Saturday, August 2, 2008

Burning manuscripts: Henry James

Henry James was not averse to firing up some of his own papers and manuscripts, and seemed to positively enjoy burning his correspondence (he talked with distaste about the ferreting of biographers, and in 1910 he wrote to Henry James III with the comment that his “sole wish is to frustrate as utterly as possible the post-mortem exploiter - which, I know, is but so imperfectly possible”).

It was something of a theme in his fiction as well, best seen in his short story Sir Dominick Ferrand, in which an enterprising young man hopes to turn a few dollars by selling the highly indiscreet papers of a public figure to some filthy boulevard paper. A moral looms, however, as the young man finds himself haunted and frustrated in love as he wrestles with the problem, until he finally relieves himself with an old-fashioned bonfire: “Baron went at the papers with all his sincerity, and at his empty grate (where there lately had been no fire and he had only to remove a horrible ornament of tissue-paper dear to Mrs. Bundy) he burned the collection with infinite method. It made him feel happier to watch the worst pages turn to illegible ashes - if happiness be the right word to apply to his sense, in the process, of something so crisp and crackling that it suggested the death-rustle of bank-notes.”

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