Henry James: Notes of a Son and Brother

(2137 words)

Notes of a Son and Brother (1914), the second volume of Henry James’s autobiographical writings, was published a year after the first, A Small Boy and Others (1913). The third, the unfinished The Middle Years (1917), was posthumously published. They were edited by Frederick W. Dupee and published under the title Henry James: Autobiography in 1956. Notes of a Son and Brother picks up the mazy chronological web from A Small Boy and Others, which concluded, rather confusingly (having in the penultimate pages dwelt on his convalescence), with James’ physical collapse at the onset of typhus in Boulogne in 1857 when he was fourteen.

Notes of a Son and Brother opens in Switzerland in 1859, where the family settled for a while in Geneva, having briefly returned to Newport, Rhode Island, in the United States in 1858. The title suggests a more integrated family position than the vulnerability of A Small Boy and Others. The narrative voice of Notes of a Son and Brother is urbanely reminiscent, whereas A Small Boy and Others was characterised by a duality of perception, a distinction between the sharp-eyed infant and the achieved artist who invokes him. Notes of a Son and Brother often recalls the family circle and quotes family letters. There is more the sense of a continuum rather than a disjunction of experience. Yet the structuring antithesis between William, the “adaptive”, initiated, “major figure” and Henry, the blank, recessive “minor” figure (247) is common to both. The early part of Notes of a Son and Brother continues the account of the vicissitudes of formal education that were so considerable a part of the first volume. In Switzerland and, later, in Germany, formal teaching had little educative effect upon Henry. However, in compensation, the James family were animatedly discussing George Eliot’s Adam Bede and discovering the thrill of Anthony Trollope’s Framley Parsonage serialized monthly in the pages of the new Cornhill magazine. Serialization, “these enrichments of life, these large arrivals” commanded the “permeable air and the collective sensibility”; they were “great shovelfuls of testimony to constituted English manners” (251). It was all an “impressional harvest” (241) for the novelist-to-be.

The James family’s repatriation to the United States in 1859, in response to William’s declared intention to be a painter, was, initially, a return to Newport where there was an extended circle of family and literary and artistic acquaintance. The painter, John la Farge, Franco-American in sensibility, was a type of the artist as man of the world that the youthful James lapped up as “the so essentially harmonious person” (291). William soon abandoned painting and moved to Boston to study natural history. James’s inclusion of several of William’s letters to his family gives a flavour of the sibling banter and pecking order. On the cusp of adulthood, the James children regarded their father’s intellectual excursions into theology and philosophy with affectionate irreverence. “‘Father’s Ideas’” were represented by William in a mischievous sketch as a man flogging a dead horse.

However, several chapters of Notes of a Son and Brother are devoted to quoting extensively from (and sometimes “improving”) his father’s letters. They provide a record of the New England intellectual circle in which he moved of which Emerson was the most notable figure. They also reveal his father’s constitutional optimism, the serenity of his contradictions, his ardent wrestling with ideas. “‘Oh you man without a handle! Shall one never be able to help himself out of you, according to his needs, and be dependent only upon your fitful tippings up?’” writes Henry James Sr. to Emerson in the 1840s in language ripely game for queer theorists of a later era. The 1840s and 50s were the decades of the lecture as a form of entertainment. James remembers that as children they were taken to the theatre but lectures were for grownups. He recalls his father setting out to give lectures (often to a rather dwindling audience) with his mother in devoted attendance, just at the time the children went to bed. The glory of the occasion was “only made more of a thrill” by his mother’s anxiety “as to whether they were not starting without the feature of features, the corpus delicti or manuscript itself.” One of the great set pieces of his father’s correspondence that James quotes is an impression of the novelist, Nathaniel Hawthorne, attending a dinner in Boston in 1862. Hawthorne, the shy provincial “Concord owl” has been brought into the glare of Boston society and “expected to wink and be lively, like some dapper Tommy Titmouse.” The letter continues:

I felt him bury his eyes in his plate and eat with such voracity that no one should dare to speak to him. My heart broke for him as his attenuated left-hand neighbour kept putting forth his long antennae to stroke his face and try whether his eyes were open. It was heavenly to see him persist in ignoring the spectral smiles — in eating his dinner and doing nothing but that, and then go home to his Concord den to fall upon his knees and ask his heavenly Father why it was that an owl couldn’t remain an owl and not be forced into the diversions of a canary. (361)

The social perception and comic imagery here is worthy of his novelist son, yet the letter, characteristically, moves, without any sense of a transition, to a theological concept of society as “the radiant altar of God”. The father’s radiant inclusiveness remained a wonder to his children.

