Introspection and the Body

P.N. Johnson-Laird

  • William James: His Life and Thought by Gerald Myers
    Yale, 628 pp, £30.00, October 1986, ISBN 0 300 03417 2

Henry James Sr was a redoubtable patriarch who received a large inheritance from his father – an Irish immigrant who had made a fortune in upstate New York – and spent it on a life of leisure and religiosity. He shuttled back and forth to Europe on a kind of one-man cultural exchange which combined the grand tour with a Continental education for his children. During a period in England, he introduced them to the likes of Carlyle, Tennyson and John Stuart Mill. He expressed himself in a characteristically Jamesian way: ‘I will not attempt to state the year in which I was born, because it is not a fact embraced in my own knowledge, but content myself with saying instead, that the earliest event of my biographic consciousness is that of my having been carried out into the streets one night, in the arms of my negro nurse, to witness a grand illumination in honour of the treaty of peace then just signed with Great Britain.’ He said of Emerson that he was ‘like an unsexed woman’. The remark was intended as a compliment. His religious impulse expressed itself in the devising of his own version of Christianity, which incorporated more than a scruple of Swedenborgian vastation into his ancestral Presbyterianism. His wife, Mary, about whom less is known, seems to have been all that was expected of an American mother of the mid-19th century: a provider of piety and apple pie.

Of the five children, William and Henry inherited their father’s scruples and way with words. Unfortunately they each usurped the other’s vocation: the diffident intellectual became a novelist, the practical man of the world a philosopher. Henry, as Rebecca West observed, wrote fiction as though it were philosophy and William wrote philosophy as though it were fiction. Their sister, Alice, was an equally remarkable writer, but she was riven by psychosomatic disorders – another Jamesian characteristic – and by the typical frustrations that Victorian society thrust upon women. A touch of scandal was provided by the two younger sons, Garth Wilkinson (Wilky) and Robertson. Unlike their elder brothers, they had the honour of fighting for the North in the Civil War, and the dishonour of achieving nothing thereafter. William had already written them off as ‘destined for commerce’ when they were teenagers. Wilky’s business failed; Robertson had talent as a draughtsman, but became a drunk. The only James brother needed to complete this dramatic and paradigmatic family is Jesse (alas, no relation).

Gerald Myers, a philosopher at the City University of New York, recounts this family history in his study of the life and thought of William. His book contains 13 chapters on the thought and only one on the life, but it does throw new light on William as the eldest brother who allegedly messed everyone else up. The apparent rivalry between William and Henry has been skilfully portrayed by Leon Edel. After each encounter, they would go their separate ways complaining of headaches and other ills. For the psychoanalytically-inclined, their surface fraternity masks a deep ambivalence – some have said with homosexual overtones. Its climax is supposed to have come five years before William’s death with the notorious incident of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. William received news of his election to this newly-founded organisation during a visit from Henry, who had been elected already. William refused to join the Academy and also resigned from the parent body that had spawned it. In his letter declining the honour, he wrote that the Academy seemed to have no real purpose other than to allow certain individuals to distinguish themselves and to enable them to say to the world at large: ‘we are in and you are out.’ He was encouraged to give up this particular vanity, he went on to say, because his ‘younger and shallower and vainer brother’ was already a member. Critics are divided about the significance of the letter. Myers contends that it was not an attack on Henry, but rather a playful letter which William probably showed to his brother before sending it off. Despite the intellectual differences between them, there are many signs of mutual affection and of William’s concern for the ever impractical and helpless and vulnerable Henry. The only sensible verdict on the accusation of underlying animus is ‘not proven’.

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[*] William James by Graham Bird. Routledge, 221 p., £15.95, 23 October 1986, 0 7100 9602 X.