‘I take up my pen once more after this long interval to converse with my in many ways twin bro.’ Thus William James to Henry in 1873. We might put against this comments from earlier letters. ‘Our ways are so far apart that I doubt if we ever really get intimate’ (1867). But then again, a year later: ‘I feel as if you were one of the 2 or 3 sole intellectual & moral companions I have.’ Leon Edel, in his majestic biography of Henry James, stressed what he saw as a deep unconscious rivalry between the brothers, which pulled against their more consciously maintained fraternal affection. If there is a fault in that magisterial biography it is that Edel rides that particular Freudian horse too hard.
Now, with the publication of this wonderful volume (impeccably edited and annotated and beautifully produced), we are in a much better position to read and sense for ourselves what the relationship between these most remarkable of brothers actually was; to watch the convergences and divergences of their early lives as they seek to work out what they are actually going to do and be, and where they might best do and be it; to see the ‘twinship’ and the differences – both of which were marked. This volume contains 69 letters from William and 94 from Henry. Forty-four of the latter are in Edel’s edition of Henry James’s Letters – and to give Edel his due, he has chosen the most richly interesting ones. Regrettably, only one of William’s letters to Henry survives from the crucial period of August 1876 to October 1882. Perhaps they were destroyed in the ‘gigantic bonfire’ Henry made in late 1909 – shortly before collapsing into his terrible depression of 1910 – of all the accumulated letters he had received. In which case, I don’t quite understand how any of William’s letters to Henry survived. But here, happily, they are, and the good news is that there are 574 of these brotherly letters yet to come.
Their father was notoriously peripatetic, moving his family from house to house, continent to continent. With no financial need of a job, he disdained regular employment and committed careers, preferring to write his idiosyncratic articles on religion and society as and when he chose. As a father, a model to look up to, he was discontinuous, diffuse, arguably derelict in his paternal duty. He seemed to offer an example of enlightened liberty – but it was the freedom of a cloud, and if his children were going to find anything to, as it were, take hold of and hang onto, they would have to find it (or make it) for themselves. Three of them failed and drifted, variously, into an early death, alcoholism and invalidism. William and Henry did their share of drifting, too, but they drifted with a purpose – or at least with a purpose to find a purpose. Thus we see William shifting between the natural sciences, painting, philosophy and psychology – and, as often as not, when doing one, wishing he was doing one of the others. ‘I have been of late so sickened & sceptical of philosophic activity as to regret much that I did not stick to painting and to envy those like you to whom the aesthetic relations of things were the real world.’ ‘By the way I believe I told you in my last that I had determined to stick to psychology or die. I have changed my mind & for the present give myself to biology.’ He could never quite commit himself to art, but by the following, characteristically vigorous, definition, he was, in his own way, as much an artist as his brother: ‘I envy ye the world of art. Away from it, as we live, we sink into a flatter blanker kind of consciousness, and indulge in an ostrichlike forgetfulness of all our richest potentialities – and they startle us now and then when by accident some rich human product, pictorial, literary, or architectural slaps us with its tail.’ Whatever else it might be, his own writing is a ‘rich human product’ with its own slapping tail.
Henry seems, for periods, to have made drifting into a way of life – ‘still sauntering & resauntering & looking & assimilating’: ‘afternoons in the streets, walking, strolling, flânant, prying, staring, lingering at Bookstalls and shop-windows’. Just occasionally he seems to feel a spasm of desire for the focused commitments and gratifications of some normal career. ‘When you tell me of the noble working life that certain of our friends are leading in that clear American air, I hanker wofully to wind up these straggling threads of loafing & lounging & drifting & to toss my ball with the rest.’ Such hankerings are, however, momentary. Even if he seems to be doing nothing, he knows what he is doing: ‘my present business – strange destiny! – is simply to be idle’; a resolve which reminds me of the desperate oxymoronic speciousness of Morton Densher who, finding himself in an impossibly compromised and contradictory position in Venice, decides ‘to let himself go – go in the direction, that is to say, of staying’. Henry let himself go in the direction of staying in Europe because he knew he was ‘assimilating’, ‘absorbing’ and ‘soaking up’ (when he was not ‘sucking up’ – his sensuous incorporation of the world was metaphorically, and at times literally, oral) ‘impressions’ which would nourish his work for years to come. Long before William had settled on what was to be his vocation, Henry knew that he could only do, and thus be, one thing – a writer.
