The finest piece of criticism on Henry James I have ever read is F. O. Matthiessen "The Painter's Sponge and Varnish Bottle," a study of James's revisions of the 1881 Portrait of a Lady for the New York edition of 1908. I should like to examine here a few alterations he does not touch upon.
The first thing to say about the five thousand revisions is that there are no plot changes. None. In that aspect of the book James was right the first time. Second, the prose style of the 1908 edition is decidedly not the prose style of The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl (all three of which were written before James revised the Portrait). I disagree entirely with an article by Paul Dean in which he says that "the eventual atrophy of James's art, the same tedium and lifelessness of his so- much-vaunted last phase" is also expressed in "his destructive tinkering with his early works, in which, having run out of material, he seems to have tried to exact revenge on his younger, more vital self by ruining what he had written." No, whatever one may think of James's work in his last "major phase," the revised Portrait has very little in common with the most remarkable feature of that period, its syntax. The grammar, the tempo, of Portrait retains its integrity.
I disagree, too, with Nina Baym's peculiar thesis that "the changes of 1908 overlaid and in places obliterated the coherence of the 1881 version"