Art as Action: Readings and Misreadings in the Letters of William and Henry James

by Mara Naselli


Around 1860, shortly after the James family returned from Europe to Newport for William’s painting apprenticeship, Edward Waldo Emerson (Ralph Waldo’s son), came for a visit. He experienced firsthand the vigor of a Jamesian family debate over dinner, hands gesticulating and brandishing dinner knives: “Don’t be disturbed, Edward,” Emerson recalls Mrs. James saying with a laugh. “They won’t stab each other. This is usual when the boys come home.”

The freethinking Henry James, Sr., raised his children to debate and explore. Their education (though not equally distributed among the five children), was wide ranging and itinerant, rich with art, travel, and theater. “Mr. James’s deepest desire was what his sons and daughter should be,” writes Emerson. “Their works would follow from what they were.” Of the five, William and Henry became monumental forces in American letters. Henry’s novels, stories, and criticism developed the standards by which many now evaluate the modern novel. William threw himself into painting, then natural history, then medicine, and finally became a founding architect of modern psychology and American pragmatism. William’s work strongly shaped Henry’s art, but just how the currents of their separate but intimate intellectual lives interwhirled and eventually eddied out in different directions is another story. In the fleet, beautiful little book Wm & H’ry: Literature, Love, and the Letters between William and Henry James, J. C. Hallman immerses himself in the complete extant correspondence of the James brothers to tell a new tale. As Hallman follows the affection, thinking, diction, and metaphors shared between the two brothers in their letters, we see just how much William’s investigations into consciousness and his philosophical preoccupations infused Henry’s approach to literature. “William is the pragmatist,” writes the scholar Richard Hocks. “Henry, so to speak, is the pragmatism.”

If the extent of William’s influence on Henry is remarkable, even more remarkable is the fact William failed to recognize his own influence in his brother’s art.


William left off painting when he recognized he needed more than just talent to be a great painter. It was the beginning of his shift away from art toward philosophy. Steeped in poetry, William wrote Henry from Berlin. He was rereading Goethe. William reconsidered his early impatience with Goethe’s “incessant cataloguing of individual details.” In his earlier readings William had tired of “his pitiless manner of taking seriously every thing that came along. . . . a literalness,” writes William, “which used to remind me of that of the Emerson children, &c, &ct.” In William's rereading, however, Goethe’s robust accumulation of detail throbbed with vivacity. “He was,” William writes, “alive at every pore of his skin, and received every impression in a sort of undistracted leisure which makes the movements of his mental machinery one of the most extraordinary exhibitions which this planet ever can have witnessed.”

William recommended Goethe to Henry, but without summary, urging his brother to read in the spirit of what would become William’s own pragmatism: “About G.’s philosophy I will say nothing now—it must be felt to be appreciated, and it can only be felt when it is seen applied in detail.” There’s a latent pragmatism at work here in William’s instruction to Henry. That you can only understand something through its lived application—here it would be the lived application of Goethe’s philosophy expressed through his art—is an idea that would become central to William’s pragmatism. In this moment of enthusiasm to share Goethe with Henry, art and pragmatism converge.

In 1870, William suffered a psychic break. This may be the real turning point for William in his relationship to art. What could a poem or painting or novel do in a fit of depression and physical pain? Before his breakdown, art was intellectually inadequate. After, art was useless. William would later condemn the fruitlessness of art in The Principles of Psychology: “There is no more contemptible type of human character than that of the nerveless sentimentalist and dreamer, who spends his life in a weltering sea of sensibility and emotion, but who never does a manly concrete deed. . . . The weeping of a Russian lady over the fictitious personages in the play, while her coachman is freezing to death on his seat outside.” William had no tolerance for inaction. A simple kind word is more valuable than the intellectual and emotional complacency of aesthetic pleasure. We might quibble with him—good art is more than that. But, to be fair, he has a point.

What William called upon to pull him out of that fall to rock bottom he experienced in 1870 was will and action or pragma, the bedrock of the action-oriented philosophy that would occupy him for the rest of his life.


