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.

As Myers points out, “In William’s psychology and Henry’s fiction the ‘evanescent’ in experience is all-important. From an early date William was uncompromising on the role of the “aesthetic,” not only in philosophical matters (that point made in the last chapter of The Principles of Psychology appeared years earlier in an 1878 essay) but in the physical sciences. The kind of “impressions” garnered in letters to his brother were themselves in a sense the essence and foundation of pragmatism. It is striking to notice, as we read on, how much more “advanced,” in a technical literary sense, than that of his brother was William’s instinctive mode of retailing those impressions. It is he, not Henry, who anticipates what later became called the “stream of consciousness” technique; and yet one feels that it was Henry’s example and peculiar talents that inspired his brother to a kind of emulation. William was not going to let the younger, and as he was once memorably to call him the more “frivolous,” brother eclipse the elder as wordsmith and man of letters.

That is apparent in the collection’s first missive: William’s impression after leaving the family at Newport of his new lodgings—“drear and chill abode”—in Cambridge, where he was to enter Harvard’s Scientific School. The war was on, but neither brother noticed the fact much in correspondence: their bad backs and delicate health, as well as the virtual paternal veto, made it seem natural to leave the fighting to their tougher and fitter young brothers, Wilky and Bob. The interest of William’s early letter is in the conscious sense of contrast—in this case between the happy ambiance of Newport and the bleak one of his Cambridge lodgings—and its affinity to the kinds of contrast Henry will specialize in as a novelist, from the great Europe versus America theme to the detailed contrasts and comparisons of English, French, and Italian landscape, custom, and appearance. Nothing came more naturally to them as correspondents than to play off one place, as it were, against another:

As I write now even, writing itself being a cosy cheerful looking amusement, and an argand gas burner with a neat green shade over it merrily singing beside me, I still feel unsettled. I write on a round table in the middle of the room with a red and black cloth upon it. In front of me I see another such-covered table of oblong shape against the wall capped by a cheap looking glass & flanked by 2 windows, curtainless and bleak, whose shades of linen flout the air as the sportive wind impels them.

William’s impressions convey the soul of a frugal lodgment in the same way that Henry’s more metaphysical seizure for his later fiction of an interior in Venice or London. There is a kind of displaced possessiveness too, of a brotherly sort, in the way in which he seeks to impress his own image, in its own surroundings, on his more peripatetic sibling, as if bringing Henry to heel.

At 10.30 arrived your letter of Jany. 26th… At 12.30 after reading for an hour in Flints physiology, I went to town paid a bill of Randidge’s, looked in to the Atheneum reading room, got 1 doz. raw oysters at Higgins’s saloon in Court Street, came out again, thermometer having risen to near thawing point, dozed 1/2 an hour before the fire, and am now writing this to you.

Meanwhile Alice—the sister, not the wife—is seized in the midst of her toilet by an acute colic, caused by sewer gas in the pantry where she was washing up “in the lack of a ‘parlor girl’ “; and William, leaving her behind, is off to a party in Boston with Mr. and Mrs. Child—“Child cursing and swearing all the way in.” Undeterred, William much enjoys sitting next to “the beauteous and adorably naive miss Mary M,” while Mr. Morse is “squinting & showing his dazzling teeth in a lady like manner at the head of the table.” On return he was glad to find Alice had been “relieved ‘copieusement’ (proving cause of trouble) and was all right.”

William indeed is on a par with Joyce in his capacity to immortalize the “evanescent,” while in the same letter he gives his brother a brisk critique of George Eliot’s Middlemarch (“Ladislaw-Dorothea suggest too much and solve too little.”) The one left out in the cold is poor sister Alice, having her own psychosomatic troubles over the washing up, and thus unable to attend the Morse dinner party “wh. was a pity, as the party was given in her name.” Whatever her own feelings for William, about which much has been speculated, he appears oblivious. At least he gives no sign of them in his communion with Henry, but that is just another item in the plot dimension of this exchange, in which impressions are many but relationships few.

