Wm & H'ry
Literature, Love, and the Letters
Between William and Henry James

J. C. Hallman
(University of Iowa Press)
You might have to be a Modern Language Association freak to get into this one.

Like death and old age, 19th Century philosophers and novelists are not for the fainthearted. They worked at a slow burn, were not about to hurry their pace to fit the needs of a reader, especially a modern-day reader. Think Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Emmanuel Kant. Or if you are of the novelistic persuasion, try Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray. See if you can stuff them into a single evening by the crackling fireside, or, perchance, a weekend at the windswept lakeside cottage.

Wm & H'ry (a take on the way each of them signed their letters) is obviously a labor of love. Although William and Henry might be considered by many of us to be a bit windy, this essay --- really, a love letter to them from Hallman --- is short and pithy, weighing in at a scant 122 pages, with fifteen pages of notes, by my inexact calculations, a ratio of one page of notes to 8.13333 pages of text.

Hallman tells us that he went to extraordinary lengths to access the letters between William and Henry, which was the fault of his coming across something that you and I might be more inclined to use as a paperweight, or, better, gadgets to prop up a wobbly desk, righten a lopsided dining room table. It consisted of twelve bound volumes of The Correspondence of William James: William and Henry published by the University Press of Virginia.

That's what got to Hallman --- everyone has their vice --- and, to complicate matters, he got stuck on volume twelve. The local library wasn't about to loan out their sole copy, certainly not to some struggling English Lit major who walked his dog and did his homework at the "outdoor tables of a Vietnamese restaurant for cheap lunches."

Not having access to the last volume would compromise Hallman's efforts, made even more onerous by the chance to buy the entire set (emphasis his) "for $315, which was then about half my net worth." I read this and I am thinking that with this kind of literary love, who are you or I to fault the subjects. William and Henry may be, to the nth degree, stuffy, but to Hallman, they were literary, philosophical, and philological giants. Their letters pleased and challenged him. Most especially the key question caught him: How much did they influence each other?

I am the last to rob you of your pleasure with this slim volume, but I am here to tell you that Wm & H'ry can be fun, even if you are put off (a bit, not too much I hope: it's love after all) by the author's assertion that "Henry James is the most pivotal author of the last 150 years" (hear that Joyce? Faulkner? Proust? Nabokov?) And that "William James is the father of modern psychology" (ditto Freud? Jung? Charcot?)

But ignore the hyperbole. You won't get any clues about Henry's sex life (who cares, anyway?) but you will find out more than you want to know about Henry's digestive system ("Never resist a motion to stool" was is his brother's advice ... and he ain't talking bar-stool, either).

§   §   §

You will also discover a couple of wonderful drawings [See Fig. 1 above] by William, showing Henry's forth-coming sleeping arrangements in Cambridge when he came to visit. Yes, they slept together, in the same bed, but it was the custom of the times (Abraham Lincoln did it for years) and, in the case of Wm & H'ry, was only, we assume, in the name of brotherly love.

In these letters you will also find a fascination with the word "whirligig;" you'll even run into a word you may never have heard before: "fizzling." It was in William's reaction to James' The Wings of the Dove: "I went fizzling about concerning it." (He was, mostly, puzzled by his brother's novels.)

There is some back-and-forth about the myth of the long-suffering artist, viz. "All intellectual work is the same --- the artists feeds the public on his own bleeding insides." William also suggests why many of us don't commit suicide when we get the blues. In responding to a document titled, "Is Life Worth Living?" he

    cited two good reasons for sick souls distracted by thoughts of the abyss to plod along for at least another twenty-four hours: the daily newspaper, and "to see ... what the next postman will bring."

This is perhaps more satisfying than Hallman's rephrasing the philosopher's defense of pragmatism where the biographer is beginning to copy-cat the writing styles of at least one of his subjects: "we each have the right to supplement observable reality with an unseen spiritual order if only to thereby make life seem worth living."

There are some ravishing passages here, and not all of them from the brothers. William is concerned with the "chamber of the brain," the "true hope of breaching the membrane that kept us separate and discrete." In this, (William, Henry, and J. C. --- and from now on, me) are quoting Robert Louis Stevenson:

    No man lives in the external truth, among salts and acids, but in the warm phantasmagoric chamber of his brain, with the painted windows and the storied walls.

That single line might be worth the price of admission to Wm&H'ry.

Like the Buddhists, William was concerned with the "blooming, buzzing confusion" of the mind. He first called it the "procession through the mind of groups of images." Then:

    Our minds are all of them like vessels full of water, and taking in a new drop makes another fall out.

And with this, we are allowed to see the earliest incarnation of the now all-too-famous phrase "stream of consciousness,"

    Consciousness, then, does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as "chain" or "train" do not describe fully as it presents itself in the first instance. It is nothing jointed; it flows. A "river" or a "stream" are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter, let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life.

Just think, it could have been the river of consciousness. Or the train of subjective life. Or the far more prosaic stream of thought.

§   §   §

You will miss something in this review. It has to do with the print trade, and HTML, and the like. I have yet to find in the codes coming out of the computer cloud, the likes of one charming bit that Hallman throws in throughout the book. It's 19th Century abbreviation for "William," a "W" with a tiny, underlined, uplifted "m" just to the right.

That was the way William signed his name.

It's easier with Henry which becomes, in the text here, H'ry. Both give a Victorian touch. With eight mail-calls a day, we wrote many letters, signed our names hastily.

Let's offer the last word to poor, gut-pained, stool-straining William. Those who favor his novels will know that it is often his ravishing descriptions that highlight the drama against which he plays his characters. This is his vista from Transatlantic Sketches of Lake Albano, in Italy:

    This beautiful pool --- it is hardly more --- occupies the crater of a prehistoric volcano --- a perfect cup, moulded and smelted by furnace-fires. The rim of the cup rises high and densely wooded around the placid, stone-blue water, with a sort of natural artificiality. The sweep and contour of the long circle are admirable; never was a lake so charmingly lodged. It is said to be of extraordinary depth; and though stone-blue water seems at first a very innocent substitute for boiling lava, it has a sinister look which betrays its dangerous antecedents. The winds never reach it, and its surface is never ruffled; but its deep-bosomed placidity seems to cover guilty secrets, and you fancy it in communication with the capricious and treacherous forces of nature. Its very color has a kind of joyless beauty --- a blue as cold and opaque as a solidified sheet of lava. Streaked and wrinkled by a mysterious motion of its own, it seemed the very type of a legendary pool, and I could easily have believed that I had only to sit long enough into the evening to see the ghosts of classic nymphs and naiads cleave its sullen flood and beckon to me with irresistible arms.
--- L. W. Milam
Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH