Oh Those Fabulous James Boys!
A look at the relationship between the famous brothers William and Henry James.
By Eugene Taylor published March 1, 1995 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
Whenever psychologists want to know about human relationships they go out and collect a lot of data, analyze it for general trends, and then contribute to the professional literature on everything from couples therapy to sibling rivalry. Nothing, however, beats one good juicy case study for richness of detail and the kind of subtlety that is always missed in large-scale samples. Such is the case of the two famous brothers William and Henry James.
For those not write up to speed on who these two are, they lived at the turn of the last century. Henry, American expatriate in England, novelist, short story writer, playwright, interpreter of Western artistic and literary sensibilities, and by far the more well known of the two today, was an American progenitor of the modern psychological novel. William, physiological psychologist at Harvard, experimenter in the paranormal, psychologist of religion, pragmatist philosopher, and older brother of the two, in his own time became a major prophetic voice reflecting the mood of the modern era in which we now live.
Both rose to such international acclaim that they are often confused for each other. As one wag put it, Henry wrote novels like a psychologist while William wrote psychology texts like a novelist. Or in the words of another interpreter, the mix-up is to be expected, for they were to each other as orange juice is to vitamin C. (He neglected to say which brother was which.)
A look into their lives and accomplishments, as well as their eccentric upbringing, tells us at least five things about brothers in general, about famous siblings in particular, and about the vicissitudes of growing up in families with great talent.
1. Genes are important, but once you're here, family environment is everything.
The first thing that the James brothers have to tell us is that personality emerges out of the family constellation. Individual identity is forged not in isolation but in the context of relationships. The Freudians say that family relationships are the template for how you are going to act with everyone else later on. William and Henry James were no exception.
Their father, Henry James, Sr., was a bespectacled, talkative, and bald-headed philosopher of religion with a wooden leg and the beard of an Old Testament prophet. He is the one biographers always set up as the head of the house, the prime influence on the boys, and the true literary luminary of them all. The mother, Mary Robertson Walsh, was a stout, patient, and dependable woman from a well-to-do New York family who completely subsumed her considerable personality under that of her husband so as to become indistinguishable from him. It was she, however, who actually ran the family and kept things together.
Then there was William, the oldest of the James siblings, who was wiry and high-strung. Henry, who came next, was a quiet, gentle presence, more docile than William. Bob, the next in line, was athletic, masculine, and handsomely rugged, but prone to drinking and violent outbursts. Wilkie, the youngest boy, was good-natured, plump, and neither artistic nor intellectual. Finally there was little Alice, normally quiet and stoically withdrawn but wholly capable of her own opinions.
Henry, his mother's favorite, was always politely reserved with everyone. He bonded closely with William but eventually became most protective of sister Alice. With her friend Catherine Loring, he attended Alice on her deathbed as she succumbed to cancer at age 44 in London. William was always solicitous toward Wilkie and he helped Bob through his periodic bouts with alcoholism, having to hospitalize him on several occasions. With Alice, William had a curiously flirting, somewhat erotic, but brotherly attachment.
But one of the most outstanding features of the children's interactions with each other was the unorthodox way in which they were educated. They traveled extensively in Europe, toured the museums, sat with tutors, slogged through provincial schools their father thought would be best for them to try, and became multilingual at an early age.
Meanwhile the core of their learning took place at the family dinner table. Ralph Waldo Emerson's son, Edward, visited them one night and left the following account: "The adipose and affectionate Wilkie, as his father called him, would say something and be instantly corrected by the little cock-sparrow Bob, the youngest, but good-naturedly defend his statement, and then Henry (junior) would emerge from his silence in defense of Wilkie. Then Bob would be more impertinently insistent, and Mr. James would advance as Moderator, and William, the eldest, would join in. The voice of the Moderator presently would be drowned by the combatants and he soon came down vigorously into the arena, and when in the excited argument the dinner knives might not be absent from eagerly gesticulating hands, dear Mrs. James, more conventional, but bright as well as motherly, would look at me, laughingly reassuring, saying, 'Don't be disturbed, Edward; they won't stab each other. This is usual when the boys come home.' And the quiet little sister ate her dinner, smiling, close to the combatants."
