Tony Tanner

  • The Correspondence of William James. Vol. I: William and Henry 1861-1884 edited by Ignas Skrupskelis and Elizabeth Berkeley
    Virginia, 477 pp, £39.95, January 1993, ISBN 0 8139 1338 1
  • Henry James: The Imagination of Genius by Fred Kaplan
    Hodder, 620 pp, £25.00, November 1992, ISBN 0 340 55553 X

‘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.

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