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What the Jameses Knew

The Jameses: A Family Narrative

by R.W.B. Lewis
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 696 pp., $35.00

Henry James and Revision

by Philip Horne
Oxford University Press (Clarendon Press), 373 pp., $89.00

Meaning in Henry James

by Millicent Bell
Harvard University Press, 384 pp., $45.00

Of the four recent books under review two are studies of Henry James’s thought and work, two are about the James family. R.W.B. Lewis’s story of the family will certainly be read with enjoyment by the common reader; the other three books are for specialists, for the great army of Henry James students which seems to have new recruits every year. Philip Horne has written a brilliant academic study, showing in detail the author’s revisions of stories and novels in the preparation of the New York Edition of his works.

Reading Horne on James is rather like reading Pritchett on Chekhov or Ellmann on Joyce. He seems to have absorbed the ways of thought natural to James and to have caught the tone of voice that goes with it. Agostino Lombardo makes the excellent point that James knew nothing of Italian life, and, in spite of the years that he spent there, and of his passionate love of the country, he had no interest in the real Italy of his time. His Italy was the tourist’s Italy, an arrangement of wonderful surfaces, of glorious impressions and historical association, a country of sunlight and shadow, with picturesque peasants in a landscape. Millicent Bell analyzes the use of uncertainty and the suggestions of alternative possibilities in James’s fiction, and the influence on his writing of Hawthorne, Emerson, Flaubert, and Balzac. She explains the function of cryptic endings in James, as in Portrait of a Lady and The Bostonians.

The brothers William and Henry, of equal and matching genius, composed a story in their lifetimes of parallel achievement, and, continually assessing each other, they were also fully aware of the family history as it unfolded. Mr. Lewis’s narrative includes the two other, comparatively unfortunate, brothers, Bob and Wilky, and the clever, distinguished, bitter, invalid sister, Alice, and, dominating the family, Henry James Senior, the generous, restless, enlightened, mystical, Swedenborgian father, also a theorist of the mind. The Jameses were intensely self-conscious as a family. Describing Henry to his sister in America, William wrote:

His anglicisms are but ‘protective resemblances’—and he’s really, I won’t say a yankee, but a native of the James family, and has no other country.

Mr. Lewis does not mention Henry’s taking British citizenship during the Great War, but he quotes him writing to Edith Wharton in the summer of 1911 that he had “got Home [from America]…and got there with the most passionate determination to stick fast for the rest of my life.” England, mitigated by Italy, became home. “I can’t look at the English and American worlds, or feel about them, any more, save as a big Anglo-Saxon total.” He was “deadly weary” of the international theme forced upon him:

I aspire to write in such a way that it would be impossible for an outsider to say whether I am, at a given moment, an American writing about England or an English-man writing about America.”

But the family was always present in Henry’s imagination and in his emotions, even while he felt himself to belong to a cosmopolitan republic of letters, which included George Eliot, Stevenson, Wells, Turgenev, and Flaubert.

Mr. Lewis is particularly authoritative and successful in placing the James family on their exalted social pinnacle against the more variegated and tumultuous background of ordinary American life. He is much less interested in Henry’s later life in England, and in his high standing among the distinguished and famous there. Originally Irish immigrants, the family became immensely rich through the real estate operations of Henry and William’s grandfather, Willam James Senior. His fortune in the 1830s was considered to be second only to that of J.J. Astor in New York State, and “William James of Albany” was certainly one of the richest men in the country at that time. In Henry’s wonderful words, which Mr. Lewis quotes, most of the heirs of this tycoon were an “extravagant, unregulated cluster…handsome dead cousins, lurid uncles, beautiful vanished aunts, persons all bust and curls.”

Henry’s gift of inspired vagueness, as in “lurid uncles,” tells with wit all that needs to be told of most of the first William’s less enterprising descendants. Then with Henry James Senior’s dedication to the life of an Emersonian intellectual, to a spiritual quest, mere wealth was converted into another, and characteristically American, kind of gentility: the gentility of old New York houses, of repeated cultural journeys to Europe, of an intensely sustained literacy, of a turning away from the taint of commerce and of speculation, and of a controlled distaste for the social effects of more recent immigration, which would dilute the original stock.

Without undue emphasis Mr. Lewis, Edith Wharton’s biographer, gives a convincing impression of the social world to which the family during Henry and William’s childhood and youth naturally belonged, with Emerson at the center, and surrounded by Lowells, Sedgwicks, Brookses, Adamses, Porters, and other such reassuring names of intermarrying families. One has the comforting feeling that all is well from the social point of view, as when reading about Huxleys, Darwins, Trevelyans in England. The tone of the intellectual gentry and of the cultivated family self-consciousness that was part of its style is particularly marked in Mr. Lewis’s quotations from Alice James’s writing and her letters.

