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Thursday, August 3, 2023

August 3, 2023: SiblingStudying: William and Henry James

[On August 2nd, this AmericanStudier’s amazing younger sister celebrates her birthday. So this week in her honor I’ll AmericanStudy interesting American siblings!]

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 this blog’s nearly thirteen 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. My sons 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 my older son leaves for college, which is so far in the future still that who can even imagine it?!) 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 cheer on each other’s divergent yet equally impressive running careers) and my scariest worries about it (such as my fear that if they drift apart it will have a profoundly negative influence on both of their futures), 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.

Last siblings tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Sibling stories you’d highlight?

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