“I not only recover with ease, but I delight to recall, the first impulse given to the idea of The Aspern Papers. It is at the same time true that my present mention of it may perhaps too effectually dispose of any complacent claim to my having ‘found’ the situation. Not that I quite know indeed what situations the seeking fabulist does ‘find’: he seeks them enough assuredly, but his discoveries are, like those of the navigator, the chemist, the biologist, scarce more than alert recognition. He comes upon the interesting thing as Columbus came upon the isle of San Salvador, because he had moved in the right direction for it – also because he knew, with the encounter, what ‘making land’ then and there represented…. history, ‘literary history’ we in this connexion call it, had in an out-of-the-way corner of the great garden of life thrown off a curious flower that I was to feel worth gathering as soon as I saw it. I got wind of my positive fact, I followed the scent.”
Henry James, From the Preface to The Aspern Papers
What a windy, but wonderful account of a how one author smells the “scent” of an idea! As soon as I picked up a stray copy of two legendary tales by our boy Henry, I knew I wanted to share the story of how he came upon the idea for The Aspern Papers. As Anthony Curtis, the editor of my edition, puts it, “In his carefully studied role of observer, eavesdropping on precious conversations that could be worked into full length tales, Henry James was equally at home in the most exclusive London drawing rooms, the grandest country-house, and in the more cosmopolitan society of Europe.”
Apparently, while dining at someone’s country home he heard a woman recount a true story that became the seed for The Aspern Papers. But as he carefully notes, it was his “alert recognition” that made all the difference. As a “seeking fabulist,” he always had his anecodotal antennae up – gathering tidbits of conversations, stories, and remarks that he might turn to writer’s gold. What a useful tool-of-the-trade for us, too, as we all write on!
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