The same sense of belonging to a secure and well-defined clerisy is noticeable in the style of Henry and William, in spite of the famous differences of temperament between them. Henry was entirely at ease and happy with Turgenev, because he was a gentleman, and never with the Goncourts or Flaubert or with other French writers, tinged with bohemianism. Turgenev could not think of himself, in spite of his friendships in Paris, as belonging to an intelligentsia; nor could William and Henry James. The republic of letters, to which they both belonged, crossed frontiers, but neither of them escaped, or wished to escape, from the stable moral atmosphere of their childhood, which Mr. Lewis convincingly traces to Henry James Senior, unworldly, tolerant, and open-minded.

The two salient characteristics of the family as a whole were, first, an unresting and intense self-consciousness, a sense of themselves as persons burdened with the habit of observing the condition of their own souls from week to week and month to month. Among Henry Senior’s children, William and Alice were the fiercest self-observers and the most unforgiving; both suffered from a kind of spiritual hypochondria. Secondly, the Jameses all urged upon themselves, and sometimes upon each other, something that they called “effort.” In The Principles of Psychology William’s theory of the self rested on the observed facts of efforts of will. A passive attitude toward experience, a surrender to inclination and to a peaceful drift down the stream of consciousness, was an ignoble surrender, and to William, as to his father, also a temptation.

In The Varieties of Religious Experience “healthy-mindedness” is contrasted by William with the “morbid” view. William clung to his idea of “the resisting ego” while also writing of “the sick soul”: “We are all potentially such sick men. The sanest and best of us are of one clay with the lunatics and prison-mates.” He must fight against “Vorstellungen (impressions) disproportionate to the object. Every good experience ought to be interpreted in practice.” This was a family doctrine, although very differently interpreted by William and by Henry. Mr. Horne quotes from a letter of Henry’s in which he stated his faith in “the grim residuum of conscious manhood with which we stand face to face to the hard reality of things”—a William phrase indeed. “I have in my own fashion learned the lesson that life is effort, unremittingly repeated.” In fact it was William rather than Henry who had to struggle with this “lesson” in his early life, while Henry’s energies were concentrated, from his early twenties onward, by an unrelenting ambition to succeed as a writer. In 1878 Henry told his mother that she could look forward to a fund of reflected glory—“It is time I should rend the veil from the ferocious ambition which has always couvé beneath a tranquil exterior.” To William in the same year he wrote, “If I keep along here patiently [in London] for a certain time I rather think I shall become a (sufficiently) great man.” The ferocity and the passion remained constant in Henry, in spite of the terrible disappointments of his later years. “Very likely some day all my buried prose will kick off its tombstones at once.”

The doctrine of effort presented itself less simply to William because he never had a single master passion to dominate and to impose order on his life. He had a divided mind, which was an aid to his philosophy. Studying in Germany at the age of twenty-five, he reports that he was on the continual verge of suicide because of self-disgust and a lack of purpose and direction. “What reason can you give for continuing to live?” he asked a friend. Like his father, he desperately wanted to serve humanity, but, unlike his father, he never believed that contemplative philosophy could by itself do much for humanity.

Mr. Lewis’s research makes William’s conflicts vivid. The turning point in his life, the discovery of “the real me” and the sense of a vocation, came from a philosophical doctrine, which constituted for him a moment of revelation, an epiphany: this was the thesis of free will. He was to live his life under the guidance of this single idea. “My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.” Belief, like the adoption of an aim or purpose, was for him an act, not a passive state, and it can be a voluntary act. A particular mind can seize the initiative if it directs its thinking toward possible practical outcomes and concrete meanings, as opposed to submitting to abstract speculations not anchored in fact. In order to feel myself free, and to want to live, I have to feel “the self-governing resistance of the ego to the world.” That was the faith. William had undergone his conversion to this individualism at the age of twenty-eight. Unlike Henry, the least unworldly of men, William had a religious nature, always prey to intense doubts and to self-communings and to equally intense conversions to a personal, non-institutional faith. The Varieties of Religious Experience immediately became, and still remains, a classic work, because he could there describe both doubt and affirmation without irony or self-distancing. His faith was a calculated exaggeration of a single philosophical truth, the seeds of which he might have found in Spinoza, but which seems to have come to him through French philosophy, particularly from Renouvier and Bergson.

The original philosophical truth is: our states of mind, including our beliefs and purposes, are never independent of our conceptions of them, and if we resolve by an act of will to change our conceptions of them, we shall reliably and forcefully change our beliefs and purposes. If there is an additional Jamesian stress on “resolve,” then it becomes plausible that the sense of open possibilities and of self-direction may be the real kernel of the conscious mind, and of the self. Having a more than decently divided mind, William did not rest in a too simple affirmation of will, because he recognized that a pessimistic view of human experience had as good credentials as an optimistic one. One could not dismiss the testimony to pessimism of Shakespeare or of Leopardi by an act of will or by an assertions of “healthy-mindedness.”

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