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Sons and Brothers

The Correspondence of William James Vol. I: William & Henry 1861–1884 Vol. II: William & Henry 1885–1896

edited by Ignas K. Skrupskelis, edited by Elizabeth M. Berkeley
University of Virginia Press, Vol. 2, 514 pp., each volume $45.00

The Correspondence of Henry James & the House of MacMillan, 1877–1914

edited by Rayburn S. Moore
Louisiana State University Press, 256 pp., $39.95

Henry James: Collected Travel Writings: Vol. 1, Great Britain and America (English Hours, The American Scene, Other Travels) Vol. 2, The Continent (A Little Tour in France, Italian Hours, Other Travels)

Library of America, Vol. 2, 845 pp., each volume $35.00

Henry James, Lettere a Miss Allen (Letters to Miss Allen)

Rosellina Archinto Editore (in English and Italian), 171 pp., $20.00

The sky is white as clay, with no. sun
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

The end of Philip Larkin’s great and gloomy poem “Aubade” is anachronistic, but in the happiest sense. Without looking back, or appearing to do so, it re-creates what for the poet had never come to an end; a world in which letters were greedily received and faithfully dispatched; in which the telephone was an expensive and barbarous mode of communication for business use (in Larkin’s dawn poem “telephones crouch, getting ready to ring/In locked-up offices”): and letters, here the household remedy relied on to combat the ills of daily existence. For poets or artists letters could be an extension of their art by other means; a way of exploring their own individuality and bringing it home to others.

The epoch of Romanticism exploited correspondence for this purpose, and has continued to do so until our own day, when technology has all but killed off the form. Heroines and heroes of their time, like Richardson’s Clarissa and Goethe’s young Werther, came alive in their letters: Byron, Keats, and Charles Lamb used them spontaneously for the same purpose. But in the grand epistolary epoch it was a question of outpourings of wit or passion, not of humble therapy in comradeship, as wryly envisaged in Larkin’s poem. To “long for certain letters,” as Auden remarks in another poem, is to be fully human, and to admit a common humanity. Devoted sisters Jane and Clarissa Austen took that for granted. As devoted brothers William and Henry James did so too, with the addition that words were to both of them not only communicative intimacy but the stuff of reflection itself, the medium of thinking and being, the matrix not only of art but of all religious and spiritual experience.

Through the medium of their correspondence Henry can turn his frantic and highly practical queries about the obstinate constipation that plagues him amid the splendors of Florence and Rome into a whole rhetorical saga, a dramatic narrative of daily hopes and disappointments that is quite as eloquent as the diplomatic gambits of The Ambassadors, or those of the resourceful narrator in The Aspern Papers. And William, the medically trained elder brother, had verbal resources equal to the case, probably a great deal more effective than the actual practical remedies he prescribed, some of which now seem as outlandish as Dr. Frankenstein’s galvanic experiments.

He also seems to have taken in good part his younger brother’s despairing quip, “It’s no more than just that the family should in some form repay themselves for your medical education.” Money was discussed between them as frankly as the bowels, and with the same deft mutual intelligibility. “What is a doctor meant for,” asks Henry, “but to listen to old women’s doléances?”—and he adjures his brother not to “lose sight of that good news about my back” (he was sure that “obscure hurt” was benefiting from the beginning of an improvement in his internal condition) while touchingly recalling the brotherly duty of reciprocity. “To shew you haven’t taken this too ill, for heaven’s sake make me a letter about your own health—poor modest flower!” (“Make me” gives a subtle indication of the brothers’ attitude in composing their letters. The art of the maker was always as present to them as the mere desire to communicate.)

William duly obliged. His own health obsessed him as much or more, though its manifestations were less down to earth, chiefly concerning the nervous system and the eyes. He could read only for short periods; and it is natural to wonder whether his symptoms didn’t include some reluctance, born of his father’s example, to engage in the hurlyburly of earning a living, and of studying for that purpose. And yet he and Henry were in no doubt that it must be done, for financial reasons as well as on the grounds of their own amour propre. They wanted independence from their father and family; and at the same time to remain uncompromisingly within its bosom; and this as much because of their father’s verbal and spiritual ambiance—that mystic web of words he had himself woven about them—as from motives of piety, domesticity, and cupboard love. The web was also a social one, of course. The brothers were even more at home in the old American aristocracy of New England than Henry was one day to be in the haute monde of the Old World.

The point is well made in Gerald E. Myers’s introduction to the superb first volume of William and Henry’s correspondence, running from 1861, when William was nineteen and Henry a year younger to 1894, when William had been for some years a married man and teacher at Harvard, and Henry had made himself an international reputation as a writer. Father and mother were dead, but both writers remained closely bound to the old family home, with its rituals and responses, and to the manes of their all-embracing parent. Henry was not using words idly—he never did—when he read his absent brother’s “letter of farewell” at the father’s graveside—“which I am sure he heard somewhere out of the depths of the still, bright winter air.” As Myers observes, “the sons had been reared on their father’s linguistic inventiveness.” If you could say it—in the fullest sense—you believed it. “What language can do for nuancing ideas was not lost on these sons of a father who could complain…about a traditional concept of God: ‘Against this lurid power—half pedagogue, half-policeman, but wholly imbecile in both aspects—I…raise my gleeful fist, I lift my scornful foot.”’ Gleefulness in expression—spirituality as a kind of freedom, and as the power to verbalize belief—was indeed a common factor for all three of these remarkable Jameses.

