More than 1,000 miles from Henry James' New York City birthplace, a cluttered office on the Creighton University campus has become the international headquarters for study of the famed expatriate author.
James, who died in 1916 at age 72, never set foot in Nebraska. He spent much of his writing career in England, and the closest he came to Omaha probably was when he delivered lectures in Chicago and St. Louis in 1905.
Yet he doesn't seem far away as Creighton researchers transcribe and study James' massive collection of letters — letters that shed new light on his personality as well as his place in American literature.
“It's almost like there's a third person in here a lot of the time,” said Katie Sommer, an associate editor who works alongside Greg Zacharias, an English professor and director of the Center for Henry James Studies. “You get to know Henry James as a person. You know the brand of typewriter he used, even the kind of socks he wore.”
James was a prolific letter writer, even for a time when pen and paper were the predominant tools of correspondence.
The center possesses originals or copies of all but 200 of the 10,500 James letters known to exist. Many are short notes confirming business appointments and social engagements. Others are 20-page gossip fests to friends and relatives.
Zacharias was a 35-year-old assistant professor who hadn't yet earned tenure when he hatched a plan in 1993 to publish the definitive collection of Henry James' correspondence.
He said he attended a conference marking the 150th anniversary of James' birth. At the time, control of James' papers had shifted to a younger, less-restrictive generation of the author's family, and the newly available letters were transforming scholars' and biographers' views of James.
During one panel presentation, an expert said she had located six James letters “in Omaha, of all places,” in the possession of Opera Omaha, whose founders had ties to the James family.
“That got me,” Zacharias said.
Zacharias got the go-ahead, and the Center for Henry James Studies was opened in 1997 in quarters that formerly housed Creighton's print shop. The first volumes of letters were published in 2006.
Zacharias also serves as executive director of the Henry James Society, a membership organization of about 250 scholars who study the author.
“We want to make this the hub of everything that's happening with Henry James studies,” Zacharias said.
Today the center fields phone calls and requests from researchers, moviemakers, magazine fact-checkers and others who have a “Henry James problem” to solve.
Actor Nick Nolte called when he was preparing for a role in the 2000 movie production of the James novel “The Golden Bowl.” Officials from Syracuse, N.Y., called to learn about property that the James family had owned there. A scholar studying 19th-century Paris inquired if James had ever written about the Eiffel Tower (The answer: No). The author of “Contested Will,” a book about Shakespeare, sought help researching James' thoughts on the Bard of Avon.
The foundation of the center's work however, remains the effort to transcribe, annotate and publish James' prodigious output of letters. Zacharias co-edits “The Complete Letters of Henry James” with another James scholar, Pierre Walker of Salem State University in Massachusetts.
Seven tall file cabinets line one wall, each containing copies of transcribed letters. Four other cabinets house microfilm obtained from other libraries and universities that own James letters. Several hundred digital images are stored on computers.
Thus far, six meticulously edited volumes of James' letters have been published and two more are coming soon.
But it will take another 132 volumes to complete the project. With adequate funding for full-time staff — perhaps $250,000 per year — the effort could be completed in less than 15 years. But right now, all of the center's employees, from Zacharias to Sommer to a graduate fellow and two undergraduate assistants, work part-time.
The copy for each letter is proofread 16 times for accuracy, Zacharias said.
Extensive footnotes are included, identifying the people and places to which James refers and translating the foreign phrases he uses. Antique travel guidebooks are hunted up to verify James' travel routes, the hotels where he stayed and even how much he paid.
Natalie Gorup, one of the center's part-time employees, said she'd read little James before Zacharias hired her. Though she's now read some of his works, she likes his letters better.
“He's a gifted author, but I appreciate his correspondence more — it seems so sincere and real,” said Gorup, a senior French and English major from Waterloo.
“He's just such a gossip.”
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