James himself, as a young man, seems to have found the return to Newport in 1859 a much-needed respite from travel and an opportunity to renew friendships. Indeed, the retrospective vision of the mature artist cradles this youthful Newport circle with Whitmanesque tenderness, as if to protect them from the ravages of the imminent Civil War (1861-5) in which some of the most personable young men were to be killed. Those who died were to remain “entire” in memory:

Blest beyond others . . . the admirations . . . that were not to know to their cost the inevitable test or strain; they are almost the only ones, of the true high pitch, that, without broken edges or other tatters to show, fold themselves away entire and secure, even as rare lengths of precious old stuff, in the scented chest of our savings. (306-7)

The images of the saving imagination play strangely against their implicit shadows, the tattered flags and broken bodies of death in war. James’s two younger brothers fought in the Civil War. Robertson (Bob) was only seventeen when he enrolled in the 45th Massachusetts regiment. Later, transferred to the 55th, and refusing a medical discharge, he was made a captain. Wilky, an adjutant in the 54th Massachusetts, the first regiment of black soldiers led by Colonel Robert Shaw (the regiment commemorated in Robert Lowell’s poem “For the Union Dead”), was seriously injured in the assault on Fort Wagner in which Shaw and many of the regiment were killed. James includes William’s “tender” drawing of Wilky, “our poor lacerated brother” (384), as his stretcher was brought into the house. James himself sustained a back injury that made it impossible for him to play an active part in the war. The thicket of syntactical elaboration in which this information is camouflaged might itself be regarded as a psychoanalytic case of unsuitability for combat. However, James did visit an army hospital on Rhode Island where, in his tender feelings for the injured men he rejoiced to have coincided with or even anticipated “dear old Walt” (424). James was an admirer of Walt Whitman whose visits to the wounded are expressed in the homoerotic compassion of his poetry of the Civil War period.

James’s recall of this time, for all his sense of the stature and masculinity of the combatants in relation to his own incapacity, is, nonetheless, an account of the emergence of a “man of imagination” (455), of a growing sense of literary vocation. That this development took place in such a tempestuous period of American history had the effect of intensifying rather than diminishing personal consciousness. The “vast black cost of what General [Ulysses] Grant was doing for us” as the Union army fought its way to victory, was itself — “no light-handed artist he!” — a mode of mastery whose “sharpest vibrations” (477) honed the imagination of the would-be writer. This is evident even in the title phrase Notes of a Son and Brother. The father of Wilky’s closest comrade, searching for and unable to find his own only son alive, brought home to the James family their son and brother. Bereft, he sat “dry-eyed at the guarded feast of our relief” (383). Writing in England in 1914, with Europe on the brink of World War I, James’s Son and Brother carries across half a century its wartime resonance.

James constructs Notes of a Son and Brother so that it leads to two climactic experiences emblematic of his entrance into the profession of authorship. The first, the most potent discovery of the autobiographical writings, is an apprehension of power. Dickens, the novelist whose serializations had enthralled Americans, whose novels had been pirated and crudely adapted for the stage, had been a shaping force, part of James’s childhood; but, more than that, Dickens stands revealed as the strong predecessor, James the successor. James was twenty-four when he was introduced to this great “exhibited idol of the mind” at a reception during Dickens’s reading tour of America in 1867 (one of the tours that sapped his prodigious strength). Dickens, with the impenetrability of celebrity, said nothing. Yet James’s recollection shapes the encounter into an ideal relation, an exchange between “benefactor and beneficiary”, a transfer of power from the “offered inscrutable mask” to the “slim and shaken vessel”: “no accession of sensibility” from any other source could compare with this “glimpse”. James, the acolyte, carries off his “strange treasure just exactly from under the merciless military eye” of the “master” (388-90). The structuring fraternal antithesis between the “major” William and the “minor” Henry is displaced by a more potent binary, an epiphanic recognition, artist to aspirant, and, in the writing of the scene, artist to artist. James, an older man in 1913, and, as Dickens was in 1867, “on the outer edge of his once magnificent margin” (390) himself knows, after the long toil of preparing the New York Edition of his collected works, what he glimpsed then, the exhaustion after a lifetime devoted to art. The imbalance of the scene of artist and aspirant is now, implicitly, rebalanced — the uneventful moment transformed into a life-changing encounter, the scene reworked into the narrative of James’s own artistic momentum.

The other crucial formative experience was closer to home. Loss, the toll of the Civil War, shadows the genial family circle of Notes of a Son and Brother. But the most significant death was that of his cousin, Mary (affectionately known as “Minnie”) Temple who died from tuberculosis in 1870 at the age of twenty-four. James quotes a series of letters that she wrote to a mutual friend, John Chipman Gray, in the last year of her life, letters that express her instinct for life and her sense of that instinct in others. For James, she was, in her charm, her seriousness and her bravery in the struggle with illness, the “heroine of the scene”:

Life claimed her and used her and beset her — made her range in her groping, her naturally immature and unlighted way from end to end of the scale . . . She was absolutely afraid of nothing she might come to by living with enough sincerity and enough wonder . . . None the less did she in fact cling to consciousness; death, at the last, was dreadful to her; she would have given anything to live — and the image of this, which was long to remain with me, appeared so of the essence of tragedy that I was in the far-off aftertime to seek to lay the ghost by wrapping it . . . in the beauty and dignity of art. (509-544 passim)

Mary Temple was the inspiration for Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady and the resonance of her untimely death can be found also in Daisy Miller. Amidst the incongruities of the golden era of Newport leisure from whose shores the “far cannonades” of war could, at times, literally be heard, James began writing reviews and short stories. His phrase, “a tract of time-smothered consciousness” (505), is apt not only for the sensuous life so tragically extinguished in that era, but also its recovery for art by the saving imagination. Notes of a Son and Brother ends with Mary Temple’s death, a death that marked, for James and his brother William, “the end of our youth” (544).

Page references are to Frederick W. Dupee, Henry James: Autobiography, 1956, unless otherwise stated.

Righelato, Pat. "Notes of a Son and Brother". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 14 July 2007
[http://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=3207, accessed 03 May 2016.]