At the same time they were all very much in the air, as it were: a constant prey to the vertigo of non-being, non-sensation. The father’s famous “vastation” is well known: that dreadful occasion near Windsor Park in England, when after a tranquil supper on a summer evening the sense of nothingness suddenly overcame him with such force that he could not get over it for months, and suffered a periodic recurrence of the horror for the rest of his life. His two eldest boys were especially well acquainted with similar sensations—it was probably in some form or other a genetic inheritance for the whole family—and quite apart from their detailed epistolary exchange of what we should now call psychosomatic symptoms their letters suggest a constant need for the healing balm of each other’s company in the written word.

When they were physically together things went less happily, although their closeness of affection was undoubted and even took on occasion a quasi-physical form. What photograph of the pair could be a happier choice than the one the editors of this admirable volume have chosen for the jacket? It shows them somewhere near Rye on the Sussex coast, when Henry was living at Lamb House in that little town, and William was visiting. Like a couple of good schoolboys from some superior academy both are attired in dark coats and waistcoats, gray woolen trousers, white shirts, and ties. Each carries a hat. William’s arm is protectively around Henry’s shoulder, and Henry’s large bald head and ample, now shaven features incline at a startling angle toward the reassuring neighborhood of his brother’s whiskers and sharp kindly eyes. The light across the Sussex pasture is of a calm sunset. Who took the picture? William’s wife, Alice, or his son, the youngest Henry? At any rate it is now in the Houghton Library at Harvard, with whose permission it is reproduced.

There is something intensely vulnerable and childlike in the portrait à deux, a speaking glimpse not only of interdependence but of a kind of mutual loneliness. And yet both were well equipped to fight life’s battle on their own, in foreign hotels and at London dinner tables not less than in the arduous hours of study and composition and in the even more exacting business of seeking contacts and driving bargains. Both needed solitude—William acquired the habit of leaving his sensible wife for weeks at a time, particularly after she had just given birth—and yet each needed to feel his own constant presence in his brother’s life and in their communion of letters. One of the most spellbinding elements in this interchange—when we do not yet know, as it were, how the plot will turn out—is to watch Henry briefing his brother on how to visit Europe and where to stay. We cannot be quite certain—perhaps he was not certain himself—whether Henry really wanted William beside him in his cherished European haunts; or, indeed, whether William himself, despite the nature and detail of his queries, really wanted to undertake an expedition so indebted to fraternal assistance. The letters conceal as much as they reveal or more; or rather, as with Henry’s own fiction, their concealments are their own kind of revelation.

So it is bewitchingly hard quite to judge the tone in which Henry for example, after judiciously opining that his brother “might subsist very comfortably in Rome on the footing you set forth,” since “the place…is peculiarly adapted to help one get through time,” concludes that “of course my society would fill up a great many crevices.” For a writer so jealously conscious of time’s winged chariot that was an assurance both handsome and no doubt sincere. Henry needed society and knew that William did so too, so he recommended Rome both for things to see, and for people (by which of course he meant American and English expatriates) to converse with. Florence had plenty of such society but a harsher climate and fewer “resorts and lounging places”: Naples “a belle nature but very little society.”

William in fact did not avail himself of any of these suggestions—it was the summer of 1873—but betook himself to the Isles of Shoals, off the Maine coast, from which he wrote his brother letters about the idyllic surroundings—“absolutely barren rocks with a great & first class hotel on two of them”—as rich and vivid as any of the accounts he was receiving from Europe.

I just lay around drinking the air and the light & the sounds. I succeeded in reading no word for three days and then took Goethe’s Gedichte out on my walks, and with them in my memory the smell of the laurels & pines in my nose, and the rythmic pounding of the surf upon my ear I was free and happy again. How people can pass years without a week of that Normal life I can’t imagine.

Henry hastened to reciprocate about the joys of dolce far niente. “Every word you say about Nature & the ‘normal life’ has an echo in my soul. I enjoy them more the older I grow and acquire a fatal facility in sitting under trees letting the hours expire without particular fruits.” Was each brother secretly relieved to be enjoying the “normal life” on his own, with the pleasure augmented by telling the other all about it? Henry had certainly done his best; and so had the postmen: but it is astonishing to remember that there was no speedier mode of detailed communication at that date than by letter. Like Stanley and Livingstone in Africa the brothers hoped to run up against each other in London or in Paris, or perhaps in Rome, in the course of what must necessarily be uninstructed wanderings. William urges Henry to write back as soon as he can, or he will not be able to get himself a good berth on the Cunarder, on which he will venture toward some meeting-place outside the reach of letters. Perhaps after all he was wise to remain in New England.

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