The Jameses

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Born in 1842 and 1843, respectively, William and Henry James both achieved unusual distinction in their fields of endeavor. As a psychologist William shed new light on the operations of the conscious mind; his brother helped to create the psychological novel. Both were devoted to their gifted sister Alice, whose promise went unfulfilled because of precarious health. Their father Henry was a highly respected intellectual of his day, a friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson and an indefatigable writer on theological subjects.

R.W.B. Lewis has deftly brought these Jameses to life as well as two brothers of the famous duo, Garth Wilkinson ("Wilky") and Robertson ("Bob"), who both served in the Civil War but enjoyed little success in later life. Lewis begins his account with a 1789 immigrant from Ireland, also William James. He settled in Albany, New York, demonstrated entrepreneurial skill, and invested so wisely that his son Henry and grandchildren escaped serious financial worries and, in the case of the two Henrys and the younger William, could concentrate on the work that appealed to them.

The brothers also benefited from their visionary if impractical father. The family traveled in Europe several times, the children experiencing many forms of education at home and abroad. They did not always enjoy their dislocations but gained breadth of outlook. William’s THE VARIETIES OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE, while far different from his father’s works, reflects the elder Henry’s independent and introspective temperament.

Lewis excels at depicting familial ties, including the marriages of Henry Sr. and William, but he is at his best tracing the complicated relationship between William and Henry Jr. The former could be condescending and oppressive, but he was genuinely proud of Henry, who—with an ocean between them—could appreciate his brother.

The author summarized the lives of later Jameses in an appendix. Another feature is a generous selection on excellent photographs. Lewis’s book is well-researched, well-written, and well worth reading.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. August 18, 1991, XIV, p. 3.

The Christian Science Monitor. August 13, 1991, p. 13.

Library Journal. CXVI, August, 1991, p. 101.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. August 11, 1991, p. 3.

The New York Review of Books. XXXVIII, October 10, 1991, p. 3.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, August 4, 1991, p. 1.

Newsweek. CXVIII, August 26, 1991, p. 55.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, June 21, 1991, p. 48.

The Times Literary Supplement. October 11, 1991, p. 6.

The Washington Post Book World. XXI, September 1, 1991, p. 5.