Genius in the Family
by Abby Wolf
Henry James Sr. | Mary Robertson Walsh James
Alice | Robertson "Bob" | Garth Wilkinson ("Wilky") | Henry | William
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.
Henry James Sr.'s children were exposed to a most unconventional upbringing, and though their father stressed personal freedom, his philosophy also dictated a strict moral code. The following is an excerpt from Henry Sr.'s 1856 book, The Nature of Evil.
I desire my child to become an upright man, a man in whom goodness shall be induced not by mercenary motives as brute goodness is induced, but by love for it or a sympathetic delight in it. And inasmuch as I know that this character or disposition cannot be forcibly imposed upon him, but must be freely assumed, I surround him as far as possible with an atmosphere of freedom.
Mary Robertson Walsh James
b. 1810; d. 1882
According to the accounts of three of her five children, few tears were shed upon the death of Mary Robertson Walsh James. The lack of emotional display had nothing to do with a lack of filial love and devotion. In fact, Henry James and Alice James both wrote of their mother as an embodiment of sweet maternity, almost divine in the execution of her motherly duties and the dispensation of her affection; and Garth Wilkinson ("Wilky") James considered his mother's weekly letters from home to each of her four sons, dispersed throughout America and Europe, the bond that linked the brothers to each other. (Some biographers -- especially Alice's -- have argued that Mary was indeed a remote parent, but her children's writing bears little evidence of this.) The adult James children viewed the passing of their mother as a natural stage in the progression of a human life, an understanding which they had absorbed from the religious teachings of their father, the anticlerical thinker Henry James Sr.
Mary Robertson Walsh, of Irish and Scottish ancestry, was born in New York City in 1810 to a wealthy cotton merchant and his wife. She was a devout Presbyterian when she met her future husband, Henry James Sr., in November 1837. A fellow student with her brother at the Princeton Theological Seminary, Henry dazzled her and her family with his discussions of religion and spirituality -- so much so that Mary and her sister, Catherine, eventually withdrew from the church which they had attended for many years with their family. In 1840, Mary and Henry were married in a civil ceremony in the Walshes' Washington Square house. Beginning in 1842, with the birth of their son William, Mary bore five children in the course of a marital union that was, by all accounts, a happy one.
Mary's devotion to her children and her wise counsel is apparent in the many letters that survive in the James family archives. On Henry Jr., she lavished praise for his writing; for her youngest son Bob she expressed concern (in letters to her other sons) about his drinking and his bouts of depression. Alice, her youngest child and only daughter, with her frequent physical and mental collapses from her teenage years on, seemed more of a mystery to her mother. Mary believed that physical activity and travel had great benefits for her "hysterical" daughter, but that books made Alice withdraw into herself in unhealthy ways, providing the young woman with little distraction from what ailed her -- a rather ironic prescription in this most bookish of American families, which Mary helmed until her death in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1882.
"It is impossible for me to say -- to begin to say," wrote Henry at her passing, "all that has gone down into the grave with her. She was our life, she was the house, she was the keystone of the arch..."
From the beginning of his life, Henry was his mother's favorite; Mary James called her second son the "angel of the house." The letters she wrote express her concern for his physical distance from the family, as well as her pride in her literary child's accomplishments. The following is an excerpt from a letter Mary James wrote upon Henry's return to Cambridge from London in 1875.
Harry has come home to us very much improved in health and looks. When he came in upon us from his voyage in a loose rough English suit, very much burnt and browned by the sea, he looked like a robust young Briton. He seemed well pleased to be at home at least as yet, and I trust he will feel more and more for himself, what I daily feel for him, that it is much better to live near his family and with his own countrymen, than to lead the recluse life he so strongly tended to live abroad.
b. New York, 1842; d. Chocorua, New Hampshire, 1910
Mary James complained of her eldest son William that "the trouble with him is that he must express every fluctuation of feeling, and especially every unfavorable symptom, without reference to the effect upon those about him." If this seems an overly somatic introduction to the great philosopher and psychologist William James, it is also appropriate: A life that culminated in a reconsideration of spirituality and consciousness in relation to physiology and neuroscience was also a life spent in perpetual diagnosis of backache, eyestrain, and nervous disorders. But unlike his younger siblings Garth Wilkinson ("Wilky"), Robertson ("Bob"), and Alice, whose physical and psychological ailments prevented them from achieving success and fulfillment, William's psychological distress and physical suffering seemed to spur him on through each stage of his development as a highly original thinker and one of the great multidisciplinary minds in turn-of-the-century America.
