Henry James Sr.
b. Albany, 1811; d. Boston, 1882
Henry James Sr.'s life of intellectual freedom and exercise was made possible, in large part, by the good and profitable business sense of his Irish-born father, known to James family biographers as William James of Albany. Through investments in business, real estate, and the Erie Canal, William amassed during his lifetime the second largest fortune in New York State.
Henry Sr. was born in Albany in 1811 to William's third wife. He was the fifth of 11 children by the three marriages. Young Henry's life, although not filled with great outpourings of paternal affection, was one of material comfort and robust physical activity. His aptitude for sport, adventure, and risk had devastating results, however: At the age of 13, his right leg had to be amputated just above the knee because of burns suffered in a school prank. An invalid for several months, he eventually mastered the use of a wooden leg, and his youthful injury appeared to have little effect on his physical movements as an adult.
Son Against Father; Father Against Son
The psychological effects of the trauma had a marked impact on his later adolescence, however. In 1828, Henry enrolled in Union College in Schenectady, New York, which his father had helped to found, but he left without completing a degree. His behavior as an undergraduate bore all the signs of acute generational rebellion -- drinking, gambling, inattention to studies, and defiance of his father's precepts. Eventually his father took measures to extend his influence over his wayward son from beyond the grave. He wrote stern conditions into his will to prevent Henry's ever gaining access to his inheritance -- unless he reformed his ways. Henry's response following his father's death was to hire a lawyer and break the will. Having thus secured his financial liberation from William's moral control, he set about inventing a life more to his own liking.
A Nonconformist of Independent Means
It was to be a moral life, nonetheless. He entered the Princeton Theological Seminary in 1835, three years after his father's death, and completed two years of unorthodox study (refusing to participate in grace over meals, proclaiming a distrust of professional clergy) before leaving without a degree in 1837. In 1840, he married Mary Robertson Walsh, the sister of one of his Princeton classmates and a child of wealth herself. Their life together would be characterized by a dizzying number of family moves. Although their five children were all born in New York, Henry's impulsive decisions took them not only to several houses in New York, Boston, and Newport, but also to Paris, London, and Geneva, a peripatetic life that resulted in, among other things, a vast but inconsistent education for the children. To his nuclear family was soon added another essential member, his wife's sister, Catherine, who was to stay with the household off and on for most of her life.
Although his own freedom of movement had been financed by aggressive and thrifty entrepreneurship, Henry Sr. essentially rejected the world of business and money, leaving it to his wife Mary to be the family guardian of the purse. He pursued no livelihood, preferring to focus instead on transcendental matters and the "private" transactions of religion and literature. Adding nothing to the family fortune during his lifetime, he gradually expended it. He was able to provide comfortably, if not extravagantly, for his family while alive, but at his death the same privilege would not be extended to his offspring.
A Spiritual and Psychological Crisis
His individualistic quest for spiritual authenticity took on a more urgent character during the family's first extended voyage around Europe. A spiritual crisis overtook him on foreign soil and pushed him to the edge of a psychological abyss. He became convinced that he was confronting terrifying demonic forces. In this extreme it was the ideas of the European mystic Emanuel Swedenborg that helped him to regain his psychological footing. The private philosophy he erected upon Swedenborg's foundation was to sustain him for the rest of his life.
Building on ideas that he already held dear -- the abolition of professional clergy; the striving toward brotherhood and communal property; the separation of rational judgment and emotional response -- Henry developed a personal philosophy that would inflect the lives and work of his children, famous and unfamous unlike. From Swedenborg, Henry came to believe that egotism was the single most damaging force in the human personality, thwarting all attempts at connection and commonality. Emphasis on the self, to the exclusion or detriment of others, also made God remote from one's life. Without spiritual guidance, man retreats into himself, he maintained, and so loses hold on his place in the outside world and his responsibility to it.
Private Influence Amid a Distinguished Circle
The influence of Henry Sr.'s principles remained primarily personal and familial, however. It was left to his children to attempt to carry his ideas into effective action in the wider world. Henry Sr. wrote prolifically and spoke publicly from time to time, but he published always at his own expense and never attempted to organize or sustain a congregational following. Lacking the motivation to cut a significant figure in public life, Henry Sr. was nevertheless extremely gifted in his ability to forge genuine friendships with several of the greatest thinkers and creative geniuses of his day. This was true on both sides of the Atlantic, and it may have been one of his most significant legacies to his children.
His ideas had a natural affinity with those of the New England transcendentalists, and in America, the Jameses' circle included Emerson, Thoreau, and the Alcotts. The family knew Hawthorne, Longfellow, and Oliver Wendell Holmes as well. Henry Sr. was invited to dine with Dickens when he came to America on tour. While in London, Henry Sr. socialized with Carlyle, Mill, and G.H. Lewes (George Eliot's partner).
An Unorthodox Parent
This very intellectual figure was not a remote presence in the lives of his children, however. His letters to them reveal considerable intimacy, combining mundane details of daily life interspersed with grand philosophical pronouncements.
As a father, he was both exacting and erratic, generous but controlling. Intolerance and liberality alternated. He expected each individual to think independently, but decided to withdraw his children from American society when its influence appeared to be making them disrespectful of him. He urged his four sons to make their way in the world in the manner that most suited their individual talents, but as they lacked his independent means, he really offered them no viable model for doing so. The erratic education he had imposed on them provided few practical tools to make up the difference. Yet he believed in their talents and frequently financed their ventures -- often at considerable expense -- as much as his means permitted.
Each child underwent a different sort of experimental application of his philosophy. Garth and Robertson were sent off to the Concord Academy to be inculcated with strong abolitionist principles. Alice, his only daughter, was expected to remain at home and tend to him, even though he approved of her educating herself. William might go to Harvard to become a scientist, but Henry might not attend college, as Henry Sr. disapproved of undergraduate life for him. Travel abroad could be financed if necessary to restore ill health, but means were not sufficient to support travel for mere enrichment and pleasure. Needless to say, in the competition for scarce resources, it often became advantageous for the young Jameses to be ill.
An Unforeseen Harvest
Denied any continuous community by the itinerant lifestyle he forced upon them, all five children matured in a sort of hermetic social isolation, cosmopolitan yet cut off, very much dependent on one another for companionship and solace. It made them close, but it also made them neurotic. The psychological demons that had attacked Henry Sr. on the family's initial European odyssey would eventually assault every one of his offspring in different ways.
Yet something about his method of upbringing produced remarkable results -- for two of the five, at least, and the world is the richer for it. But happiness was not plentiful in the harvest, and as he aged, Henry Sr. was often at a loss to recognize how his own ideas were still working themselves out in both the tragedies and triumphs of his five children's lives.
Henry Sr. died in Boston in 1882, several moths after the death of his wife, in the house he now shared with his daughter Alice.