ON SEPTEMBER 7, 1861, having lately abandoned a dream of life as an artist and enrolled in Harvard’s Lawrence Scientific School, Wm set out from his new, strange, rented room in Cambridge and walked mechanically to the P.O., hoping against all hope to find a letter from his brother. His box was empty. Wm turned heavily away. Before he could leave, he felt a modest touch. It was his landlord’s young son, offering an envelope inscribed with familiar characters.
“Mr. James! This was in our box!”
Wm tore open H’ry’s letter, read it right there in the post office. That evening, homesick and alone on a Saturday night, he began a reply: “Sweet was your letter & grateful to my eyes.” The first letter of the surviving correspondence contains snippets in French, Latin, and Portuguese, alludes to Shakespeare, reports on a visit to a collection of sculptural casts at the Boston Atheneum, and attests to an absence of “equanimity” (the presence of which, many years later, Wm would count among the defining traits of mysticism). He was nineteen years old.
They wrote often. They wrote letters about reading letters, letters about how much time had passed since they had received a letter, letters that depicted the moment of their composition. Wm’s first letter describes the table on which he writes (round, with a red and black cloth), specifies the number of windows in his room (five), inventories his bookcase (“my little array of printed wisdom covering nearly one of the shelves”), and lists “Drear and Chill Abode” as its return address.
The early letters often express frustration with the inability of words to truly convey experience. Correspondence pales beside conversation. Over the next few years, as Wm and H’ry each completed an initial solo Grand Tour, they cried out for each other’s company.
H’ry, from Lucerne: “I’d give my right hand for an hour’s talk with you.”
H’ry, from Venice, six weeks later: “Among the letters which I found here on my arrival was a most valuable one from you . . . which made me ache to my spirit’s core for half an hour’s talk with you.”
Wm, from Berlin: “What wouldn’t I give to have a good long talk with you all at home.”
Wm, from Dresden, after visiting the Gallery: “I’d give a good deal to import you and hear how some of the things strike you.”
In 1869, Wm advised H’ry, then in Geneva, not to yield to homesickness. “I wish I heard from you oftener,” H’ry had written. Wm told him to pay no mind to ennui, noting that his own “heaviest days were full of instruction.” The same letter opened with a borrowed stanza:
A few years later, Wm described H’ry as “my in many respects twin bro,” which serves as a fair description of the image he once sketched in the margin of a letter illustrating the proposed sleeping arrangements for H’ry’s then-impending visit to Cambridge:
The pleas for companionship persisted as Wm and H’ry grew older, taking up permanent residence on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean, and establishing very different social lives and almost completely incompatible aesthetics.
1876: “Your letter . . . quickened my frequent desire to converse with you.”
1883: “I would give any thing to see you.”
1886: “Would to God I could get over to see you . . . for about 24 hours.”
1889: “I long to talk with you—of, as you say, a 100 things.”
1896: “How I wish I could sit in your midst!”
1899: “Within the last couple of days I have wished you were nearer to me, that I might consult with you.”
In 1893, both brothers having recently passed fifty years of age, Wm reflected on the James family’s thinning ranks (mother, father, and two younger siblings having died in recent years), claiming that he now felt, more than ever before, that he and H’ry “formed part of a unity.” He was moved to quote from Matthew Arnold’s “The Future,” which had been formative in other ways. (“Where the river in gleaming rings / sluggishly winds through the plain / . . . So is the mind of man” anticipates the “stream of consciousness” that Wm articulated and H’ry employed.) Moved at impending mortality, Wm lifted snippets from the poem’s conclusion.
They were closer to death, but not close. The exchange continued for another seventeen years. The letters contain spats, disagreements, and plenty of evidence of diverging intellects, but chart, too, a love growing ever fonder. In 1910, several months before Wm died, H’ry fell into a sour mood. He had been dabbling with a nutritional chewing cure fad that his brother had recommended, but now the cure had backfired, and he had been left with a stomach that had forgotten how to digest food. His letters took on a frantic tone; he streamed fear and loneliness.
“Oh for a letter!” he cried. Wm made plans to visit. “An immense change for the better will come, I feel, with your advent,” H’ry rejoiced. “That will be my cure.”
Wm arrived to comfort his brother in May. He was dead by August. H’ry lived another six years.