Science and Art Contend
Born in New York City in 1842 and named for his prosperous paternal grandfather, William was the first-born child of Mary and Henry James Sr. A favorite of his father's from his youth, William grew up in a household sustained by inherited wealth and unorthodox spiritual ideas. He was encouraged to pursue both his scientific and artistic talents through the course of a highly discontinuous education. During eight years in New York, he attended more than 10 schools; added to this were the several schools he attended in Europe on the family's frequent continental sojourns. Henry Sr., whose primary vocation was spiritual philosophy, had very definite ideas about art and artists and science as well: Art at its best was a spontaneous expression of the divine spirit working in man; but those who practiced art for the sake of livelihood would find their spontaneous expressions redirected to meet the demands of the market and of public taste. Science, on the other hand, was equally an aspect of divine expression, but its practitioners stood a better chance of staying true to inspiration while serving society's demands. Given this viewpoint it was natural that the father would encourage the son toward scientific study rather than artistic pursuits. But William's own drive to be an artist prevailed at first, and he convinced his father to take the family back to Newport, Rhode Island, where he could study under the painter William Morris Hunt. William's drawings, which still exist, show a significant talent for portraiture, but in 1861, he abruptly left off his artistic training to enroll at Harvard.
William's entry into Harvard coincided with the outbreak of the Civil War. He began with little idea of the course of study he ultimately wished to pursue. An inability to commit to a particular field of study would characterize William throughout his life. When he was older and established, such variation was recognized as a sign of his expansive genius; but as a young man, such variation was considered aimlessness. He would become the classic late-bloomer.
Like his father, William was forced to confront serious psychological difficulties early in his adult life. Unlike his father, he was forced to weather such crises more than once. For him the problems of physiology, psychology, and philosophy were not professional domains of detached speculation but concrete issues of life and death. No one who reads his account of "the sick soul" in The Varieties of Religious Experience is likely to doubt that he knew such dark nights of the soul personally.
His father had resolved his own great crisis in the context of religion -- adopting a highly personal, nonconformist spirituality. William would ground his salvation in the methodology of science and formal logic, seeking first to comprehend his own difficult experience in physiological terms, then to master its difficulties via the disciplines psychology and ultimately philosophy. In the course of his own journey of discovery, he would lay down sound foundations for the modern science of psychology and establish it as a significantly American discipline. When Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung made their pioneering journey to America in 1909, the one man they most wanted to meet was William James.
At Harvard, William began as a student of chemistry, but after a year switched his studies to comparative anatomy. In 1865 he signed up to study tropical life forms in the Brazilian Amazon with the Swiss-born naturalist and famed professor Louis Agassiz. Agassiz, at that time the preeminent scientific personality in America, was, nevertheless, an avowed creationist who staunchly opposed the recently published theories of Charles Darwin. It was a debate William was certainly aware of as he began his own investigations.
Although William contracted an infection similar to smallpox during the expedition, he endured the entire voyage, ultimately considering his stamina in the face of traveling horrors a mark of manliness (this was perhaps a necessary victory for him, as he had often lamented his lack of military service during the war, in contrast to his brothers Wilky and Bob). In later life William James would frequently advocate the strenuous life as a means to contend with both physical and psychological disabilities. Upon his return from Brazil, William worked as an intern at Massachusetts General Hospital.
In 1867, he traveled to Germany for an extended stay, to study the German language and to seek treatment for his chronic and worsening backaches. It was in Germany, where mental processes were beginning to be studied from a physiological perspective, that he began to think seriously about psychology as an experimental science, and where he had his great revelation that it was in this field that he could make a significant contribution.
A Maverick Career
He returned to Harvard and was appointed a lecturer in physiology in 1872. In 1877, at age 36, he married Alice Gibbons Howe. In deciding to do so, he seems to have crossed some important internal threshold as well. As his marriage strengthened and his family grew, his professional stature and self-confidence increased, and he was able to focus his energies on his true interests. Many of his psychosomatic symptoms disappeared. Commissioned in 1880 to write a textbook on the rapidly evolving science of psychology, he labored at the task for 10 years while he continued his research. As a writer, he was the opposite of his brother Henry, striving always, as one critic puts it, for "conversational lucidity rather than associational allusiveness." The two-volume Principles of Psychology he finally published in 1890 effectively redefined the field and established his international reputation as a contributor at the highest level.
By then, in his own mind, he had already begun to move on. Having established the first psychological demonstration laboratory in the United States, he later termed it "a nasty little subject" and abandoned the narrow discipline of laboratory experimentation for the broader realms of free observation, reflection, and speculation which philosophy allowed.
