Greg W. Zacharias is a professor of English and the founder and director of the Center for Henry James Studies at Creighton University. He is the editor of A Companion to Henry James and the coeditor of Tracing Henry James.
Henry James’s reaction to the recent issue of a stamp in honor of him and his work by the United States Postal Service for its Literary Arts series might be imagined in relation to his ambiguous relationship with publicity. As a working professional for whom public interest could mean more books sold and greater income, he sought publicity and even worked to promote it, but only on his terms. James wanted publicity when it would help him professionally. I don’t think that he’s unusual in this. Positive publicity about him and/or his work could help him to realize a greater income, which was for James an important indicator of his success as a fiction writer. It’s not clear then, how he would have responded to having a stamp issued by the United States Postal Service with his likeness and another image from one of his novels. I suspect, though, that he would have been flattered.
When Henry James began late in 1876 what would be a residence in London that would last until his death in February 1916, he entered a world in which one’s professional and private lives were intertwined. Think of a large “old boys” network and you will have a sense of James’s London. James’s professional/private world was centered in the Reform Club, an important men’s club and the hub of liberal London—in both a cultural and political sense—of that time. And it was in fact the liberal model of life that enabled and encouraged the intertwining of the professional and the private and also offered James a way to use publicity. James was probably vetted for social acceptability and began to make professional connections that would help him to make contractual arrangements with publishers and form relationships with individuals who could and would review his published work. Having a good public reputation, then, was crucial in achieving good public success. James must have been careful and cautious to cultivate such a good reputation.
James’s election to the Reform Club was probably made possible by his success at well-regarded and prestigious breakfasts hosted by Richard Monckton Milnes, Lord Houghton, which followed what must have been equally successful lunches with Milnes. The breakfasts hosted not only London newcomers like Henry James. Eminent literary and political personages were also likely to be present. Most, if not all, approved of James. On March 29, 1877, Henry James wrote to his brother, William:
“Yesterday I dined with Lord Houghton—with Gladstone, Tennyson, Dr. Schliemann (the excavator of old Mycenae +c) + had a dozen other men of “high culture”. I sat next but one to the Bard, + heard most of his talk with was all about port-wine + tobacco: he seems to know much about them, + can drink a whole bottle of port at a sitting with no incommodity. [ . . ] Behold me after dinner conversing affably with Mr. Gladstone—not by my own seeking, but by the almost importunate affection of Lord H.” (CLHJ 1876-1878, 1: 83)
Lunches led to breakfasts led to dinners. James famously boasted (and thus fostered publicity) that he dined out 107 times in London during the “Season” of 1879 (June 8, . London, then, evidently, wanted Henry James at its tables and James did nothing to diminish his popularity and the consequent publicity that generated those invitations to dine.
Justin McCarthy recalled in his Reminiscences that:
No man is more popular in London dining-rooms and drawing-rooms than Henry James, and a first night at a theatrical performance would seem incomplete if his familiar figure were not to be seen in the stalls or in one of the boxes. Henry James, too, has an interest in political life, and dines with leading men in the London clubs which represent the one side of politics and the other. He is a delightful talker, and in his talk can develop views and ideas about every passing subject which can clothe even the trivial topics of the day with intellectual grace and meaning. (2: 74-75)
James gained election to the Reform Club and thus their stamp of approval on May 23, 1878, as a foreigner and as a “regular member” “for life.” The election was a surprise to James, but was not unexpected. As he wrote to his father, “they have treated me handsomely, + put me through after but a 15 months’ standing on the book of candidates” (CLHJ 1876-1878, 2: 140). He finished the passage to his father about his election by shifting the discussion from the “club=business” (141). And it was indeed not only a social club, but one that would be important to the advancement of James’s “business” as an author.
Later in life, James participated in the advertising for his own work as a way to control what the public would know about him and his work. For example, he wrote the book-jacket copy for the short story collection The Finer Grain (1910) and virtually wrote what was offered as an interview with Preston Lockwood in the New York Times, misleadingly titled “Henry James’s First Interview: Noted Critic and Novelist Breaks His Rule of Years to Tell of the Good Work of the American Ambulance Corps.” (March 21, 1915). James’s office assistant, Theodora Bosanquet, wrote that he “has spent the last 4 days re-dictating the interview to the young man, who is, fortunately, a good typist” (Henry James at Work, pp. 80-81). The interview was not, in fact, James’s first.
When the inevitable bad or less-than-best publicity occurred in a review or other report,
James seems to have taken it to heart first, but then to have been able to move past the bad feeling generated by the publicity. The most extraordinary example of this would probably be his reaction to being hooted off the stage following the first London performance of his play, Guy Domville January 5, 1895. There can be no doubt that he was stunned by the audience’s bad treatment of him. He wrote to his brother William that
having been booed and having read negative reviews of the play left him “weary, bruised, sickened, disgusted.” But it’s also true that within only a short time, as Dee MacCormack has learned, James was back at his playwriting and stayed with it for the rest of his life. By the time the play’s run had ended after thirty-one performances, James had come to terms with the facts of the bad publicity and was ready to move on. To his brother William he wrote, “when a thing, for me (a piece of work) is done, it’s done: I get quickly detached and away from it, and am wholly given up to the better and fresher life of the next thing to come” (February 2, 1895).
About the stamp then. If James had been during his lifetime offered the opportunity to be remembered on a stamp—especially on a stamp whose value would “always be valid for the rate printed on it” just like a “Forever® stamp” (both phrases wonderfully rich metaphors that James would have enjoyed), a stamp in a series of other stamps commemorating great writers—and had been consulted and enabled to collaborate with its designers, I believe he would have been excited, overjoyed, and would have notified every friend and family member he knew of the stamp’s availability. He might have purchased many sheets and sent stamps of himself to those friends and family members. If he were not able to take part in the stamp’s design and for some reason did not approve it, he would have tried to put it aside in favor of “the better and fresher life of the next thing to come.”
But for those of us who have waited so very long to see a commemorative Henry James stamp, there is no ambiguity. It was overdue, earned, and deserved by one of the great novelists ever to write in English.