Emerson went on to say that Mrs. James considered this kind of debate entirely acceptable, as it promoted a mature and picturesque speech, which became all the more Gaelic as the conversation descended to its lower levels. And even when they blundered they managed to save themselves with wit. Other visitors as well recounted odd stories of heated discussion on morals, taste, and literature, and of humorous curses against the father, consigning his mashed potatoes to eternal lumpiness.
As the boys grew up, they learned that not to question and to have no opinion was to shirk not only one's intellectual duty but one's moral responsibilities. As a result, both Henry and William learned to observe things, people, and art, a trait inherited from their even more adept father but largely denied to their brothers and sister. (Alice produced a diary, but it was not published in her lifetime.)
2. You may be more deeply influenced by your ancestors' choices than you know.
The second lesson from the James brothers is that many of the choices we make in our own life regarding work, love, sex, and religion may be heavily influenced by what has already happened in the lives of our immediate forebears. And although the patterns may already have been laid down, we at least may still have the freedom to find unique ways to work them out.
To get this in the Jameses, however, the reader must know that one of the biggest influences on William and Henry's career was their grandfather (and William's namesake), William James of Albany, a staunch Calvinist Presbyterian who married three times and sired 16 children. He was a fantastically rich financier of such projects as the Erie Canal (he once bought Syracuse, New York, for $30,000) and was responsible for raising the initial family fortune, so that Henry, the novelist, could later say, "We were not guilty of doing a lick of business for two-and-a-half generations."
If we begin to look across just these three generations, from William of Albany to his son Henry James, Sr., to his two sons William and Henry, some interesting patterns emerge. One concerns how the James brothers came to the vocation of writing.
When William of Albany came from Ireland to America in 1789, he landed with only a Bible and a desire to see one of the Revolutionary battlefields. His subsequent successes were wholly in business. He did no writing, and his speeches, while recorded for posterity because of his importance as a leading citizen, were not memorable. His son Henry, however, hated business but loved the luxurious life that the family wealth afforded him.
He obliged his father by starting divinity training at Princeton but fled after two-and-a-half years to make his own way in the world, first as a typesetter, then as a writer and public lecturer on topics of Christian socialism. He became a free-spirited religious philosopher, attracted to the teachings of sects like the Sandemanians, who believed that the greatest sin among Christians was pride in their morality, and he took up the mystical theology of Emanuel Swedenborg, which advocated the inward spiritual transformation of consciousness. He was close friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson (who became William's godfather), an acquaintance of Thomas Carlyle in England, and was known to the burgeoning cult of American intellectuals such as Oliver Wendell Holmes, William Dean Howells, John Greenleaf Whittier, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Mark Twain, and others.
Insofar as they saw themselves as inheritors of this Swedenborgian and Transcendentalist legacy, William and Henry each took their father's spiritualized psychology one step further, in a more secular and scientific age. William helped launch the modern scientific study of consciousness, while Henry wrote about the internal workings of the mind when faced with an unsolvable moral dilemma.
Like their father, who was actually better at it than they were, William and Henry became writers. Their ideas in many ways were the same, but now transmuted by the differences between the generations. While their father wrote about arcane religious subjects, William wrote textbooks and Henry novels that conveyed their ideas to popular audiences and were widely read. To this, as a teacher at Harvard and a public lecturer, William added a lively and colorful lecture style, again taking after his father.
The problem was that Henry James, Sr., admonished his sons: "Don't become too narrow." Henry, the budding novelist, ignored him, escaped abroad at the earliest opportunity, and plunged right into the art of fiction. William, on the other hand, took his father so seriously he almost never found a niche. His father told him he could be anything he wanted, but each time he chose something the father said, "Well that's alright, but, don't become too narrow." The situation nearly drove William to despair. First he chose painting but then, to please his father, turned to science.
William's new involvement in laboratory work turned out to be a good escape from the suffocating influence of his father's religious ideas, except that William himself soon began to choke on the antiphilosophical and antireligious biases of the reductionistic scientists around him. Only after recovering from a near-suicidal depression, by "believing to believe" in free will, and by acknowledging that consciousness might have a life of its own independent of the physical body, did William finally discover the field of psychology, which he approached with a philosophical bent.
3. Male bonding can involve a love-hate relationship.
A third lesson from the James brothers is that birth order is no guarantee that the oldest always comes out on top. Henry's biographer, Leon Edel, calls this the Jacob and Esau complex, a Biblical allusion to the twin sons of Isaac in the Book of Genesis, Esau was born first, but Jacob arrived immediately thereafter by holding on to his brother's foot. When they grew up, the older brother served the younger, after Jacob appropriated Esau's inheritance and stole their father's blessing.