There were other, personal motivations for his shift in focus as well. The death of their six-month-old son in 1885 had led both William and Alice to investigate spiritualism and the supernatural, an exploration which William had already embarked on to some degree when he founded the American branch of the Society for Psychical Research earlier that year. Survival after death remained unproven, he concluded, but room for many things in heaven and earth was allowed in his philosophy. By the later 1880s, he had begun teaching religion and ethics, treading professionally, at last, on the terrain that had been his father's native ground.
Confronting the Ultimate Questions
It would require another crisis, however, to bring this exploration of the spiritual realm to its fullest expression. In 1899, while at his summer retreat in the Adirondacks, he became lost and disoriented while trekking in the forest. The experience triggered a mental and physical breakdown which lasted for more than a year and delayed the presentation of a series of lectures he had been invited to give at the University of Edinburgh on the subject of "natural religion."
When he was finally well enough to deliver the talks, the material he presented constituted a fresh and unprejudiced approach to the psychology of religion. Published in 1902 as The Varieties of Religious Experience, it centered on the commonalities in personal experience across many creeds and many centuries, setting aside the comparison of institutions and dogma as secondary. Cognizant that the traditional theologies of his day were crumbling under the assault of scientific materialism, he recognized that the search for meaning would necessarily and stubbornly persist. Both scientific and humanistic in his methodology, he avoided reductionism. It was the mystery of the thing that interested William James, the long documentary record, and he chose to treat his subject with ultimate respect as well as honest eyes, aware of both its lunatic shadows and its luminous core. Assuming the stance of neither believer nor skeptic, he chose simply to bear honest witness to the patterns he saw.
It was classic William James, imbued with a sense of the relativism of all knowledge, a respect for and curiosity about alternative perspectives, an instinct to analyze clearly and thoroughly but to develop a synthesis wherever possible, and a conviction that the truth of any idea or thing is best understood by observing its action in the world.
From religion he moved on towards pure philosophy, but retained a pragmatic emphasis. His was a perspective that suited his age. With the publication of Pragmatism in 1907, shortly after his retirement as a professor at Harvard, he became among the most eminent of American philosophers, identified not only with the establishment of a new and important experimental science but with a school of philosophical thought entirely his own.
William James died of heart disease at his family's summer home in New Hampshire in 1910, having spent the last of his failing energies to help his brother Henry struggle free of his own darkest night of the soul.
William James's writings on philosophy and psychology were as prolific as his brother Henry's in and on fiction. Below is a lengthy excerpt taken from his turn-of-the-century work The Varieties of Religious Experience.
In the psychologies and in the philosophies of religion, we find the authors attempting to specify just what entity it is. One man allies it to the feeling of dependence; one makes it a derivative from fear; others connect it with the sexual life; others still identify it with the feeling of the infinite; and so on. Such different ways of conceiving it ought of themselves to arouse doubt as to whether it possibly can be one specific thing; and the moment we are willing to treat the term "religious sentiment" as a collective name for the many sentiments which religious objects may arouse in alternation, we see that it probably contains nothing whatever of a psychologically specific nature. There is religious fear, religious love, religious awe, religious joy, and so forth. But religious love is only man's natural emotion of love directed to a religious object; religious fear is only the ordinary fear of commerce, so to speak, the common quaking of the human breast, in so far as the notion of divine retribution may arouse it; religious awe is the same organic thrill which we feel in a forest at twilight, or in a mountain gorge; only this time it comes over us at the thought of our supernatural relations; and similarly of all the various sentiments which may be called into play in the lives of religious persons. As concrete states of mind, made up of a feeling plus a specific sort of object, religious emotions of course are psychic entities distinguishable from other concrete emotions; but there is no ground for assuming a simple abstract "religious emotion" to exist as a distinct elementary mental affection by itself, present in every religious experience without exception.
b. Washington Square, 1843; d. London, 1916
Henry James identified the middle of the 19th century as the "golden age" for Americans abroad. Whether this is a valid historical assessment or merely a nostalgic glance backward is hard to say. Born in his family's Washington Square house in 1843, and the second of five children of Mary and Henry James Sr., he spent the middle of the 19th century traveling back and forth between America and Europe with the family, attending school in New York and Paris, Newport and Geneva. This movement between the New World and the Old was to become a constant in his adult life, too, and Henry's own uneasy marriage of American energy and European refinement would dictate the course of much of his memorable fiction.
