A Son and Brother

William James

by Gay Wilson Allen
Viking Press, 556 pp., $10.00

William James
William James; drawing by David Levine

In 1890 both Principles of Psychology and The Tragic Muse were published. Professor Allen quotes William James’s remark to Henry—the year “will be known as the great epochal year in American literature.” He was not deceived. The two brothers had stepped outside the provincial setting into which they were born. They had both known that it was their mission to establish a full and distinct American presence in modern thought and literature. They had both felt constrained and diminished in that small, far-away corner of the world, Cambridge, where “life is about as lively as in the inner sepulchre.” Each was to make his escape, with some difficulties and slowly, from an excessive spiritual refinement and to affirm his independence; but they had different strategies. That William finally stayed and Henry went; that William made himself a national figure, was proud of native resources, and found a philosophy that looked peculiarly American, while Henry found his models in European masters and in European manners: these are the familiar facts. Now that we have Professor Allen’s well-documented and intensely readable biography alongside Mr. Edel’s volumes on Henry, both based on family sources, the story can be seen to be very complex.

A preliminary apology may be needed for thinking of William James in this Shem and Shaun setting, as part of a brotherhood and a family and not simply as an original philosopher standing by himself. At least part of my excuse is that Professor Allen is particularly thorough in giving an account of this aspect of James’s life. As a biographer, with access to new sources, he is evidently more interested in James’s family relationships and in his emotional development than in his philosophy. But there is a more personal reason, a bias. From the early 1930s onward Henry James’s novels and stories, and the concealed character that they half reveal, have been of almost obsessional interest to many Englishmen. When in 1934 a friend took me to see Jacques-Emile Blanche, the then aged portrait painter, who had known most of the great writers and painters of his time both in England and in France, he was surprised and irritated that two undergraduates should come from Oxford to ask him about Henry James. Everything about the family was, and still seems, relevant.

The reason for this curiosity is not obscure. Henry James was the first and most authoritative witness to be heard on “the international problem”: that is, on the elusive differences between American and European experience and manners, and the typical dislocations which occur at any point of close contact. The history of the James family and of their European journeys, and Henry’s stories and novels, together illustrate the first phase of the return of Americans to Europe to test and to measure themselves, and to find the true nature of their difference, in Europe. He was at once a modern…

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