William and Henry James were brothers, born a year apart in the mid-1800s, sons of highly educated and affluent parents. They took different routes to fame: William is known as the father of American psychology, Henry appears on the short list of greatest novelists of the English language.
I began college as an English major but left that path to attend medical school and practice psychiatry for 40 years. Now I am trying to write novels and other books. I am drawn to the question of who understands people more clearly, the novelist or the psychologist.
During my training for a career in psychiatry, I became obsessed with John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Leaping out from the pages of that novel were characters similar to the patients I was trying to classify with the nomenclature of psychiatry. The fact that Steinbeck’s book was a revisitation of the Cane and Abel story from the Hebrew Bible further captured my imagination.
The psychologist James approached people with a rational mind. He sought the meanings of the how’s and why’s of emotions, highlighting the effect of the external event on the internal experience.
The novelist James aspired to accurately observe and describe human life. He sought to portray the “nature” of the human experience including through imagination and fictionalized story. He also went where his brother never dared, to write ghostly horror tales, to embrace the supernatural as literary form. In his work we find chilling examples of sexual exploitation, betrayal, sibling rivalry, and bitter resentment.
While the study of psychology has advanced considerably since William James, for the moment I stand with the novelist. It was Henry the writer who said, “Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.” He knew best the human condition.
While upgrading internet access to my home, it was necessary to move aside some books and an old radio from their usual spot so the technician could do his work. I was struck by the juxtaposition of my modern laptop with the radio, a 1951 General Electric model.
The radio came down to me from some in-laws, and paired with the computer, spanned seventy years of technological change. It operates with “vacuum tube” units, a terminology those of a certain age will recall. It still works! I turn it on about once a year to make sure.
I wonder what things a previous generation heard on this radio. World War Two was over by 1951, but the Korean War was not. Perhaps they listened to information about the 1952 presidential election or even heard Dwight D. Isenhower’s inauguration speech.
Television became increasingly available toward the end of the 1950s, but perhaps they listened to the Nixon-Kennedy debates on the radio. My own family did not get a television until about 1956. We could tune in to three channels.
The books I moved were also noteworthy. I have a first edition, first printing of Atlas Shrugged (1957) and a 1936 copy of Gone With the Wind. Those two books border my favorite modern novel, Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace (1996).
I value the modern technology. It makes life easier. I cherish the old. It brings me joy.
I read. I write. I learn. I’m in a writing group and I have four published books. I’m still pretty sure I’m not Steinbeck, but my heart and soul have found their way back to where they should be.