An Early Start
Henry found his vocation early. Even as an adolescent his brothers and sisters were well aware that he often preferred to withdraw in solitude to write and read. Little else seemed capable of absorbing him for long. He loathed engineering and mathematics, which his father had required him to study in Switzerland. Later he tried Law School at Harvard but left after one term in 1862 and 1863. Finally, he set his sights on a career in writing, though he was still uncertain whether his pen could successfully emancipate him from financial dependence on his family.
His earliest stories, written toward the end of the Civil War, often took the war as their subject. In addition to the few stories he published in mid-1860s, he also wrote reviews and "international sketches" for prestigious magazines such as The Atlantic Monthly and The Nation. Henry, perhaps taking a cue from his father, viewed journalism as hack work, but as hack work necessary to making him enough money so that he could establish himself in Europe and devote his primary energies to more serious literary work.
In 1874, after traveling in Europe for more than a year with his sister Alice and their Aunt Kate, Henry did just that, situating himself in Italy to begin his second novel, Roderick Hudson (his first, a slight though disturbing story about age and innocence called Watch and Ward, had been published in the Boston based Atlantic in 1870).
Paying His Own Way
After returning from Italy to live briefly in New York, Henry relocated to Paris in 1875, again using newspaper work -- letters to the New York Tribune -- to pay his way. There he met the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev, who introduced him to the French writers Flaubert, Zola, and Maupassant (all of whose realist influence is evident in Henry's early works). In Paris, Henry began The American, another serialized novel for The Atlantic, about an American millionaire whose attempts to penetrate French society through his courtship of an impoverished aristocrat prove disastrous. The tale's conclusion sounded a theme that reverberates throughout his career, a theme that his father had frequently espoused: the need for self-renunciation to produce a finer good.
With his audience growing, but his own attempts to penetrate French society proving as futile as his hero's, Henry moved to London in 1876. Then, traveling in Italy and visiting Paris, he published "Daisy Miller," perhaps his best known story about the "international situation," in which the corruption of Italy dooms the American ingenue Daisy Miller. Upon its publication in 1878, "Daisy Miller" secured Henry James's literary reputation in both Europe and America. In the same year The Europeans played another variation on the international theme in a somewhat lighter key, portraying the misadventures of a pair of Europeanized Americans setting foot on their native soil once again. To audiences on both sides of the Atlantic Henry was now firmly established as an acute observer and trenchant critic of European and American culture.
Public Renown and Personal Privacy
The crowning achievement of his early career, The Portrait of a Lady, appeared first in serial form in 1880 and then a year later as a book. In it, one of his most vivid creations, the American Isabel Archer, is endowed by a European benefactor with the independent means to steer her own course -- a rare opportunity for a young 19th-century woman. Despite her intelligence and determination, she becomes ensnared in a web of duplicity woven by the man she chooses to marry. Again, renunciation is the outcome.
Through all this time Henry's own personal life remained enigmatic in several respects. Highly social, he was nevertheless extremely private and reserved. Repeatedly encouraged to marry by members of his family, he steadfastly refused. His intimate relationships are still shrouded in mystery. In his teens and early 20s he had been greatly attached to his vivacious and unconventional cousin, Minny Temple, who died quite young from tuberculosis. She became the model for Isabel Archer. Later on he had several close women friends, one of whom, the writer Constance Fenimore Woolson, he lived with briefly, and apparently chastely (she died in 1894 in a possible suicide, an event which devastated Henry and which he memorialized in the 1895 story "The Altar of the Dead"). He was often attracted to young and handsome men, but there is no clear evidence that he was sexually active with either men or women.
In the early 1880s he returned to the States to settle his parents' affairs after their deaths, and then settled himself more permanently in England. He brought his troubled but brilliant sister over to be near him and watched over her from a close distance until her death in 1892.
The Spotlight Fades
He continued to write throughout the 1880s, and a 14-volume set of his novels and stories was published in London in 1883, but his popularity and critical acclaim peaked shortly after The Portrait of a Lady was published. Seeking greater financial security and renewed popular success, he turned to the theater. He adapted The American for the London stage in 1890 and 1891 and achieved some limited success, but further efforts to broaden his public appeal proved futile. Though critics remained respectful, the public ridiculed his original period drama, Guy Domville, in 1895, and his dream of theatrical triumph faded. A period of despair and loneliness followed, but he returned to the task of writing fiction. Famous though he was, because he lacked a broad popular audience, his output had to remain high for him to make ends meet.
