Alice James’ diary sat unpublished for nearly forty years after her death in 1893. To the world beyond her family and a few friends its existence remained a secret.
After making several typewritten copies for the family, Katherine Loring kept the two notebooks containing the original, handwritten diary. In 1933, Alice James’s niece Mary James Vaux–daughter of Bob–wrote to Miss Loring to say she’d like to publish the diary in a book devoted to the younger and less famous members of the James family. Miss Loring gave her permission to use the diary, and Mary Vaux hired a writer, Anne Robeson Burr, to put together the volume.
“What a strange experience it was, to have what had seemed so dead and gone all these years suddenly bloom before one, a flowing oasis in this alien desert”
—from Alice James’ diary
This news sent shock-waves though the other Jameses–notably William James’s four children. Henry James III tiried to persuade Edward (Ned) James, son of Bob, to “restrain” his sister. Ned, however, considered his aunt’s diary “one of the most important pieces of literature that have been produced by any James.” The diary, edited and cut, with proper names indicated by initials, was incorporated into a volume called Alice James: Her Brothers, Her Journal, published in 1934. It was published again thirty years later in an edition by James family biographer Leon Edel called simply The Diary of Alice James.
Appalled by the specter of publication of a diary of “neurasthenic and unadmirable character,” William’s only daughter, Margaret James Potter, wrote that Henry James’s autobiographical work “gives all the family biography that should be for public consumption. Why parade the failures, neurasthenias, and depressions of its younger members, as does Mrs. Burr? The book is an exposure, in the worst possible taste. Though I never knew Aunt Alice, I did know and adore Uncle Henry and that is probably why I shrink and shudder so over this publication.”
Katherine Loring wrote to Mrs. Potter saying that Alice had asked her to have it typewritten before her death, and while she never said so, “I understood that she would like to have the diary published.”
She added, “I think your criticism of the impression that the diary would make is unjust, absurd and altogether unwarranted.”
The wider world agreed. Alice James’s diary was a literary sensation, earning rave reviews in the New York Herald Tribune, the (London) Times Literary Supplement, the New Republic, the Nation, and The New York Times, among other publications.
Diana Trilling wrote, “There is a common [James] family store of perception, imagination, and, above all, gifts of style. Alice, too, can write that wonderful educated James prose with its incandescent accuracy and then its sudden flights of homeliness.” She compared Alice James to Emily Dickinson. In his group portrait The James Family, the biographer F.O. Mathiessen treated Alice James as an intellectual and a writer in her own right, observing that “Alice James, contemplating the word from her sanatorium, had come to a more incisive understanding of some of the forces in modern society than either of her brothers.”
“Went out today and behaved like a lunatic, sobbed over a farmhouse, a meadow, some trees and cawing rooks. Nurse says there are people downstairs who drive everywhere and admire nothing.”
—from Alice James’ diary