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Dear Harry . . . Dear Wm

The Letters of the Jameses

By John J. McDermott | HUMANITIES, September/October 1997 | Volume 18, Number 4

In an essay on the painter Daumier, Henry James writes of the drawing entitled Saltimbanques:

It exhibits a pair of lean, hungry mountebanks, a clown and a harlequin beating the drum and trying a comic attitude, to attract the crowd at a fair, to a poor booth in fron of which a painted canvas, offering to view a simpering fat woman, is suspended. But the crowd does not come, and the battered tumblers, with their furrowed cheeks, go through their pranks in the void. The whole thing is symbolic and full of grimness, imagination, and pity. It is the sense that we shall find in him, mixed with his homelier extravagances, an element prolific in indications of this order that draws us back to Daumier.

And so, too, it is the imagination and "homelier extravagances" that draw us to return over and over again to the letters written between William and Henry James. The extraordinary correspondence between thes celebrated brothers offers a rich kaleidoscope of persons, places, and events that striate the Euro-American world from 1861 until the death of William James in August 1910. This veritable fesast of personal, social, and cultural insights is indeed "moveable"; not a year goes by that one or both of the brothers James write from a different place, often from a different country, and especially from France, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland

The home front for Henry James was England, for the most part a series of apartments, flats, and clubs in and around London. William's home was in Cambridge, Massachusetts and in later years during the summer at Chocorua, New Hampshire. Reading the letters, one has the impression that London and Cambridge were as much points of departure as they were places of residence. The letters are laced with plans for future travel, reflections on previous travels, and constant complaints about their present whereabouts. Call it what you will, a highly imaginative restiveness, perpetual dissatisfaction, self-pity, or rich veins of creative energy, William and Henry James had a deep belief that all would, or at least could, go better if only this or that change would take place. Framing their personal attitudes toward the present was a lifelong interweaving of genuine physical ailments and chronic hypochondriasis.

The overarching impression, however, is the persistence of the ordinary, of ordinariness, of lives carried on much like most of us, most of the time. Given this obviousness, why then do we witness such a widespread, continual, and loyal fascination with this correspondence? Yes, William and Henry James are luminaries in their respective accomplishments as writer, psychologist, and philosopher. But then so are many others whose letters do not grip us as these do. Wuite simply, it is the prose, the turn of a phrase, the power of description, and the indefatigable literary elegance that clothes even the most mundane of feelings, occurrences, and events.

Take the young Henry James in a letter from Oxford in 1869. He praises his host, Augustus George Vernon Harcourt, for "it is certainly no small favor for a man to trudge about bodily for three hours in the noon-day sun with a creature thus rudely hurled into his existence from over the sea, whom he neither knows nor cares for. His reward will be in heaven." Henry then reports on his lunch with the Rector, obviously a boring affair yet saved for us as he writes:

The Rector is a dessicated old scholar, torpid even to incivility with too much learning; but his wife is of quite another fashion -- very young (about 28) very pretty, very clever, very charming & very conscious of it all. She is I believe highly "emancipated" & I defy an Englishwoman to be emancipated except coldly and wantonly. As a spectacle the thing had its points: the dark rich, scholastic old dining room in the college court -- the languid old rector & his pretty little wife in a riding-habit, talking slang. Otherwise it was slow. I then went about with Harcourt to various colleges, halls, & gardens -- he doing his duty most bravely -- & I mine for that matter.

On then to the college gardens. "These same gardens are the fairest things in Oxford. Locked in their own ancient verdure, behind their own ancient walls, filled with shade & music & perfumes & privacy -- with lounging students & charming children -- with the rich old college windows keeping guard from above - - they are places to lie down on the grass in forever, in the happy belief the world is all an Ehglish garden & time a fine old English afternoon" (26 April 1869)

Almost forty years later William James writes of scenery in New Hampshire:

No use comparing American scenery with english -- they have no common denominator. So quickly does one take the tune of the english thing that this N.H. autumn seemed to me almost heart-breaking in its sentimentality. The smoky haze, the windless heat, the letter of the leaves on the ground in their rich colours, with enough remaining on the trees to make the whole scene red and yellow, the penury & shabbiness of everything human, the delicate emaciated morbidness, and feminine secretness of all nature's effects was so pathetic! No sound, no people, earth & sky both empty, and almost alarming in their emptiness. The elaborateness of english scenery, the simplicity of American, -- its hard to be torn so both ways by one's admirations and the best policy is to think as little as possible about the contrast. (21 October 1908)

In virtually all of the letters, we find a phrase or a line that startles us, gives us pause, causes us to reflect, or just to admire. Read, for example, Henry James writing of London: "Soddoes one move all the while here on identified ground (29 March 1877). From William James we read his version of two storied hamlets in New England: "There is a strange naked and lonely poetry about clean pure little Nantucket under its tender sky. The settlement at Marths's vineyard, `oak bluffs' is probably the most audacious paradise of `caddish'ness which has ever flaunted itself in the eye of day. A flat insipid sand bank (5 July 1876). Much later in his life, while traveling by train, William writes: "These magnificent railroads & new settlements bring home to one the fact that all life rests so on the physical courage of common man. It trims the best of one's conceptions (22 September 1898).

Fore and aft, that is the quality of language provided over forty-nine years for virtually every experience; the jejeune, the sad, the irritated, the celebratory, the anticipatory, the failures, the successes, the worries, and the happenstance. They are intrigued by persons of every stripe, by visage, by human carriage, by natural light, by weather, by voices, by topography, and, with virtually everything, by ambience. Whatever their mood, be it electric or depressed, be it relieved or worried, their prose sustains a quality of evocation, provocation, and perpetual excellence. Gerald E. Myers is on the mark when he writes: "Like their father, William and Henry chose an intlellectual life. The sons had been reared on their father's linguistic inventiveness, and they came to believe, as did Socrates in Plato's Phaedo, that 'to express oneself badly is not only faulty as far as the language goes, but does some harm to the soul.'"