In the early years of the 20th century, Henry James published three novels that are today considered among his finest: The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904). Densely written and highly nuanced, their complexity appeals to a select audience, but they remain the epitome of Henry James's art. Two of the three have been very recently adapted for the screen, The Wings of the Dove in 1997 and The Golden Bowl, due in theaters early next year. These opulently produced films may finally convey many of the subtleties of James's late work to a broader popular audience.
The Valley of the Shadow
After a lecture tour of the United States in 1905 -- his first visit to his native country in 20 years -- Henry began the arduous four-year task of editing and revising a number of his novels for the 24-volume "New York Edition." Most altered was The American. Working on the "New York Edition" from his English homes in Rye and London, Henry felt reassured that his standing as a transatlantic literary genius was firmly in place, and that his old age would be financial secure at last. He wrote an extraordinary series of introductions to the volumes, today considered among the finest of literary essays, but he was stunned when his first royalty check for the edition amounted to only $211. The public had turned indifferent to his sensibility.
A long spiral downwards into deep depression began. He ceased to write. In 1910, his older brother, William, in precarious health himself but now America's most famous philosopher and psychologist, traveled to Europe with his wife to try and lift his brother's darkened spirits. While they were with him, word arrived that their youngest brother Bob had died. All three returned to America. Before summer was over William was dead as well, worn out by his final effort on his brother's behalf.
Henry lived on and revived slowly, returned to England and received further honors, kept company with writer Edith Wharton (who looked out for him financially) and with other friends. He wrote another novel -- a weak one -- worked on two more, wrote several memoirs of his earlier life, and was captured brilliantly on canvas by John Singer Sargent for his 70th birthday in 1913.
He lived on to experience the outbreak -- and the heartbreak -- of the Great War, never entirely recovering from the despair that had gripped him in 1909. Henry James died in his London home in 1916.
One year earlier, disgusted with the United States' reluctance to enter the war in Europe, he had renounced his American citizenship to become a British subject, and received the Order of Merit shortly before his death. He is buried, however, in the James family plot in the Cambridge Cemetery in Massachusetts.
Henry James's prolific writing career spanned more than 50 years. During those years, he published novels, stories, plays, essays, and criticism. Below are excerpts from his writings on fiction as a craft, as well as an excerpt from one of his best known novels, Washington Square.
Experience is never limited, and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider-web of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness, and catching every airborne particle in its tissue. It is the very atmosphere of the mind.
I know not whether it is owing to the tenderness of early associations, but this portion of New York [Washington Square] appears to many persons the most delectable. It has a kind of established repose which is not of frequent occurrence in other quarters of the long, shrill city; it has a riper, richer, more honorable look than any of the upper ramifications of the great longitudinal thoroughfare -- the look of having had something of a social history, It was here, as you might have been informed on good authority, that you had come into a world which appeared to offer a variety of sources of interest; it was here that your grandmother lived, in venerable solitude, and dispensed a hospitality which commended itself alike to the infant imagination and the infant palate; it was here that you took your first walks abroad, following the nursery-maid with unequal step, and sniffing up the strange odor of the ailanthus-trees which at that time formed the principal umbrage of the Square, and diffused an aroma that you were not yet critical enough to dislike as it deserved; it was here, finally, that your first school, kept by a broad-bosomed, broad-based old lady with a ferule, who was always having tea in a blue cup, with a saucer that didn't match, enlarged the circle both of your observations and your sensations.
Garth Wilkinson ("Wilky") James
b. New York, 1845; d. Milwaukee, 1883
Named after J.J. Garth Wilkinson, an English proponent of Emanuel Swedenborg's writings, which so greatly influenced Henry James Sr., Garth Wilkinson James -- known as Wilky -- was born in New York City in 1845, the third son of the illustrious intellectual James family. Wilky, however, was unlike his older brothers William and Henry. An undistinguished student and a writer only of letters, Wilky preferred a life of action. As a result, Wilky achieved some degree of Jamesian "greatness" and unquestioned admiration from his siblings and parents through his service in the Civil War. But his postwar life, although enhanced by a peaceful marriage, was marked by multiple failures and financial difficulties.
A Soldier Against Slavery
In a family that subscribed to the principles of abolition, Wilky was the most committed abolitionist of the lot, for whom the cause of emancipation became more than just a theoretical commitment to freedom and moral justice. As an impressionable adolescent, he, together with his younger brother Robertson ("Bob"), had been enrolled by their father at the Sanborn Academy in Concord, Massachusetts, whose headmaster, Francis Sanborn, was an ardent abolitionist.