Henry’s marvelous vignettes of Oxford, and of the fair haired young giants in their blue and white flannels punting and rowing on the river, are about as far as he goes in his own particular emotional direction, and with his own talent for suggesting much and resolving little. And yet the way he revels in art—Tintoretto and Veronese, but Titian his true favorite—is both perspicacious and joyously infectious.

A wider audience than his brother will soon have the benefit of such things when he publishes them first in the magazines and then in English Hours, Italian Hours, A Little Tour in France, The American Scene—incomparable travel writings now collected in a splendid two volume edition by the Library of America. The Library’s public spirit in reissuing these volumes so conveniently and compactly makes one hope they might presently do the same for the collected stories, once issued in twelve volumes by Rupert Hart-Davis (as Edel’s magisterial biography also was in England) but now out of print and unobtainable. Henry’s earliest stories—filled as they are with the sights and lights and shades of New England and the English home counties, which he had already shared in letters to William—remain in many ways his best.

A second volume of William and Henry’s letters, which runs from 1885 to 1896, makes equally compulsive reading, although we miss the bubblingly youthful and sanguine note of the brothers in their younger years. While never ceasing to cling to and confide in each other they became more formal: more harassed, too, by unremitting activity, and the wear and tear of their remorselessly busy careers. These were the years both of achievement and of an increasing melancholia and disillusionment. Often they met and read the same new authors. Both were enthusiastic about Robert Louis Stevenson, and Kipling too, when what William called the “dear little genius” hove upon the literary scene, visiting William in America and Henry in London, and later in Rye.

The letters the pair exchanged about the death in England of their sister Alice are copious and moving. Henry wrote to William from her deathbed, “She is perfectly clear & humorous & would talk if doing so wouldn’t bring on spasms of coughing. But she does speak in a whisper—& gave me, in my ear, very distinctly, three words to cable to you.” The cable read, “Tenderest love to all farewell Am going soon.” On the day after her death, William replied, “Poor little Alice! What a life! I can’t believe that that imperious will and piercing judgment are snuffed out with the breath. Now that her outwardly so frustrated life is over, one sees that in the deepest sense it was a triumph.” William reports about his own health and that of his children, and Henry makes surprisingly frequent references to regret at his continuing bachelorhood. It is clear that the brothers were franker with each other than with any other mortal: in William’s case, even with his own wife, Alice. The volume ends with William comforting Henry for his disappointment of his dramatic debut with Guy Danville; and with what the editors justly call the “interminable elongation” of his own work on The Principles of Psychology.

Henry’s own relation with publishers was on the whole cordial but nothing if not demandingly inquisitive. He took a great liking to the young Frederick Macmillan, which was quickly returned, to their mutual benefit, although Henry lamented long and loud that his growing reputation was not matched by anything Macmillan’s could do in the way of sales. Macmillan uncle as well as nephew did their best—Henry confided to his brother that “old Macmillan physically hugs me”—but although the famous publishing house was “caressing” and “everything that’s friendly,” “the delicious ring of the sovereign is conspicuous in our intercourse by its absence.”

The Macmillans were the first to regret the fact. As correspondents they could be as voluble, and as acute as Henry himself, and the latter frequently found in Frederick a correspondent worthy of his steel. Very few publishers today would write a letter as forthcoming as this one, mildly deprecating the fact that James had decided to try placing one of his children with Chatto and Windus.

I confess I did feel hurt about “Confidence.” Of course we don’t pretend to any claim over your work, but as we have been your publishers hitherto I am sorry you should have gone elsewhere merely because you wanted some ready money. If you had written to my Uncle proposing that we should advance you £100 on account of future profits, you would undoubtedly have received a cheque by return of post. Certainly the money result last year was not very encouraging, but you must remember it was the result of your first year before the British public as a writer of fiction. No doubt the flavour of your work is too delicate to be at once appreciated by the palates accustomed to coarser food, but I believe that the cordial recognition your books have received from the critical papers & reviews will in time have its effect on the sales, indeed I think this is already evident as each book seems to do better than the last.