It is notable that Henry, initially, and William, invariably, justified their sojourns in Europe to their parents on the grounds of health. (Thus Henry: ‘it was not as a spree but as part of an absolute remedy that I thought of the journey.’) European travel was, they maintained, curative, and my goodness, there seems to have been much to cure. In nothing, perhaps, are the brothers more twinnish than in their compulsion to exchange details of their ill-health – problems with back, bowels, stomach, eyes, skin, kidneys, liver – not to mention anxiety, nervousness, insomnia, depression (these last more on William’s side in these years). Here are typical statements from William – ‘my back has gone to Pot,’ ‘my “power of reading” has gone to the dogs,’ ‘my health caved in,’ ‘my sleep, my eyes, & my back, have rather turned traitors.’ When he intimates that his kidneys have gone on the blink, Henry reacts: ‘What new horror is this? and is the catalogue to be absolutely endless?’ Quite so. Henry also, famously, had his back problems (he maintained they kept him out of the Civil War), but William seems none too impressed. ‘The condition of your back is totally incomprehensible to me ... my diagnosis of it now wd be simply “dorsal insanity”.’ On the other hand, he is deeply interested in what he calls Henry’s ‘moving intestinal drama’. ‘I blush to say that detailed bulletins of your bowels, stomach &c, as well as back are of the most enthralling interest to me. A good plan is for you to write such on separate slips of paper marked private.’ Such details, concerning ‘my unhappy bowels’, Henry, chronically constipated, duly supplies – at length, for still the cry goes out: ‘I can’t get a passage.’ Sometimes, it seems, they could both be ‘plugged up’ for days, if not weeks, on end. (All the children had illnesses of one kind or another, and it comes as no surprise to learn that Dido, the family dog, has, out of sympathy and solidarity one supposes, contracted ‘colliquative diarrhoea’. The last letter in the book records Alice as ‘laid up with catarrh of the bowels’.)
For their various ailments it would seem they would try anything – the sitzbath, injections by ‘douche rectale’, ‘blistering’, antibilious pills, galvanism, aloes and sulphuric acid, a new ‘homopathic remedy, hydrastis’, and a treatment which seems to have involved ice and being rubbed by an ‘Irish youth’, which remains mysterious to me. William was clearly not one to be content with reaching for the aspirin. ‘I write a few words only being impeded these days by an inflammation of the eyelids, produced in a remarkable way by an overdose of chloral, a new hypnotic remedy which I took for the fun of it’ (my italics). Here is a piece of his advice to Henry. ‘Senna taken at night, followed by Epsom salts in the morning ... Inject in these cases as large and hot an enema as you can bear (not get it, more tuo, scalding) of soap suds and oil ... Electricity sometimes has a wonderful effect, applied not in the piddling way you recollect last winter but by a strong galvanic current from the spine to the abdominal muscles, or if the rectum be paralysed one pole put inside the rectum.’ Well, I suppose to a man who takes chloral for fun ... At such moments, the brothers begin to sound like Bouvard and Pécuchet.
How much of all this illness might have been psychosomatic is both irrelevant and imponderable, as is the extent to which it might, in part, be traceable to the influence of their father, and the undoubtedly abnormal and unsettled childhood he gave them. In the event, the James children turned out to be geniuses or disasters (or, in Alice’s case, perhaps a bit of both). In these letters, we can see William and Henry slowly, perhaps at times falteringly, but with growing determination, taking control of their own lives. In this connection, their visits to Europe are crucial, and it is fascinating to see Henry moving towards his decision to stay in Europe, while William’s chosen route leads back to America. William never really falls for Europe the way Henry does (Henry’s enraptured first letters from England, France, Italy, are all here) – he can appreciate the richness of the art, the interest of the social scene, but he gets irritated, impatient, at times censorious. The French are superficial (and impure); the English are stupid; Germany is ‘the abode of the purest grace & lucency’ compared to London – though too many German women are an unattractive compound of ‘sausage and sentimentality’. He is never tempted to stay; though, like the good brother he is, he quite understands Henry’s preference for living ‘in an environment whose impression [sic] thickly assail your every sense & interest, instead of this naked, vacuous America’. (He also refers to ‘this insubstantial America’.) Again, ‘I expressed to him my newly quickened sense of the aridity of American life and ... sympathised with your aversion to your native soil.’ Henry sees the matter very clearly. ‘I enjoy very much in a sort of chronic way which has every now & then a deeper throb, the sense of being in a denser civilisation than our own. Life at home has the compensation that there you are a part of the civilisation, such as it is, whereas here you are outside of it. It’s a choice of advantages.’ William recognises that ‘it is a fork in the path of your life and upon your decision hangs your whole future’ and sees it more in terms of dilemma. ‘This is your dilemma: the congeniality of Europe on the one hand + the difficulty of making an entire living out of original writing, and its abnormality as a matter of hygiene, on the one hand; – the dreariness of American conditions of life + a mechanical routine occupation possibly to be obtained, which from day to day is done when ’tis done, mixing up with the writing into which you distil your essence.’ William knew what he needed: ‘an external motive to work, which yet does not strain me – a dealing with men instead of my own mind.’ So he was glad to return and teach at Harvard – ‘this external responsibility and college work agree with human nature better than lonely self-culture.’ Henry, of course, chose Europe and the abnormal, unhygienic life of a writer.
