The Ambassadors

Publishing history

The publishing history of The Ambassadors is complex, even for a work by James; the novel was written between October 1900 and July 1901,[2] before The Wings of the Dove (1902), yet he did not immediately find a publisher. To fit the eventual NAR serialization, passages were omitted, including three chapters. For the book versions, James expected to use the serial-version proofs to provide the majority of copy to the London and New York publishers, but the NAR supplied him only one set, instead of the requested two; thus, in August 1903, James supplied the British publisher with a carbon-copy of the unrevised, original typescript to enable them to meet their scheduled publication date. Moreover, at that time, he also lacked duplicate copies of the omitted passages, and those two circumstances resulted in significant textual variations in the Methuen edition.[3] One of the most serious variations was that a chapter, not published in the serial version, was inserted before 'chapter 28', not after it, as in the Harper edition, (which James thoroughly proof-read). Five years later, when he prepared the revised text for the New York Edition (NYE), James worked from the Harper edition, and the two chapters (numbers 28 and 29) became chapters 1 and 2 in book 11.

In 1950 Robert E. Young, knowing neither the Methuen edition difference, nor the details of James's work on the novel, argued[4] that the NYE order was incorrect, based upon the novel's chronology of the story's events. Most critics agreed with Young, especially when Leon Edel noted the Methuen edition order,[5] and, since then, most published versions of The Ambassadors, which usually use the NYE text, have reversed the order of the two chapters; however, the textual and bibliographical scholar Jerome McGann reopened the question in 1992.[6] He noted that the publishing history revealed by Birch[3] made it unlikely that James had the order wrong in the editions he closely supervised. Moreover, he controversially claimed that when James wrote to novelist Mrs Humphry Ward mentioning a "fearful ... weakness"[7] he was referring to the chapter order in her Methuen edition copy. McGann explained the chronological discrepancies by noting that the start of (the Harper edition) chapter 28 tells that it will describe a conversation that will occur in the 'future' (relative to the juncture reached in the story), and that the 'that evening' line, at the start of chapter 29, refers not to the evening just described in chapter 28, but to the previous one.

Since 1992 few publishers of new editions of The Ambassadors have followed McGann's research and restored James's apparently preferred order, but, in characteristic postmodern way, it is now up to the reader to decide in which order these chapters should be read.

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