Bracing words, which Henry must have recalled with a mournful irony as the sales of his later fiction went down instead of up. But the firm certainly did their best for him; and young Mrs. Macmillan, who had a soft spot for Henry, brought back jars of maple syrup for him when she visited the United States with her husband. Professor Moore has shown here, as in “A Literary Friendship,” his selection of the correspondence between Henry and that ubiquitous Edwardian, Edmund Gosse, that the native James genius for letter writing could also be an inspiration to their friends.*

The same sort of rapprochement recurred, in a rather different context, when Henry was much older, during the productive but also sad decade which saw the publication of The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, The Golden Bowl, but also the death of his beloved brother, and his own increasing vulnerability to periods of illness, loneliness, depression. In 1899, at the Palazzo Barbaro in Venice, Henry was a fellow-guest of Jessie Allen, an English maiden lady with aristocratic connections, who spent her days traveling and staying at houses on the continent. She was a very different sort of person from poor “Fenimore”—Constance Fenimore Woolson—the American writer whose attachment to James, until she killed herself while in a depressed state in Venice ten years earlier, had become something of a source of embarrassment to him. He and Miss Allen were of much the same age (she died in 1918, two years after Henry) and took a shine to each other immediately. Miss Allen soon became his “Goody Two-Shoes,” to whom he confided his numerous woes, lending her counsel and comfort in return.

Compared to the correspondence with his brother, the letters—hereto-fore unpublished and now issued by an enterprising Italian publisher—are those not only of an older but a more distracted and increasingly helpless man, clinging for sympathy to this kind and lovingly undemanding woman, and pouring out his recital of the ailments that increasingly plagued him—gout, shingles, irritable bowel syndrome. His letters are not only less on top of things than they once were, but are also more chaotic, more mannered, more inclined to exaggerative whimsy, even while they are as capable as ever of expressing the warmest affection and the most humorous sense of the human comedy. By no means indifferent to Miss Allen’s connections in high society, though she herself like many quasi-aristocrats, seems to have been both self-assured and unassuming, Henry found her a good audience for his lamentations about a very different female admirer—Edith Wharton—with whom bondage, gilded, could also be oppressive.

An hour ago there arrived Mrs. Wharton from Paris, by motorcar—from Folkestone—it is now 7 p.m. and she left it this a.m.; and she stays till Tuesday; and she then proposes to sweep me away, in her car, on a tour (of these islands) against which all my necessities and conveniences frantically protest. I snatch this scrap of communion but by her lying down before dinner; and even while I trace these rude characters for your slight benefit I strive to brace myself for that discussion of the immediate future which is sure to break upon me this evening. I shall not get off without some surrender; when a lady has motored straight across the Channel to ask one to oblige, one must go some little part of the way to meet her—even at the cost of precious hours and blighted labours and dislocated (say rather quite smashed) thrift and order.

By 1912 the motor-car had already become something of a tyrant, at least when at the command of as dominating a lady as Mrs. Wharton; but of course James was far from reluctant to be borne away, like some faintly protesting and far from youthful Ganymede, by this masterful female Jove. He only compensated—not revenged—the inconvenience by writing, when his captor was resting upstairs at Lamb House to that other, more understanding and more comfortingly congenial, friend, his “dearest Goody,” whom he sees in a characteristic metaphor as being always available as a restorative snack—“a slice of cold or cooling Goody—with a sense of her being quite the ornament of my sideboard.” What would the other lady upstairs have thought of this employment?—but then, one of the great pleasures of a correspondence (Philip Larkin’s letters certainly bear this out) is to say just what one likes about some of one’s friends to other friends, to whom one will shortly be writing in the same vein.

This Issue

February 3, 1994