There is a revealing letter from William, written just after their father has died. By an unusual reversal, Henry is back in America while William is in London. William intends to return immediately and Henry, rather oddly, urges him to stay in Europe for some more months and defer the dreariness of Cambridge (Mass) – ‘stick to Europe,’ he writes. This rather irritates William.
The horror you seem to feel at Cambridge is something with which I have no sympathy, preferring it as I do to any place in the known world. Quite as little do I feel the infinite blessing of simply being in London, or in Europe ueberhaupt. The truth is, we each of us speak from the point of view of his own work; the place where a man’s work is best done seems & ought to seem the place of places to him. I feel tempted to go back now to show you how happy a man can be in the wretched circumstances that so distress your imagination ... it all depends on which place the human being has business in.
Fairly put, and William’s ‘business’ by now included a wife and children. Henry already knew that his ‘business’ would never include such anchoring attachments, and there was nothing to keep him from re-immersing himself in Europe. At times, he thinks he will live in Italy – ‘indeed if I couldn’t live there I think I would rather not live in Europe at all. Either Italy or downright Yankeedom!’ Two years later (1876): ‘I am turning English all over, I desire only to feed on English life & the contact of English minds – I wish greatly I knew some.’ That last note is one often struck and makes us realise how lonely the ‘boarding house’ sort of life they had in Europe was. Henry finds Florence beautiful, but ‘the way of life is rather solitudinous – especially the lonely feeding.’ In due course Henry was to have ‘contact’ with many of the most distinguished English minds, though one senses that his life was rather ‘solitudinous’ to the end.
One reason sometimes adduced to justify suggestions that there was rivalry between, the brothers involves what are taken to be William’s disparaging or patronising remarks about Henry’s writing. Here again, the full context hardly bears this out. Just consider some of these comments. Having noted an ‘absence of heartiness’ (William was a great believer in ‘animal spirits’) in some of Henry’s stories, he goes on: ‘the moral action was very lightly touched and rather indicated than exhibited. I fancy this rather dainty & disdainful treatment of yours comes fm. a wholesome dread of being sloppy and gushing and over abounding in power of expression like most of your rivals in the Atlantic and that is excellent, in fact it is the instinct of truth against humbug & twaddle.’ Similarly:
you seem to acknowledge that you can’t exhaust any character’s feelings or thoughts by an articulate displaying of them – You shrink from the attempt to drag them all reeking and dripping & raw upon the stage, which most writers make and fail in. You expressly restrict yourself accordingly to showing a few external acts and speeches, and by the magic of your art making the reader feel back of these the existence of a body of being of which these are casual features. You wish to suggest a mysterious fullness which you do not lead the reader through.
This is both sensitive and sympathetic, not to say encouraging, though he also gives his opinion that ‘your tendency is more and more to over-refinement, and elaboration,’ and, elsewhere: ‘I thought the style ran a little more to curliness than suited the average mind, or in general the newspaper reader. In my opinion what you should cultivate is directness of style.’ This is simply true. James tried, but discovered he just could not write for the ‘average mind’ and ‘the newspaper reader’ (‘they were the worst I could do for the money,’ he said apologetically to an editor who discontinued a series of newspaper pieces because they were too highbrow or ‘curly’). William might comment on the ‘too diffuse explanation of the successive psychological steps’ or note an element of ‘something cold, thin-blooded & priggish’ which occasionally manifests itself, but at the same time he commends Henry’s ‘flexibility, ease, & lightness of style’. William actually says, ‘I hope the legislative tone of my advice don’t offend you,’ but, if anything, I was struck by the interest he shows and the trouble he takes. It was his younger and closest brother who was embarked on the very perilous quest of living by his pen, and William was worried in case he should, as it were, write himself out of the market. As of course he did. But that is another, later story.
You can read the whole Henry James story – read it again, if you have already read Leon Edel’s biography – in Fred Kaplan’s new biography, and it is worth the effort. Inevitably Kaplan covers much of the same ground as Edel (not to mention F.W. Dupee or R.W.B. Lewis), but, taking advantage of the copious Jamesian research of the last twenty years, he can situate James in a more detailed historical, political and even economic (James and the market) context. He can also take advantage of our more outspoken times to be much more specific and detailed (though, to his credit, never salacious) about James’s homosexuality, or homoeroticism – and the various younger men he fell in love with. (Kaplan finds no evidence that any of these ‘affairs’ was physically consummated – if anything, the reverse.) Strange to recall that when Edel was writing his biography such matters could barely be whispered about or hinted at. (It was rumoured at the time – I don’t know with what truth – that the long delay in producing the final volume of that biography was occasioned by the trouble Edel was having in the need, finally, to address that side of James’s life.) Kaplan’s biography is a tremendously professional job – he must have an awesomely efficient method of accumulating and collocating data – but there is something just a touch mechanical about it. He’s done Carlyle and Dickens: now James. Who next? He doesn’t seem to have any particular feeling for James. Certainly, he betrays no tendency to ‘curliness’, and we average minds can read his work with pleasure and instruction.
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