Henry, the younger, was admiring of his older brother, always looking for approval, while early on stealing most of the thunder in parental and public acclaim. William, on the other hand, while being devoted, affectionate, and Henry's critical sounding board, was also envious, frequently admonishing, and ever guilt ridden because he was dependent on the family coffers.
The core of the problem was William's tardiness in getting off the ground. He mucked around until he was 30 before he even found a job, and while he had numerous articles and reviews in print, did not publish his first book, the literary remains of his father, for 13 years beyond that. Henry went straight for his vocational goal to become a self-supporting writer, and by the time of William's first book was producing the first complete edition of his collected works to date--in 13 volumes.
William's reaction to Henry's birth is not recorded (he was only one at the time), but the Freudians would predict displacement anxiety. One anecdote seems typical. William, age eight, used to go off in the city with others his own age. Henry, just barely seven, would always want to come along. At one point, begging to be taken, he was rebuffed by William: "I play with boys who curse and swear."
All their moving about on two continents, however, threw them more closely together as they were growing up. Their lives fused and they became dependent on each other emotionally. Their letters often show an endearing affection, William opening with "beloved Arry" and often signing "Bro." or "your bretha."
Both were constantly concerned with each other's welfare. Henry found it dismally unsatisfactory and difficult to write to William without knowing every detail about his health and well-being. Henry, for his part, would give a running commentary of his own ups and downs, describing in vivid terms a languishing depression or a "moving intestinal drama."
The brothers helped each other in big and small ways. There is a record of one touching moment when Henry, who had been the only one of the two able to get from England to Boston upon their father's death, stood over the grave by himself and read William's farewell letter, which had arrived too late. When William was unable to deliver his presidential address to the British Society for Psychical Research, brother Henry rose to the podium and read it in his place. When William appeared on Henry's doorstep in 1899, desperately ill with a heart condition, Henry, with the aid of William's wife, Alice, lovingly nursed him back to health.
Especially as they aged, William was concerned about Henry's abject loneliness, partly brought on by the nature of his vocation; Henry was, after all, always watching, always observing, a habitual outsider. It was a way of living that he developed to a degree well beyond his brother. But William's concern was also due to the fact that Henry had remained single with no family of his own. As William lay dying in 1910, he made his wife promise to be there for Henry at his end.
All their lives the two of them had genuine divergences of taste and opinion. Henry found seances "dull and repulsive" and particularly disliked the riffraff they attracted. William was a cautious believer who pleaded for tolerance; as a result, he regularly attracted a coterie of cranks, eccentrics, and radicals.
Henry delighted in the refinement of civilized etiquette. William preferred the underdog, the chaotic, and the exception to the rule, and while he could carry himself with aplomb in the most cosmopolitan company, he was tactfully frank in his opinions about pretension and spoke out against dogmatism. Henry's detachment led him to a life of aesthetic contemplation; William was immersed in worldly affairs. For him, to think was to act. All of life was an ethical proving ground of the will.
There are few indications of rancor during the early period of their respective careers, and what rivalry did surface appeared as humorous jousting. The first major ripple between them seems to have come in 1882, over the dispensation of their father's estate. Wilkie had been left out of the will because his father had just advanced him a large sum of money. In a surprise move Henry, not William, had been made the executor, and when the shortfall to Wilkie came out, Henry wanted to redivide the money, while William desired to follow their father's wishes. Henry soon turned the financial affairs of the family over to William anyway, and William eventually caved in so Wilkie could get more money. But the episode demonstrates the strained circumstances that can develop over matters of inheritance, and Harry's apparent leading role with the parents.
Another episode, in 1905, involved the brothers' inaugural membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Even though both had attained international renown by that time, Henry had been elected before William, so that when William replied to the invitation to join, he turned it down. He gave three reasons: first, he never joined any bodies that did not do specific work; second, he thought accepting any such membership would be pure vanity; and third: "I am the more encouraged to this course by the fact that my younger and shallower and vainer brother is already in the Academy and that if I were there too, the other families represented might think the James influence too rank and strong." There is a certain tongue-in-cheek tone to William's letter, but there appears to be that long-standing rivalrous edge as well.
