Nothing will make you hate email like Wm & H’ry, the handsome little book by J.C. Hallman that distills the 800-plus letters exchanged between William and Henry James. Hallman points out that most readers will probably be more familiar with one of the brothers, but makes a convincing case that there is no fully understanding the one without comprehending the other.
The brothers wrote to each other about what you might expect (literature, philosophy, art, science), but what makes Wm & H’ry particularly delightful are the more candid glimpses. For example, the brothers take pleasure in detailing their various physical ailments. H’ry’s “moving intestinal dramas” are discussed with as much detail as his thoughts on Rome. He outlines a self-made cure for his bad back, the first stage of which is to “exercise . . . increasing until it entirely predominates & attains its maximum—even to not sleeping, if necessary.” The brothers also share an often gruesome fascination for boils and all things scatological. Squeamish readers may cringe at the mention of an “electrified pole” to be “put inside the rectum” and other such health fads of the day.
It’s also interesting to read of H’ry doubting descriptive writing as early as 1873: “I doubt whether a year or two hence, I shall have it in me to describe houses and mountains, or even cathedrals and pictures.” By 1901, Hallman writes, H’ry felt “that too often a huge gulf opened between a given description and the thing it described.” Hallman then points us to a passage in H’ry’s The Tragic Muse: “She only watched, in Peter’s eyes, for this gentleman’s impression of it. That she easily caught, and he measured her impression—her impression of his impression . . .”
“In other words,” Hallman notes, “impressions were no longer things, but thoughts, and the dent of an impression was a better measure of that which had been impressed—of what one had been made to think—than it was of whatever hammer had inflicted the blow.”
The brothers bait and berate each other, as siblings will, and Hallman effectively demonstrates how their aesthetics “had begun to diverge”:
Wm had come to conclude that the ability to state clear reasons for one’s thinking was the mark of genius; H’ry had grown only firmer in his belief that we need never attempt anything other than the slicing open of our veins to let the impressions flow.
Hallman is also adept at getting to the heart of what may have been going on behind all the banter. “The broader truth was perhaps even painful. Wm had once had the hand of a painter, but always lacked the soul of one; H’ry, precisely the opposite.”
One of the funniest moments is the scene Hallman sets up when expatriate H’ry returns to America to write a series of articles for Harper’s BAZAAR. During a train journey, H’ry is scandalized when a “bevy” of young girls boards the train and takes “vociferous possession” of the car:
The first surprising thing was that the girls were all well dressed. There was “nothing of the vulgar in their facial type or their equipment.” So how could they behave such? he wondered. Even more surprising, how could it be that the others in the car remained, as they did, wholly indifferent to the scene? . . . [He] was awestruck, for it was “in the manners of the women that the social record writes itself finest.” In other words, the scene was a barometer. The manners of American women measured both the ongoing disintegration of polite society and the schism that now separated him from his brother.
This schism, at times, turned nasty, as when H’ry replied to his brother’s beseeching him to “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” with the following:
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.
As time went on, H’ry responded to Wm’s growing frustrations with silence, but Wm couldn’t let it go. In 1907, he was still trying to understand the difference in their methods:
Mine being to say a thing in one sentence as straight and explicit as it can be made, and then to drop it forever; yours being to avoid naming it straight, but by dint of breathing and sighing all round and round it, to arouse in the reader who may have had a similar perception already . . . the illusion of a solid object.
I’m always sorry when I hear of your reading anything of mine, & always hope you won’t—you seem to me so constitutionally unable to enjoy it, & so condemned to look at it from a point of view remotely alien to mine in writing it. . . . It shows how far apart & to what different ends have had to work out . . . our respective intellectual lives. And yet I can read you with rapture.
Hallman concludes with a short list, compiled from the letters, illustrating what a “terrible burden” letter writing could be. “For three or 4 weeks in London I did nothing literally nothing, but write letters, day after day,” complains Wm, while H’ry claims to have lost a whole month to a “veritable mountain” of correspondence. Even worse was waiting to receive a letter, which the brothers also complain about. Our email age may offer instant gratification and convenience, but Hallman shows us just how much our written communication lacks not only gravitas but what he refers to as “human frailty and warmth.”