The Making of a Book

Alan G. James, editor of The Master, the Modern Major General, and His Clever Wife: Henry James’s Letters to Field Marshal Lord Wolseley and Lady Wolseley, 1878–1913, sent along the following piece about the genesis and various stages of the project. In addition to being a good insider’s look at how a book originates, the piece came to us as a typewritten document with handmade corrections. We do not see many of those these days.

Twenty years ago or so I experienced a literary epiphany: I discovered Henry James. That’s not quite true. I was familiar with his biography and had read some of his plot-oriented work. But I could not say I had a fair idea of his genius, or knew much about his complex personal relations or those of his characters. An event those many years ago triggered my interest in the man and his work. The event was a motion picture based on his novel The Europeans, a film that captivated me. It had an ineffable quality, and made me interested to know more about James and his work. I recall observing to my wife as we left the cinema that I felt I should like to write an article about James. What better theme than a “man behind the scenes” account of the processing in 1915 of James’s application for British nationality whereby he lost his United States citizenship. I considered that I was qualified to do so since I had a good grasp of nationality law, having been chair of the State Department’s Board of Appellate Review, hearing appeals by people who had lost their U.S. citizenship. So I set to work with gusto and produced an article in 1991 entitled “A Memorable Naturalization: How Henry James Became a British Subject and Lost His United States Citizenship.”

The article, which appeared in Henry James Review, was favorably received. I was therefore encouraged to widen the horizons of my study of James. I hit on another theme: his relationship with Field Marshal Lord Wolseley and Lady Wolseley—he a national military hero, she a gifted intellectual. The essay, which was published in 1997, was called “The Field Marshal, His Lady, and the Exquisite, Meticulous Dreamer: The Friendship of Henry James and Lord and Lady Wolseley.”

Feeling I was on a roll, I asked myself, “Why not expand the article into a book?” This I did, and a university press took interest in my manuscript. The press insisted that the opinion of an outside reader should be sought. The reader was in general complimentary, but was emphatic that the book should not be in the form of “a biographical memoir.” Evidently he/she felt that the ground had already been sufficiently plowed by more eminent Jamesian scholars and (sotto voce) that I might not bring to the table the necessary literary competence. The reader insisted that the relationship of James and the Wolseleys would be more profitably left to Henry James to describe. In other words, “let James be James—let him describe the relationship.”

I took the reader’s point and embarked on a long program to edit James’s letters to the Wolseleys, and produced a final manuscript that the University of Virginia Press accepted much to my gratification.

The Master, the Modern Major General, and His Clever Wife: Henry James’s Letters to Field Marshal Lord Wolseley and Lady Wolseley, 1878–1913 is available now.