- Brother to Brother
In this short book, J.C. Hallman offers a glimpse of the letters between William and Henry James, who together formed what is surely one of the most significant sibling relationships of the nineteenth century. This he does by selecting brief excerpts—rarely longer than a line or two—from a correspondence that ranges over more than forty years and consists of over 800 letters. He weaves these extracts loosely together in order to give us a sense of the brothers’ relationship as well as of concerns that both united and divided them. These range from the mundane (digestive problems and gossip) to the weighty (the representation of impressions and consciousness, pragmatism, the vulgar, the occult). Indeed, so wide-ranging is the collection that the subtitle only barely covers its ambit: Literature, Love, and Letters seems to me to be chosen more for its alliterative value rather than as a pithy description of the book’s content. Much of Hallman’s survey covers matters that are distinctly non-literary; as for love: while the undercurrent of affection between the brothers is apparent to any reader familiar with their letters in their complete form (as is their lively rivalry), the extracts here do not address the question of love (either as a concept or as a shared emotion) in any especially significant way.
If the collection’s subtitle is only vaguely descriptive of its content, its main title is simply perplexing. “Wm & H’ry,” I presume (Hallman gives no explanation), is intended to reflect the brothers’ typical way of referring to or about one another. William did, on occasion, close his letters with the contraction “W m ,” but was as likely to use his initials or his full name. While his salutations to his early letters occasionally begin “Dear H’ry,” he as frequently opens with “Dear H” or “Henry,” and the “H’ry” habit dies out in later years. As for Henry, I am not aware of him ever signing himself as “H’ry,” and his letters to William generally have “Dear W” or “Dear William” as a salutation. Had Hallman chosen “W m & H’ry” as a title and left matters there, my complaint would seem trifling. However, his decision to refer to the brothers as W m and H’ry throughout is unwarranted and, after a few pages, simply irritating. I imagine that the contractions are chosen to suggest the sense of intimacy that Hallman admits he felt upon reading the letters (“Before long, however, the letters began to feel intended for me, addressed to me”), but as the brothers themselves used them only sparingly, the choice is ill advised.
The book begins with a letter “To whom it may concern,” in which Hallman describes, with some humor, his experience of reading William James’s letters, and the path that lead him to W m & H’ry. The letter is an entertaining testimonial to how consuming the experience of reading other people’s letters can be, especially over a concentrated period. However, what follows contains little of that sense of immersion. Each chapter is only a few pages long, and as a consequence rarely gets to grips with anything in particular. Some of these chapters fail to keep a topic in sight at all: for example, chapter 9 begins with a brief contemplation of the brothers’ different understanding of the term “vulgar,” then segues into a description of Henry’s disastrous staging of Guy Domville (1895). Similarly, a chapter about the brothers’ dear cousin, Minny Temple, barely introduces its subject before it wanders off into a rather insubstantial account of their attitude to women in general. Chapter 17 begins promisingly with an account of the subject of ghosts, but veers off into the territory of Henry’s refusal to heed William’s literary advice. Chapter 18 opens with an account of William reading a piece by Henry to a dying friend, Frederic Myers; in the space of only two pages, it becomes...