And there was one funny episode in which the futurist H. G. Wells saw Henry actually lose his temper in a quarrel with William. The occasion was one of William's trips abroad, this time with his daughter. Wells was to pick them up at Henry's residence, Lamb House, for lunch. On approaching, Wells saw Henry completely unnerved, raising his voice about just what was and was not permissible behavior in England. William, for his part, appeared to be arguing in an indisputably American accent, with what Wells described as "an indecently naked reasonableness." William, lacking Henry's passionate regard for the polished surfaces of life, had discovered that a correspondent of his, the famous G. K. Chesterton, was staying at a little inn abutting Henry's property. William, desiring earnestly to get a look at Chesterton, had found a garden ladder and put it against the wall. He had clambered up and was just peeping over when Henry caught him at it.
Furious, Henry ordered the gardener to put the ladder away and continued to rage about the propriety of the whole thing, while William looked on rather sheepishly. As it turned out, Chesterton and his wife were not in the inn at that moment, but Wells, with William and his daughter in the car, ran into them on the road just outside town, so William was able to get his coveted impression anyway.
4. Even if you are a world-famous writer, it helps to have an equally adept brother who will unflinchingly read your stuff.
A fourth lesson is that sometimes your bonded sibling knows more about you than you do. One of the big secrets of the brothers' success was that they were always ready to give the most candid and unvarnished opinion of the other's work as soon as each new piece was published. They took each other's comments seriously and made adjustments accordingly in subsequent publications. In this way each helped to shape the other over their entire careers. But only in a general way did this make them similar. In the end, the method of unflinching criticism not only helped to create two radically different writing styles, but made the divergences for which Henry is best known almost incomprehensible to William.
William aspired to short sentences, although he confessed that their sheer number often got away from him. Henry, on the other hand, composed each sentence as if it were a labyrinthine wormhole into the subconscious mind of the reader. In the early 1890s, in the middle of writing Princess Cassimissma, in which his style perceptibly changed, Henry switched from scratching with his own pen to dictating. This made him not only more diffuse, but led him into a convoluted stream-of-consciousness style all his own. Yet he found it an easier and more inspiring way to write.
William, for his part, began writing late and did not find his voice for some time. In the late 1860s, when he was just beginning to publish, he sent his first pieces to younger Henry to edit out the more windy parts and submit them for him. Later, when his venue became articles, textbooks, and philosophy, he developed his own style as a vibrant portrait painter in words.
Eventually William, too, would turn to dictation but not to the extent that Henry did. In sum, William wrote about the stream of consciousness, while Henry adapted it into a method of composition
The origin of this method is not hard to find. Emerson, William's godfather, wrote frequently in his journals about the unceasing flow of conscious experience. William, from his physiological training, drew frequent analogies to the flow of blood and to the health of written text, as he was forever evaluating someone's narrative as either "too thick" or "too thin."
In 1855, moreover, both brothers, aged 11 and 12, respectively, had lived for a winter next door to the Swedenborgian physician James John Garth Wilkinson, a close family friend. At that point in his career, Wilkinson was intensively studying mediumship in his living room and would have a string of young feminine somnambulists parading through his house doing automatic writing. From this Wilkinson himself became an automatic writer, composed a book of some one thousand poems, and in the back described in detail his method for producing automatic speech, writing, and drawing.
We suspect that something like a dissociated state of consciousness resulted from this approach. Miss Bosanquet, Henry's amanuensis, reported that he would enter into a state of rapt absorption while dictating, completely oblivious to all outside noises. William, who made the stream-of-consciousness metaphor so famous, for his part developed automatic writing as a technique in the Harvard Psychological Laboratory and used it in the experimental study of dissociated states; he encouraged audiences to take it up as a therapeutic method of self-analysis; and he taught the technique to an aspiring young Radcliffe student, Gertrude Stein, who went on to make it a writing style of her own.
Thus girded with a method, the brothers then proceeded to objectively criticize each other's refinement of it. Their analyses almost always had two sides. William might write back that he thought some new piece of Henry's was "immortal," "most original," "everything in it human and good." Henry read William's Varieties of Religious Experience with "rapturous deliberation," and his Pragmatism with "thralldom." ("All of my life," he suddenly realized, "I have unconsciously pragmatized.") And to William's Pluralistic Universe, Henry proclaimed his "enchantment,...pride, and almost comprehension."