When The Principles of Psychology was published, William directed Henry to the chapter “Consciousness of Self,” where William coins the phrase stream of consciousness. The image of fluid impressions on a subject would become central to Henry’s work. Henry’s characters’ minds perceive, anticipate, and manipulate; it is the whirl of thinking that creates the drama. The events themselves are elided. “The theater lights on the foreground of action have dimmed,” Hallman writes, “and a bright spotlight searches and darts among the shadows of consciousness in the background.” Hallman is drawing a connection here between Henry’s failures in the theater, but also William’s experience and education in painting. William was increasingly dissatisfied with impression and atmosphere. When William visited his friend the painter John La Farge, La Farge was painting over a figure in the foreground of a landscape. William couldn’t understand it. A picture without a figure was a picture without a story, certainly a picture without action. But that was exactly the point. William and Henry apparently never discussed Impressionism, a school of painting that was itself problematizing narrative and representation in visual art. But at the same time, Henry, laboring after a better realism and a better “method of truth,” was problematizing narrative and representation in literature, and he was using William’s work to do it. A story of consciousness emerges in Henry’s work not just through characters responding to their effete and insulated circumstances. The story of consciousness informes the narrative voice itself.

In his lecture “The Lesson of Balzac,” Henry faults contemporary writers for having but one kind of atmosphere or color of air in their work. Life in Dickens goes on in the morning. In George Eliot the shadows are long and the sun low. In Charlotte Brontë we are fixed in autumn. The general landscapes of most authors are lit by an unchanging light. Balzac is the exception—his atmosphere is richer, thicker, and more varied. It is shaped by his consciousness, the thing that does not yield to will or craft: “The projected light of the individual strong temperament in fiction—the color of the air with which this, that or the other painter of life (as we call them all), more or less unconsciously suffuses his picture,” writes Henry. “I say unconsciously because I speak here of an effect of atmosphere largely, if not wholly, distinct from the effect sought on behalf of the special subject to be treated; something that proceeds from the contemplative mind itself, the very complexion of the mirror in which the material is reflected.” The color of air, in other words, is seen only through the author’s own consciousness, the lens through which the picture is refracted.

William may have very well agreed with the charge that Henry was a “difficult” writer. Henry was unabashed about his artistic ambition, but it wasn’t difficulty for difficulty’s sake. He was in fact taking up William’s charge: if we are discrete and isolated minds, the only thing to save us, to bring us into some human confluence of mind and spirit is the imagination itself. Artists know this in their bones, but William seems to take it as an abstraction. Again, Hallman: “Was it not Wm who had once said that only works of the imagination could lay effective siege to the philosophical battlements most worth attacking? Why did Wm fail to recognize that H’ry had volunteered for his army, and that in the war Wm waged H’ry was his fiercest champion and most decorated soldier?”

When William begs Henry, please, just “sit down and write a new book, with no twilight or mustiness in the plot, with great vigor and decisiveness in the action,” it isn’t just his own influence he fails to see; it’s Henry, the author himself.


After Henry read William’s Pragmatism, published three years before William died, Henry gushed. It wasn’t hollow praise—it was the thrill of intellectual recognition, the Venn overlay of ideas and experience expressed by another mind. The book cast a spell, he wrote. “I simply sank down, under it, into such depths of submission and assimilation. . . . I was lost in the wonder of the extent to which all my life I have . . . unconsciously pragmatised.” Henry’s art was William’s action.

In A Stroll with William James, Jacques Barzun makes the connection William perhaps didn’t, at least in relation to his brother's work: “The relation of art to life is pragmatic exactly as thought is related truth: both art and thought work with symbols in an effort to master experience. Both know success when by conception and craft a set of concrete particulars endows experience with intelligible shape. . . . Like thought, art does not copy reality but weaves in and out of it, now as sensation, now as idea. The best truthful thought and the best art are a fused product: we then 'feel' the true, the work of art 'moves' us.”

Where Henry plumbed consciousness and undermined omniscience, William experienced murky impressions rather than refreshment. Colm Tólbín writes that William’s children were raised to think of Uncle Henry as “slightly silly,” what with his incessant ailments and his preoccupation with society abroad. When William’s son, Harry James, began to look at his uncle’s correspondence after the deaths of both brothers, he was a little surprised. The letters, wrote Henry's nephew, would “become . . . a sort of milestone . . . a magnificent commentary on the literary life of his generation.” Family prejudices die hard. Perhaps Henry Sr. was right. The works of William and Henry indeed extended from who they were: a thinker and an artist. But first, they were brothers.