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 …

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Letters

Roses for Henry James June 22, 1995