A Ring of Conspirators: Henry James and His Literary Circle, 1895-1915
Thinking in Henry James
“I’m always sorry when I hear of your reading anything of mine, and always hope you won’t—you seem to me so constitutionally unable to enjoy it.” Thus Henry James to his brother William, permitting himself one of those moments of fraternal frankness which were always succeeded by a fondly penitent resumption of the younger brother’s grateful dependence on the status and authority of the elder. On one occasion William even went so far as to suggest he should write Henry’s books for him, in his own forceful, no-nonsense prose. “Publish it in my name, I will acknowledge it, and give you half the proceeds.” Ingestion of the junior by the dominant sibling could hardly go further than that.
Henry had his own ways of fighting back, not always gentlemanly ones, but what is ever gentlemanly in family relations? When in 1900 William was feeling ill enough, at the onset of the heart condition that was to kill him, to send his brother a pathetic account of his symptoms, Henry’s disconcerting response was a letter proclaiming how wonderful he himself felt—and looked—after shaving off his beard. No wonder Miranda Seymour speculates, in her sensible, spirited, and admirably researched account, that William lodged this mortal dart in his bosom, breaking out five years later in the notorious letter to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, peremptorily refusing membership of a body to which “my younger and shallower and vainer brother” already belonged.
Henry was not heartless—far from it—but no novelist ever knew better what heartlessness was all about. It seems to me possible that his relations with his brother were at least as important, in the composition of those three great last novels in his solitude at Lamb House, as the discovery vouchsafed him by his traumatic failure in the theater of the principle of dramatic confrontation. In fact the two were quite possibly connected. The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl depend upon a series of encounters in which heartless egoism is immanent but paramount, as in the swallowings and sacrifices concealed under family relations. The fate of sister Alice and the threat of brother William were deep in Henry’s consciousness at the time. And that consciousness was the sole battleground of the novel as he had come to write it.
In her thoughtful study, Thinking in Henry James, Sharon Cameron observes that his later work “dissociates consciousness from psychology.” I take this to mean that anything may happen in the minds of his characters and in the magic of his own words; and that the enduring secret of his fascination is the way in which motive and character are retained in the world of words, intead of being artificially projected into explanation and action. Artificially, because James was the first of his kind to perceive that the novel, like consciousness itself, can only deal in its own kind of language, and that its portrayal …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.
Henry James Mix-Up January 18, 1990