are a number of reasons to look closely at this little book, and aside from the enduring power — the wit, the beauty, the play — of James’s own prose, the best of them is the identity of its editor.

Evelyn Garnaut Smalley (1869–1938) was born to American parents in London. Her mother, Phoebe Smalley, was the adopted daughter of the abolitionist Wendell Phillips. Her father, George W. Smalley, had spent his 20s practicing law in Boston, but at the start of the Civil War he took a post on Horace Greeley’s New York Daily Tribune and in 1862 made his reputation with a battlefield report from Antietam. Afterward he became the paper’s London correspondent, and in the 1870s the newly expatriated Henry James was a regular guest at the family’s table. Smalley was 10 years the novelist’s senior; he helped him find a club and a publisher, and James was always grateful. At their house he first met Robert Browning, and learned more about the inside of British politics than he probably cared to. The Smalleys knew everybody, and James joked in a letter to his brother William that they were so worldly as to “dine out three times a day.”

Their daughter doesn’t figure in James’s early letters, but at the turn of the century he told William Dean Howells that he was “very fond” of her, and in old age he wrote to Howells again of his concern for what seemed to be a difficult life. Evelyn Smalley never married and in middle age still lived with her parents; around 1909 she had some form of breakdown and was for a time institutionalized. “It has been communicated to me,” James wrote, “that her infinitely tragic case is one for which no recovery can be hoped.” Still, he had heard that her ongoing work on the Yearbook seemed therapeutic and wrote that he was eager ‘to do what I can’”; the brief prefaces that both he and Howells wrote for this volume should be seen in that light.

But she did recover. I’ve found two photographs of her, and the first of them, from 1915, shows her on an ocean liner, standing next to her friend, the actress Ellen Terry. The second was taken in 1923 at Les Invalides in Paris. She’s wearing a flowing headdress that makes her look like a kind of lay nun and receiving the Legion of Honor Croix de Guerre from General Henri Gouraud. Evelyn Smalley arrived in France in 1917 with a group from the YMCA whose mission was to provide small comforts for the troops at the very front of the Allied lines. She was stationed at Bouy, to the southeast of Reims. In July 1918 her “hut” came under heavy bombardment, but she refused an order to evacuate and remained at her post until the end of the war; sources in both French and English describe her as appearing in the smoke of battle with a jug of cocoa for any soldier who needed something warm. She died in Pau in 1938.

Smalley’s life was in a way very Jamesian, and the book she made pays homage to the figure she had known for the whole of it. This volume stands as a material witness both to the reading practices of her era and to James’s presence in his time. Most of us have a few bits of poetry in our heads, but almost nobody now keeps a once commonplace book, a private anthology of the lines and sentences and paragraphs that have meant the most to us. In earlier ages, however, devoted readers often produced such albums, most of them handwritten and strictly private, though a few did find the fierce legibility of type. This one is a special case since its excerpts all come from the same writer, but it has a precedent in Alexander Main’s Wise, Witty, and Tender Sayings of George Eliot, first published in 1872. Main’s volume sold steadily until the end of the century, and Evelyn Smalley might have thought that this book would have a similar success. But James was never as popular as George Eliot, and in 1911 his fortunes were at their commercial nadir.

Still, his name did stand as a cultural marker, one that even here connotes a fine-grained sense of taste and distinction. (Another such marker was an apartment building called the Henry James, of around the same date, which stood in New York on ground now owned by Columbia University.) And such literary ephemera are more widespread than one might think. Royal Doulton once made figurines of Dickens’s characters; in Germany you can buy something called a “Goethe barometer”; and wall calendars often feature quotations, usually of an “inspirational” nature, from this book or that. Yet the fact that James’s own ephemera takes the shape of a bound and paradoxically permanent volume suggests that he speaks to a different audience and that Evelyn Smalley aims to fulfill a different set of expectations.

coverHer choice of passages has its idiosyncrasies. She quotes rather heavily from James’s essays on the American poet James Russell Lowell, an intimate family friend, and she’s especially drawn to The Princess Casamassima, James’s fullest account of London life. But those excerpts make me want to reread that novel, and indeed the passages she chooses often work to bring a whole book before me, to remind me in a sentence of its essential situation. They are so evocative, in fact, that I’ve tried in reading month by month to defamiliarize them instead, to forget what I already know and to read these little pieces of prose as though they were indeed freestanding. That effort has made two things clear. One is James’s epigrammatic force. The other, which can be easy to miss when caught by the flow of a narrative, is the extraordinary precision of his descriptive prose, his sheer ability to make you see. I have loved revisiting these passages.

's books include Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece, a Pulitzer finalist in biography. He teaches English at Smith College.