From the beginning of their lives and certainly of their correspondence, they fretted about what they could do, should do, and what would be the upshot of what they had done or were doing. Despite the long passages about personal health, money, and their living in a staggering variety of domiciles, the vertebral thread in their lives was their work. For Henry, the underlying deposit was his attention to the craft of writing. Quintessentially, he was a writer. His thoughts were absorbed by his plots, his scenes, and above all, his fictional characters, many of whom have become public figures who have long since outstripped their original literary settings as have Milly Theale and Daisy Miller. For William, the focus was on human behavior, initially in its physiological underpinnings and subsequently its psychological manifestation. In his later work he took up the questions pertaining to moral and religious attitudes and experiences. En passant and especially in the last decade of his life, William James developed a highly original and pathbreaking approach to metaphysics and epistemology. Although Ralph Barton Perry, his student and first biographer, understood the importance of William James's rich philosophical contribution, its full importance has been recognized only within the last few decades.

Nowhere do we find any trenchant analysis of each other's serious writings. Apparently, neither had a clue to the depth of the other's work. For that matter, William's interpretive responses to literature of any kind, although highly opinionated, are rarely distinctive or unuaually enlightening. On several occasions, Henry says just that. For example, in 1878, he writes:

I was much depressed on reading your letter by your painful reflections on the Europeans; but now, an hour having elapsed, I am beginning to hold up my head a little; the more so as I think I myself estimate the book very justly & am aware of its extreme slightness. I think you take these things too rigidly & unimaginatively -- too much as if an artistic experiments were a piece of conduct, to which one's life were somehow committed; but I think also that you're quite right in pronouncing the book "thin," & empty. I don't at all despair, yet, of doing something fat. Meanwhile I hope you will continue to give me, when you can your free impression of my performances.

As for William, almost thirty years later, he sends Henry a crusty critique of The Golden Bowl, inclusive of his oft-quoted fraternal advice as follows: "But why won't you, just to please Brother, sit down and write a new book, with no twilight or mustiness in the plot, with great vigor and decisiveness in the action, no fencing in the dialogue, no psychologocal commentaries, and absolute straightness in the style? Publish it in my name, I will acknowledge it, and give you half the proceeds" (22 October 1905). This facetious, albeit patronizing, suggestion of William drew an incendiary response from Henry: "I mean (in response to what you write me of your having read the Golden B.) to try to produce some uncanny form of thing, in fiction, that will gratify you, as Brother -- but let me say, dear William, that I shall greatly be humiliated if you do like it, & thereby lump it, in your affection, with things, of the current age, that I have heard you express admiration for & that I would sooner descend to a dishonoured grave than have written (23 November 1905).

Henry James was never as critical of William's work and certainly never as caustic. Rather, the philosophically sophisticated material seemed to just passy by him. In 1884 Henry writes to William that "I have attacked your two Mind articles, with admiration, but been defeated (21 Aprikl 1884). One of these pieces was entitled "On Some Omissions of Introspective Psychology" and is regarded as the most important of William James's early essays, for it became the basis of the famous chapter in "The Stream of Thought" in his Principles of Psychology as well as the foundation position for his subsequent doctrine of radical empiricism and his pragmatic epistemology.

And so it went, sometimes a swap of criticism, sometimes a swap of admiration, other times just an acknowledgment of their respective activity and results. They may not always have cared for each other's work, but doubtlessly they cared about each other's work. And that continual fraternal jousting forged an ineradicable and enduring bond, easily able to withstand any psychobiographical carping by subsequent critics.

All of these concerns notwithstanding, the fulcrum around which this correspondence rotates and the linchpin in their shared lives, however separated by geographical distance, was the family, their family. Rarely, if ever, has a private family been so chronicaled with publication of their letters, diaries, autobiographical material as well as extensive biographies and interpretative, critical commentaries. Although we do not possess everything that they wrote, especially letters to and from Henry James, we do have access to an enormous cache of material, both public and private. Everything they wrote seems to be intended some day, for the light of day, that is, for us, generations later, to read. One of William James's students, the philosopher Charles M. Bakewell, once said that James never wrote anything, even a "post card," that he did not intend some day to be published.

Bibliographical note: After William James died in 1910, members of the family began the work of collecting and preparing them for publication. In the evenings his widow, Alice Gibben James, would take down bundles of letters and papers, sort through them, and destroy what she thought should not be preserved. She did make extracts of some of James's letters to her before destroying the originals. In the case of others, William's son Henry contacted the correspondents and asked them to lend the originals or provide transcripts. In the current project, 9,300 letters have been recorded, enough for twenty large volumes. The present edition in twelve volumes will contain about 70 percent of the correspondence, with the other 30 percent logged by date and indexed.

About the Author

John J. McDermott is the general editor of the The Correspondence of William James.

Funding Information

The above article is is adapted from the introduction to William and Henry James: Selected Letters, edited by Ignas K. Skrupskelis and M. Berkeley. ©1997 by the Rectors and Visitors of the University of Virginia.

The American Council of Learned Societies has received $788,175 from the Division of Research and Education for the Correspondence of William James, from which the newly published William and Henry James: Selected Letters originate. The fifth volume of the intended twelve-volume correspondence will be published this year. The ACLC also received $1,083,613 for the completed nineteen-volume edition of the Works of William James.