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A “Tolstoyan” Correspondence

ISSUE:  Winter 1994
The Correspondence of William James, Volume I: William and Henry (1861–1884). Edited by Ignas K. Skrupskelis and Elizabeth M. Berkeley. Virginia. $45.00.

When I was a boy Sunday meant going to church with my mother in the morning, a family lunch, TV then my father’s afternoon hours of letter writing. My mother always cautioned us about that activity of our Dad: his family was in England, and it mattered a lot to him that he send to them a long, carefully written communication of four or five pages, as I recall. I can still see Dad sitting at his desk, setting down in his distinctive script, learned in Yorkshire, thoughts, memories, experiences, anticipations. The house was kept quiet—informed, I now realize, by an almost religious atmosphere: our scientist father committing to paper ideas he very much wanted to share with his parents, his three sisters, his brother. Moreover, their letters back to us—the stamps, the postal marks, the distinctive texture of the envelopes and paper—were an important part of our family’s life, as even the postman knew: “A letter from England!” We came running, and huddled as Dad read aloud the news, the comments, asides, suggestions, worries—and as England went to war, those worried became the subject of longer and longer exchanges, increasingly solemn discussions, as my aunts and uncles and my parents wondered whether our cousins ought be sent to America, as my dad used to put it, “to ride out the war.”

When my grandparents died all of those letters written by Dad were found intact, neatly filed by month and year, an astonishing record of a son’s devoted desire to stay in touch, of course, but also a chronicle of his life, his family’s, as both unfolded over a half a century, with the Atlantic Ocean as the great separating barrier, yet the reason for such a sustained intensity of narrative exposition. At first the letters were carried by ship, took several weeks, then by plane, in less than a week, though Dad never swerved from his once-a-week schedule of addressing his family. Nor did he toss away the letters he received, with a similar regularity from his English kin. He immediately wrapped the correspondence, envelopes included, by month and year, so we had many packets, indeed, to contemplate after his death a few years ago—indeed, a story of a world gone awry (the 1930’s) but also a story of certain values and ideals being steadily maintained, espoused.

I thought of those letters as I read the first volume of the correspondence of William James—his letters to his brother Henry, and the latter’s responses to him between 1861 and 1884, as scrupulously and knowingly edited by Ignas K. Skrupskelis and Elizabeth M.Berkeley, both of whom use each letter as an occasion, through brief, clearly presented notes, for the reader’s edification—explanations, details of context or content not mentioned but taken for granted by the letter-writer. These are letters in the tradition I got to know as a child—important, determined, morally serious efforts of two family members, separated by an ocean, to share their lives with each other, heart, mind, soul: nearly a quarter of a century of a certain kind of privileged 19th-century American life rendered intensely yet unself-consciously. The early letters, especially, tell us a lot about these two extraordinary brothers—their youthful struggles to leave home, to greet a world each would conquer mightily in his particular way. Through the letters, and the help of the editors, so alert to our needs as distant observers, we get to know a distinguished cast of characters: relatives and friends, teachers, artists, intellectuals, high-minded people as well as those of great means. The brothers William and Henry take such men and women for granted, take them seriously, too, and sometimes, take them with more than a dash of salt. In his early twenties William, for instance, had already accompanied the naturalist Louis Agassiz on a journey to Brazil, and could gain this kind of distance on a so-called great man: “Since seeing more of Agassiz, my desire to be with him, so as to learn from him has much diminished. He is doubtless a man of some wonderful mental faculties, but such a politician and so self-seeking and illiberal to others that it sadly diminishes one’s respect for him”.

