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Psychology, Memory, and Autobiography: William and Henry James by James Olney, Louisiana State University It has been said that William James was a psychologist who wrote like a novelist and Henry James a novelist who wrote like a psychologist. Although there is a neat and provocative symmetry about the notion, I think it is not altogether accurate in either case. William James's manner is lively, quick, occasionally chatty, given to darting, intuitive brilliance and frequent, italic emphasis, and to some this might seem a novelist's style; but in fact William James's writing is much more that of the immensely intelligent amateur, the devoted , bemused observer of the human scene who was interested in finding categories that would contain the great variety of observed human motives, capacities, and activities. He was, in short, a psychologist (and philosopher), not indeed by training but by nature, who, as he remarked, "drifted into psychology and philosophy from a sort of fatality. I never had any philosophic instruction , the first lecture on psychology I ever heard being the first I ever gave." No one, on the other hand, is likely to imagine that The Portrait of a Lady or The Golden Bowl was written by a professional psychologist—certainly not by William James—or that either of those novels might have seen serial publication in a journal of psychology or psychological research. NoWilliam James is very much the psychologist , Henry James very much the novelist. Yet there is one literary mode (if we are to caU it literary, for psychologists have often enough appropriated it to their own quite different and non-literary ends) where the brothers meet and where, in theory and practice—the theory of one, practice of the other—they are thoroughly agreed; and that is the mode of autobiography. Indeed, going further, I would suggest that it is in autobiography —"life-writing" by the individual involved—that the disciplines or the temperamental inclinations of psychology and fiction (also philosophy—but not history) typically meet and overlap, though it may be that they do not often merge. And if it was Henry who wrote an autobiography, it was nevertheless William who told a correspondent , "Autobiographies are my particular line of literature, the only books I let myself buy outside of metaphysical treatises ." One human faculty, but certainly not the only one, that WilUam James delighted to observe at play in autobiographies was unquestionably the faculty of memory, and this is the same faculty that Henry James, as autobiographer, found at once fascinating, teasing, immensely creative , and, at times, altogether too alluring. "The more I squeeze the sponge of memory the more its stored secretions flow." So Henry James remarks to the reader of A SmaU Boy and Others, and few readers of that volume and its successor, Notes of a Son and Brother, will be incUned to doubt that it was a richly saturated sponge that he squeezed for the particulars of those two autobiographical volumes. According to his own testimony, however, Henry James first reached for that remarkable sponge not for assistance in composing his own autobiography but rather that he might squeeze it for details about his older brother to be put into a memoir that was planned to accompany a selection of William 's letters. What Henry James in the end produced was, of course, something quite different from a memoir and selected letters and something a good deal more interesting . It is true that William James is not entirely absent from the two volumes, true also that a few of his letters are included in Notes of a Son and Brother, but the proposed memoir, if we imagine that William must be its subject, is empty at the center; moreover, Henry James generously rewrote his brother's letters because he found them in their raw state to be (as he put it) "rough and rather illiterate" documents that simply did not agree with his own memory of how things really had been. (Here Henry James went W. B. Yeats one better: Yeats once wrote to Katharine Tynan that he didn't object to her publishing some of his letters in a memoir but, he said...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 46-51
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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