On this day in 1900, Henry James first wrote to Edith Wharton, who had been angling to meet him since 1887, when she was a shy 25-year-old. He was moved to write her after reading her “The Line of Least Resistance” in Lippincott’s Magazine. It marks the beginning of a literary friendship, at a time when Wharton had published stories and poems, but had yet to publish her first novel. The two met in person in 1903.
James encouraged Wharton’s early writings, starting with this letter–encouragement that would continue until the end of his life. Her Age of Innocence won the Pulitzer Prize–for which he had been thrice nominated, but never won.
The first letter:
Dear Mrs. Wharton,
I brave your interdiction & thank you both for your letter & for the brilliant little tale in the Philadelphia repository Lippincott’s. The latter has an admirable sharpness & neatness, & infinite wit & point – it only suffers a little, I think, from one’s not having a direct glimpse of the husband’s provoking causes – literally provoking ones. . . The subject is really a big one for the canvas – that was really your difficulty. But the thing is done. And I applaud, I mean I value, I egg you on in, your study of the American life that surrounds you. Let yourself go in it & at it – it’s an untouched field, really: the folk who try, over there, don’t come within miles of any civilized, however superficially, any “evolved” life. And use to the full your ironic and satiric gifts; they form a most valuable (I hold) & beneficent engine.Only, the Lippincott tale is a little hard, a little purely derisive. But that’s because you’re so young, &, with it, so clever. Youth is hard–& your needle-point, later on, will muffle itself in a little blur of silk. It isa needle-point! Do send me what you write, when you can kindly find time, & do, some day, better still, come to see yours, dear Mrs. Wharton, most truly,