The strange education of the brothers James

A painstakingly inclusive new collection of Henry James’ letters serves as a jumping-off point for Edmund V. White’s consideration, in the current New York Review of Books, of the “jagged, capricious education” that the James family patriarch ensured for both Henry and his brother William. After becoming a Swedenborgian, the elder James dragged his sons from school to school across Europe and the States.

Here’s a relevant passage from Henry James’ autobiography, A Small Boy and Others:

We were day-boys, William and I, at dispensaries of learning the number and succession of which to-day excite my wonder; we couldn’t have changed oftener, it strikes me as I look back, if our presence had been inveterately objected to, and yet I enjoy an inward certainty that, my brother being vividly bright and I quite blankly innocuous, this reproach was never brought home to our house.

White also excerpts a letter in which James characterizes the Pope as a “flaccid old woman,” and another in which he claims to have fallen in love with the large and “magnificently ugly — deliciously hideous” George Eliot, whose novels he (somewhat patronizingly) championed.

Image of Henry (above left) and William (above right) James swiped from the New York Times.


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