That early critical voice would, needless to say, only get stronger over the years. William’s letters, throughout this collection, reveal a moral sensibility constantly at work, in things large and small.”Paris seems now to be in a state of moral and intellectual debasement,” he writes while, again, still in his twenties, and in a letter written a couple of months later (early in 1868) he asks his brother to “excuse the egotism” he has demonstrated as a correspondent. He also refers repeatedly to a depression that seems to haunt him, even as his brother Henry was plagued by constant gastrointestinal problems, especially constipation. It is hard for us, today, beneficiaries of modern medicine, to put ourselves back a century and more, comprehend symptoms these brothers had in their way. We are tempted by our medical and psychiatric knowledge—and lose sight, thereby, of a quite different set of assumptions that informed their sense of what was troubling them and why, not to mention the way to triumph over a particular bout of illness. In any event, William tried hard to help his brother feel better, get better, through changes in diet, through physical regimens and various medicines, even as he struggled to understand the sources of his own moodiness, his inclination to a melancholy that could border on despair. He is nearer to that understanding, even as a young man, than perhaps he may have realized (say we at the end of the 20th century) when he refers to “a law giving tone” that characterized a letter to his brother (p.44). He could, alas, adopt just such an attitude toward himself at times—turn himself into an object of severe reprimand. He calls himself “very wrong” about his judgment of a person’s moral nature; he judges himself to be of “a morbid character,” refers to his “philosophical hypochondria,” acknowledges “envy” of his brother—and indeed, goes after him with the same severe, even reproachful and sometimes withering manner he was willing to adopt toward himself.

At times, for instance, Henry is told by William that he possesses “native snobbery”; that he’ll be “more intolerably supercilious than ever”, should he return from Europe; that moments in his writing convey “something cold, thin blooded and priggish;” and that he inhabited “gilded and snobbish heights,” from which he might pity others. Often those charges were meant to be provocative, teasing, rather than out and out condemnatory—an aspect of fraternal candor and intimacy both. But William knows at other moments that he may well have gone too far: “I criticize you so much as perhaps to seem a mere caviller, but I think it ought to be of use to you to have any detailed criticism fm.[from] even a wrong judge, and you don’t get much fm.[from] any one else”. The outspoken censor, if not censurer, turns on himself—then offers quite another point of view: “I meanwhile say nothing of the great delight which all your pieces bring by their insight into the shades of being, and their exquisite diction and sense of beauty and expression in the sights of the world”.

Not that brother Henry was incapable of self-criticism. They both were the sons, after all, of Henry James, senior, he of the Princeton Theological Seminary, and of Emanuel Swedenborg’s mystical religious passion. Young Henry was less given to gloom, but he could use his enormous gift of irony to look askance at himself, even as, for an entire writing life, he took such careful and subtle measure of others. He refers to the “invidious style” of his acceptance of an “offering” from his brother. He lets his brother know of his loneliness, his isolation: “I have besides no people I care for to stay here for, and no invitations ahead. I don’t know where I shall go; but I shall go somewhere. I am afraid of the dullness of the English watering place—afraid of the lonely chop, for breakfast, for lunch and for dinner, in a lodging on some genteel, Cockneyfied Crescent or Terrace”. He could not, however, envision a definitive, lasting break with such a life: “I had long wished to see you married,” he tells William, and then adds, “I believe almost as much in matrimony for most other people as I believe in it little for myself—which is to say a good deal”.

By far the most interesting parts of these letters are those times of shared thoughtfulness—for example, when both brothers evaluate and appreciate the greatness of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, no matter its flaws. Her wisdom, to this day refreshing and enormously edifying (such a contrast with the dreary banalities of contemporary psychology) was never lost on either Henry or William, and with them, the reader can feel in the presence of genius as it is first appearing on the human scene. With them, actually, through these letters, one can observe Eliot’s wisdom finding a home outside the chapters of her novel—worked into the growing reflective awareness of a novelist, a scientist/philosopher/essayist: life as something complex, subtle, elusive, paradoxical, and yet as palpable, as there as one’s eyes and ears can see, hear. Neither of them had real patience for the abstract; both now and then flirted with it, Henry through the length and hype of his descriptive digressions, and William through his spells of philosophical speculation. But there was an earthiness to each of them that would not forever tolerate hifalutin’ theo ry—Henry’s shrewd interest in getting to the heart of things, of people, and William’s increasingly insistent pragmatism, with its emphasis on reality as something that gets its meaning from observable consequences. Above all, these were two men who watched eagerly and carefully their fellow human beings, and who were always prepared to qualify, to await further information, to stand unafraid before life’s ironies and contradictions.”I haven’t time to answer all you say at present,” Henry says at one point toward the end of this book’s segment of exchanges with his brother, and then he adds this: “but of course you know, true as it all is, it is only part of the statement. There is more beside, and it is this more beside that I have been living on in London”.