But William could be alternatively incisive and biting. He would wax philosophic about Henry's ability to accept criticism, then become deeply apologetic, taking back everything he had said in the face of Henry's angelic humility, wishing himself dead instead of sitting in judgment, always promising never to dispense advice again. Henry would often respond, in the way of continuing self-abnegation, with even more fierce criticisms of his own productions.
But Henry could bite back as well. After reading The Golden Bowl, one of the three great productions of Henry's later period, William wrote: "Why don't you, just to please your 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? Publish it in my name, I will acknowledge it, and give you half the proceeds."
Henry replied, "I mean... to try to produce some uncanny form of a thing, in fiction, that will gratify you--but let me say, dear William, that I shall greatly be humiliated if you do like it, and thereby lump it, in your affection, with things of a current age, that I have heard you express admiration for and that I would sooner descend to a dishonored grave than have written."
He then went on to give brother William one of those particularly convoluted Jamesian sentences that was the very subject of their exchange:
"I'm always sorry when I hear of your reading anything of mine, and always hope you won't--you seem to me so constitutionally unable to 'enjoy' it, and so condemned to look at it from a point of view remotely alien to mine in writing it, and to the conditions out of which, as mine, it has inevitably sprung--so that all the intentions that have been its main reason for being (with me) appear never to have reached you at all--and you appear even to assume that the life, the elements forming its subject-matter, deviate from felicity in not having an impossible analogy with the life of Cambridge." (The original sentence in its complete form had 135 words in it!)
William's rejoinder was to reiterate that Henry's new method seemed perverse: "Say it out, for God's sake, and have done with it." While William's opinion of Henry's writing style did not change, the two of them were characteristically soon back ontrack emotionally, gushing forth with brotherly affection and familial support. This paradox of brotherly love amidst all the differences then leads us to the final point to be exacted from their relationship:
5. While genius contains a dash of madness, no one flaw is fatal.
The fifth lesson is that you should judge a life in terms of the big picture and not on any one blemish. It is a curious fact of history that heroes and heroines are presented to us in so stereotyped a form that they seem Divine, more perfect than we could ever be. We are crestfallen when their idyllic reputations are sullied by some new biography showing they had faults, got colds, had enemies, and sometimes acted badly.
William and Henry were, of course, not perfect people. In the first place, they claimed never to be entirely well. They both feared a weak psyche based on defective genes, although their physical ailments seemed to get worse whenever they were together and to miraculously disappear when they were apart.
Second, they would be counted today as somewhat emotionally dysfunctional. William engaged in a sinister form of teasing with his sister Alice that had a distinctly sexual component. He remained shy with the women to whom he felt attracted and kept mainly to his fantasies. In the end, he let his father choose his wife for him. And once married, he dearly loved her and the children but would always leave the country whenever she was about to give birth. Henry, for his part, could never establish a long-term intimate relationship with a woman. He had many closer friends, such as Edith Wharton, but he remained a bachelor and left himself open to the interpretation of homoerotic leanings.
There was also a touch of narcissism to be found in some of their letters, as if they knew that they were great and that what they wrote ostensibly on intimate grounds was going to be read later by a wide audience. Henry was often found of referring to geniuses, including himself.
William, somewhat more self-effacing, wrote frequently on geniuses, describing the ferment of their state of mind, their unceasing crosscurrents of thought, and the inspiring effect of their creations on others.
There was a big debate in psychology in the late 19th century, however, over whether genius was actually a form of insanity. Geniuses were, after all, not normal, and they could always be found to have traits we would associate with neurosis or more severe mental illness. William was willing to acknowledge that "madness ferments in the dough of which great men are made." But he was unwilling to equate genius with mental illness.
Rather, he believed that great men and women, having an unhabitual view of things, are mistakenly labeled as pathological because they are different. To prove this he cited numerous examples of American geniuses who were not morbid, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and other members of the literary circle of Henry James, Sr. The test of their true status, William maintained, is the effect geniuses have on society. Rather than contributing to its disintegration, they are the ones who set their own newer and higher standards, break the barriers of the known, and show the rest of us the way. It is by their fruits, and not their roots, that they should be known.
And so the James brothers, warts and all, should be viewed the same way. They were American originals, in a class with a few other internationally famous siblings, such as the Bronte sisters or in our own time, Thomas and Aldous Huxley. They were themselves, as one biographer put it, among America's most significant productions of the 19th century. We can only wonder why there are not more like them around today.