I get emails now and then from NetGalley and usually don’t pay too much attention to them. But recently I looked to see what books were being highlighted and immediately decided that Wm & Hry: Literature, Love, and the letters between William and Henry James was something I wanted to read. I requested an e-galley and soon had it loaded up on my trusty Kindle. And I started reading it not long after.
I dove right in and thought I was reading an introduction by J.C. Hallman to a collection of selected letters. About a quarter of the way in I started thinking, wow, this has got to be the world’s longest introduction. Just shy of a third of the way in with no sign that this very good and thorough introduction was going to end, I did a bit more investigating. Surprise! It is not a book of selected letters at all but a book about the letters. It took me a bit to shift my expectations and how I was reading before I was off and running with the book I actually had and not the book I thought I had.
William and Henry were great letter writers in general and they wrote regularly to each other. I get the feeling that there are a lot, hundreds, of letters just between the two of them. While they wrote about art and their travels and their reading and what they were working on, nothing, generally was off limits. On an early trip around Europe Henry suffered from a bad case of constipation and dutifully kept William informed of the details of his situation right down to when his bowels finally let go. I am sure William was just as relieved as Henry.
The brothers were, apparently, also great gossips, especially Henry. He would sometimes complain when William didn’t include enough gossip in his letters. While William would write about his wife and children, it doesn’t seem like Henry ever wrote about his sexual orientation and I wonder if William knew or even suspected?
Of course, the focus of the book is on the influence William and Henry had on each other’s work. Henry had a great respect for William’s work in psychology. It is William from whom “stream of consciousness” originates. Henry took it up and worked with it and strove always to give the impression on paper of how the mind works. The closer he could get to that, the more realistic he believed his writing to be.
And while William appreciated what Henry was trying to do and read all of his work, he was mostly baffled by it and often chided Henry. As forward thinking as William was in psychology, when it came to literature, what he really wanted was a good, old-fashioned story he could escape into so he could unwind from his day. Of course, Henry just couldn’t give him what he wanted. William sometimes wondered why Henry couldn’t write like he, William, did, forgetting of course that he was writing for a scholarly audience and Henry was writing fiction. William once tried his hand at fiction writing and produced a very bad short story.
As with any siblings there was sometimes jealously. Henry’s career got off to an early start and William was a bit nonplussed. William didn’t publish his first book until he was forty-eight but after that, his reputation grew and he no longer had anything to be jealous of Henry about.
It is clear that despite their differences, William and Henry loved each other very much. They also inspired and challenged each other. As they grew older and their personal aesthetics became more diverged, Henry was always able to be generous with his praise for William’s work. But big brother William, thinking he was helping Henry, offered up criticism. After reading The Golden Bowl William wrote,
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 psychological commentaries, and absolute straightness in the style?
I mean . . . 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.
William would complain to Henry for what he saw as Henry’s “growing tendency toward ‘over-refinement’ or ‘curliness’ of style.” Henry would reply that the popular style William advocated was tasteless and that he would rather starve than write that way.
As a book examining the letters between William and Henry and what light they shed on their relationship both filially, artistically and intellectually, it’s pretty good. It made me want to read the letters even more so I could get more continuity and a better sense of their correspondence styles. It is also rather fun learning of their love for gossip and that even these two “greats” would bicker as siblings do. The thing about letters, as Henry found out when he read the letters of his idol, Balzac, is they humanize the minds we encounter in the books, bringing them down from the lofty heights and show the person, warts and all. Henry was utterly disappointed to learn how crass and vulgar Balzac could be as a person but I found it most delightful to meet the very human James brothers.
On a side note, since this book is about letters, I am counting it as my first completion for the Postal Reading Challenge.