The Sound of the Beep: an unpublished manuscript of Henry James

Edited by John Lavagnino, Department of English and American Literature, Brandeis University

Those who study the work of Henry James are familiar with the remarkable collection of his letters and manuscripts at Harvard's Houghton Library; but few know of another important collection located nearby, in the Special Collections division of the Brandeis University Library. James's correspondence with Justice Brandeis on legal questions concerning his adoption of British citizenship is, of course, the jewel of this collection; it also includes significant correspondence with Lizette Woodworth Reese, William Lyon Phelps, Israel Zangwill, Havelock Ellis, and Ludwig Lewisohn.

The collection also includes a number of unpublished pieces of fiction, mostly fragmentary; but the one which I present here reads like a fully-realized work, and not a sketch or note for further elaboration. It is a typescript (made, no doubt, from James's dictation), and despite its brevity it includes a title: "The Sound of the Beep." It appears to be a short address from one character to another, but although the speaker oddly refers to himself as "Henry James," the circumstances of this address are very unclear: as with much of the late James, there is an abstraction from brute circumstances to states of feeling. I would speculate that this is one of the monologues that James is known to have written for Ruth Draper; but this can be no more than speculation, in the absence of any documentary evidence. In any case, even if James did write "The Sound of the Beep" for this purpose, Draper never used it in any of her performances.

John Lavagnino
May 1991

The great question, first of all, is where I am--referring here of necessity to, yes, "his nibs," Henry James, myself--for if it should chance to be any other you seek, then one must assert with a certain inevitable bland superiority that the number you have "dialed" is, on this occasion at any rate, quite irretrievably "wrong." Should that dismal end not be the one lying in wait, all too insidiously, then you're still not to be at once rewarded with what you came to seek--myself, or my uncanny ghostly voice--if, indeed, you do not find yourself still farther astray clutching a small hope not to be answered by this instrument. If, thus, your expectations are happily those that might have been matched here, still you're to find yourself dashed, not bluntly with the leaden statement that I am "out," but rather with a response having for all that little to do with where, at all, I might chance to be. For the fact of your hearing all this comes down to a confessed inability--much as I might like to, there's no surer sign that I cannot, for the present, oblige you in what would seem the plainest of duties, that of coming to the 'phone and--what else?--speaking to you.

What gives the whole matter a peculiar interest is the possibility--a possibility made all the more likely by the very élan of the instrument through which we so wonderfully, yet not successfully, converse--the possibility that you have some delicious burden to be quietly set down here at the door before you pass onward to the day's other duties. At bottom of it all, had you not some small scrap of a "message," some word or two of fact or request to impart, we might with reason wonder what sort of "chat" could have ensued, were I indeed here speaking. For you, certainly, that's the "fix"--since the plain fact is that the lack of any such coy burden on my part has rarely led to a cessation of that verbal fluency so familiar to many readers, has often seemed only to heighten the conscientious exertions involved in managing its heft, though it be the heft of something manifestly not there. Suffice it to say that since, as you're presently to find out, it shall not be your part to "hold forth" beyond the space of sixty seconds, that particular Sphinx no doubt crouches furthest from your position of agonized reflection.

Nothing is less decidedly the case than that you shall have that extravagant moment of speech, and that its matter shall be somehow squirreled away and later conveyed to me--that, moreover, I shall respond in kind, at some instant not, to be sure, determined or promised, yet at any rate not to be imagined as shrouded in the vista of a mysterious future, but rather in the auspicious middle distance of temporal life--in short, "soon."

Nonetheless, the whole adventure is not to be concluded without a further "hitch." Much as you might like to deliver, at once, without preamble, your brief tender encumbrance, you must not. Rather, it rests with you, now, to wait first of all, for that high sharp occult electronic howl, that "beep," and to wait further till its conclusion ushers in the moment for release. Hang fire, then, that's the thing, beautifully but necessarily--and there you are!


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