This “more beside” was constantly, sometimes dramatically at work in both brothers. Their minds offered brilliant talent resourcefully summoned in the service of bold exploration: through Henry’s stories that explored the connection between the outer and inner worlds—the way social forces, customs, habits give shape to a person’s thinking and behavior—and through William’s essays, with their investigations of will, idealism, religious experience, so much that matters psychologically and philosophically. That “more beside” also comes across in these letters, which unsurprisingly bring us close to these two brothers, each touched by the fire of genius, and each at times willing to share of it with the other, even as we, the reader and the public, would be the longterm beneficiaries. Here, for instance, is William telling his brother what really counts in life: “The truth is, we each of us speak from the point of view of his own work; the place where a man’s work is best done seems and ought to seem the place of places to him”. Even as one brother tries to figure out what it is that makes us happy and where, the other brother, upon the death of their brother Wilkie, writes to William this way: “I like to think that somewhere in the mysterious infinite of the universe, Father and Mother may exist together as pure, individual spirits—and that poor Wilkie, lightened of all his woes, may come to them and tell them of us, their poor empêtrés children on earth”. Speaking, also, of their father, William (less the imaginative spinner of a transcendent romance and more the aphoristic educator) announces: “As life closes, all a man has done seems like one cry or sentence. Father’s cry was the single one that religion is real”. A statement like that, written in a letter, helps us who have admired The Varieties of Religious Experience for its bold and penetrating psychological inquiry (such a contrast with Freud’s sadly brittle, polemical The Future of an Illusion!) understand how a father’s passion can years later inform a son’s vocation. Speaking of that father, here (my favorite moment in this book filled with powerful, sometimes haunting or poignant moments) is Henry telling William of some time spent in the Mt. Auburn cemetery: “I went out yesterday (Sunday) morning to the Cambridge cemetery (I had not been able to start early enough on Saturday afternoon, as I wrote you I meant to do)—and stood beside his grave a long time and read him your letter of farewell—which I am sure he heard somewhere out of the depths of the still, bright winter air.

Such passages give way, inevitably, to the hum-drum, the trivial. We meet these two giants as the small-minded, self-regarding, irritable, narrow and parochial individuals they could also be, as is the case with every single one of us, including those dubbed “saints” in Christian history: Lord, who would want to live all that close to many of them, day in, day out! On the whole, Henry comes across as kinder and more considerate than William, whose dour, self-lacerating side occasionally spills over, toward his brother, who can be quite forgiving, however. Their mutual respect, not to mention affection (and the trust that such a relationship enabled) is remarkable to encounter, and a tonic for some of us all too self-conscious ones today, preoccupied as we are by phrases such as “sibling rivalry.” Their openness to experience, their willingness to reflect on it, render it, in suggestive, textured fiction, in essays that glow with supple, lively, engaging prose, also is a special gift for us, worn down, worn thin by the overwrought formulations of social science, and its impact, alas, even on some of our novelists, who dote on self-preoccupied characters seemingly sundered from others, from institutions and traditions and neighborhoods.

By the end of this volume, William has become a Harvard teacher, Henry a successful novelist, both of them in their early “40”s. These letters, then, offer a long look at growing success as it took place in a particular family—two other brothers, and a sister were not similarly blessed. William and Henry become gradually the individuals the rest of us have come to know through their books, but here, in the correspondence they themselves figure in an ongoing family drama, and in the personal stories each of them constructed, day by day, and often enough described in their letters: a Tolstoyan saga, filled with plots, large and small, with major protagonists and those who variously connect with them, with breakthrough achievements and disappointments that could hurt badly, all told in wonderfully observant detail, even (as in War and Peace) with spells of French demanding something of the reader, while at the same time they tell something of the person who slips at certain points from one language to another. The ultimate language, actually, of these letters is that of Pascal’s heart, with “its own reasons,” ones offered again and again by these kinsmen who knew so very much, and struggled so very long and hard to figure out how to work what they had discovered into forms of expression that enabled a transfer of knowledge and emotion—the moral imagination of William, of Henry, each possessed of so much generous and infectious energy, become that of countless readers, each of us given pause and roused both to higher thought, greater feeling.


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