J. C. Hallman studied at the University of Pittsburgh, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins. He is the author of The Hospital for Bad Poets, The Devil is a Gentleman, The Chess Artist, and In Utopia, and served as editor for The Story About the Story: Great Writers Explore Great Literature. His new book, out today, is Wm & H’ry: Literature, Love, and the Letters between William and Henry James.
— Brandon Hobson
THE BELIEVER: In your introduction to Wm and H’ry, you mention that Emerson longed for an intimate correspondence through letters and that, similarly, you felt a certain intimacy when you read the letters of William and Henry James. Can you speak to that intimacy and why it’s important for you and for readers? Is this how the idea of the book began to form for you?
J. C. HALLMAN: Yes, much in the same way Emerson sensed, at the onset of modernity (to get a little fancy), that something was getting drained out of how we use language, I worry that despite all the benefits of online communities and social media (and there are many), something is getting lost because all of that is so incredibly public. We’re in the process of forgetting that, once upon a time, people wrote very carefully constructed letters that were not to be released to blog or twitter “followers,” but were sent to just a single, other person. I think I first felt an intimacy reading the James letters precisely because no other letters were, in fact, being addressed to me alone. They satisfied a craving I didn’t know I had. That was definitely the beginning.
BLVR: Do you think that intimacy in letters is lost with social media, emails, private messaging, etc.? Do you think letter-writing is a dead art?
JCH: I’m not sure letter-writing is dead, and I’m not sure it’s art. Certainly, a lot of social media is shot through with the illusion of intimacy—with false intimacy serving as a delivery mechanism for propaganda and marketing strategies. But that’s not really new, I don’t think. Is the post office delivering fewer letters these days? Probably. Is that bad? Probably.
BLVR: You’ve invested a great deal of time and work in researching this book. What is it about William and Henry’s correspondence that has a stronger impact on readers than, say, other literary figures?
JCH: The Jameses are sort of the first family, or the founding fathers, of Intellectual America. (We’d be remiss not to mention that Henry Sr. and Alice James also made very important contributions.) Which is not to say that the letters are stuffy. In fact, what I emphasize in the book is all the details that have tended to be omitted from scholarly work—the day to day foibles and raw humanity. But the attraction, I think, has to do with the sheer range of influence that the brothers, and the family, have had. It’s hard to imagine a field or a discipline that the Jameses have not had at least some hand in shaping. Literature, Art, Comparative Religions, Psychology, Philosophy, and on and on. As celebrated as the Jameses are, that range of influence is still not yet fully appreciated—but it is understood intuitively, and that accounts for the ongoing interest.
BLVR: How much do you explore this wide range of influence in areas other than literature in the book? Do you think this helps construct a wider audience for the book?
JCH: Hard to say. One of the reasons William James is not as popular as his brother is the very fact that his influence is spread over so many fields. The book tries demonstrate how all these fields are interconnected, how both brothers, really, formed their visions and their aesthetics by juxtaposing disciplines and mediums that are now quite distinct, that are no longer “in conversation” with each other. What that might mean is that the book hopes to appeal to readers with promiscuous imaginations, as opposed to pleading with philosophers and artists to please buy this book because there’s a little bit about art and philosophy in here.
BLVR: You mention Williams James’s influence spread over so many fields. Can you speak a little more about that?
JCH: Well, William James is the founder of modern psychology—so that’s pretty good. He’s also the founder of a philosophy of lingering influence—pragmatism. Pragmatism pops up all over the place—in literary studies for example—and a bit deeper is the debt that Wittgenstein owes to James, which scholars have taken pains to document. None of that is even James’s best known book, The Varieties of Religious Experience. In my second book, The Devil is a Gentleman, I trace William James’s influence on modern religious thought, and find him cropping up not just in modern religions but in Durkheim and Eliade, as well. In Wm & H’ry, I spend a lot more time looking at William James’s influence on the way modern literature works, which of course comes through Henry James, who was reading all of his brother’s work as it appeared. And it’s not too difficult to document the application of all that thinking in Henry James’s stories, which of course linger in the background of almost all literature produced today. Everyone who either emulates or resists the work of Henry James owes a debt also to his brother.