America in Progress

America in Progress
America in Progress

Thursday, August 2, 2012

August 2, 2012: Two Small Boys

[This American Studier’s sister turns 30 this week—which makes this American Studier feel really old, but that’s another story—and in honor of that occasion I’m featuring a series on interesting American siblings. Please share your own ideas and suggestions for the weekend’s crowd-sourced post!]
On the influential and inspiring relationship between America’s most talented pair of brothers.
Of all the topics I’ve researched, pondered, and analyzed over the last five years, I don’t think I’ve spent anywhere near as much time thinking about any one of them (or maybe even all of them combined) compared to the relationship between two close (in age and every other sense) brothers. Aidan and Kyle are 15.5 months apart (I know I should just say 16, but no, those two additional weeks count!), and as far as I can tell, few if any aspects of their young lives (at least until Aidan leaves for college) are going to be untouched by that fact, and by the complex interconnections it has already produced and continues to produce. Obviously I have my fondest hopes for what that will mean (exemplified right now by the way they hold hands as they run into summer camp together in the morning) and my scariest worries about it (illustrated by their seeming inability to go more than half an hour without hitting each other), but no matter what, this is clearly going to be a defining relationship and influence in each of their lives.
I’m not trying to put too much pressure on the boys, but you know who else were born almost exactly 15.5 months apart? William and Henry James, the brothers whose influences and talents extended into virtually every aspect of late 19th and early 20th century American and British society and culture. Perhaps the older William’s far-reaching investigations into medicine, psychology, philosophy, and religion impacted more conversations and communities than did the younger Henry’s work as an author of fiction, drama, travel writing, literary criticism, and autobiographies; but just as those branches of the sciences and social sciences would not have been the same without William’s impacts, so too were American and English literature and culture profoundly impacted by Henry’s works and ideas, style and themes. While I have no doubt that the brothers would gladly have quarreled over whose legacy was more significant, probably while at the same time making the case for each other’s importance, the truth is that the combination is more impressive, and more accurate to their collective legacies, than the competition.
Perhaps the most overt and poignant tribute to that brotherly combination was written by Henry himself, in the opening chapters of his memoir A Small Boy and Others (1913). William had died a few years earlier, in 1910, and while any memoir is likely produced by a number of psychological factors, there’s no question that his brother was heavily on Henry’s mind as he wrote this one. The opening chapter, in fact, begins this way: “In the attempt to place together some particulars of the early life of William James and present him in his setting, his immediate native and domestic air, so that any future gathered memorials of him might become the more intelligible and interesting, I found one of the consequences of my interrogation of the past assert itself a good deal at the expense of some of the others.” It’s not at all clear at this point, nor for many chapters, whether the titular small boy is Henry or William; and since the text continues to focus on the pair of them for many more chapters (indeed more than half of the chapters), it could with just as much accuracy be titled Two Small Boys. Boys whose lives and legacies would likewise always and compellingly be interconnected.
Final siblings tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Next to last chance to respond or highlight other siblings and be part of the crowd-sourced post!
8/2 Memory Day nominee: James Baldwin, one of America’s most unique, multi-talented, eloquent, and uncategorizable writers, cultural figures, activists, and icons.

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