Wilky's upbringing undoubtedly influenced his decision to enlist with the Union forces at the age of 17, eventually transferring to Col. Shaw's 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the first of two black regiments in the state and the first black regiment recruited in any free state. He participated heroically in the futile charge on Fort Wagner in South Carolina (dramatized in the film Glory), where he sustained serious injuries to his legs and feet, injuries which would plague him throughout the rest of his brief life.
Disillusionment Carries a Cost
Wilky cast about for purposeful activities after the war, eventually deciding to establish himself in Florida as part of the American Land Company and Agency, whose business plan was to send Northerners into the South to buy and operate plantations and to employ emancipated blacks as the main source of labor. The youngest James brother, Bob, accompanied him, although he gave up on the arduous task before Wilky did. Wilky persisted until 1867, running up a significant debt and losing a substantial amount of family money he had persuaded his father to invest.
After he acknowledged the Florida venture as a bust, Wilky drifted back to the family home in Boston, then traveled briefly to California with family friend Ralph Waldo Emerson and other notables. Finally he decided to join Bob in Milwaukee, where he married Caroline Cary in 1873 and became a father. He moved about from one business to another, but all were unsuccessful, and he continued to be plagued by ill health and financial difficulties for the rest of his life, mitigated to some extent by his wife's family money.
Betrayed and Disinherited
In the last months before his own death, Henry Sr. calculated that the family's losses in Wilky's Florida venture had been so great that he cut his then-terminally ill son out of his will, arguing that Wilky had already spent his part of the patrimony. He divided the remaining fortune equally among his other three sons, with property going to his daughter, Alice.
Wilky took his father's posthumous judgement hard. He was well aware that Henry Sr. had broken his own father's will to gain what he thought was his fair due. He also knew his original faith in humanity and his commitment to the cause of emancipation had been drawn in part from his father's teachings, which had inspired him to enlist for service in the war and had caused him to stay in Florida longer than was perhaps wise.
To his credit, Henry Jr., who had been named executor of the will and could benefit by it, saw the unfairness of his father's decision and persuaded William and the others to revise its terms to benefit Wilky and his children. A year later, in 1883, Wilky died in Milwaukee of Bright's disease. He was 38 years old.
Discouraged by his failed attempt to run a Florida cotton plantation after the Civil War -- thereby attempting to put his family's abolitionist values to work and not merely to the page -- Wilky wrote to his parents of his distress in 1868. The following is an excerpt from one of his existing letters.
I never appreciated home so much as I do now, and I never knew until this new year what it contained of upright, innocent, unprejudiced, unbiased human nature.... White men and negroes alike, whether they came from Massachusetts or South Carolina are all bent upon getting the best of each other.... Politically and privately, all men, with but few exceptions down here, are working for but one object, that of cheating everyone else in order to add a few dollars to their own possessions.
Robertson "Bob" James
b. Albany, 1846; d. Concord, Mass., 1910
The youngest of the four James brothers, Robertson James -- known as Bob throughout his life -- was appointed curator of the Milwaukee Art Museum in 1884. This position may have suited his artistic talents (he was an amateur painter for much of his life), but the scale of it was entirely too small for a worldly James: The Milwaukee Art Museum was located in the back of a photography store. Great expectations and diminished outcomes are prevailing motifs in the life story of Bob James: His Jamesian upbringing prepared him for greatness, but circumstances and his own emotional problems brought him low.
Walking in Wilky's Footsteps
Bob's early years and schooling were typical of that of the other James brothers. Born in Albany in 1846 and moved about from city to city and country to country, Bob received an inconsistent education. But he and brother Garth (known in the family as Wilky) shared one important educational influence their older brothers William and James and sister Alice missed: Henry Sr. sent both Bob and Wilky as adolescents to Concord Academy, whose headmaster, Franklin Sanborn, was an ardent abolitionist.
At the age of 16, Bob enlisted in the 55th Massachusetts Regiment, the second of the two black Civil War regiments formed in the state. His entry into the Union army followed on the heels of his brother Wilky's enlistment. But unlike Wilky, Bob would not distinguish himself in battle, and the family -- his father especially -- would think of him not as a war hero but as a layabout. Bob's undistinguished record was not his fault, however: His regiment saw little of the action of Wilky's, and sunstroke took Bob out of commission before a bullet could.
After the war, Bob followed Wilky to Florida, where the two combined entrepreneurship with continued abolitionist activism. To build their fortune, they attempted to operate a plantation worked by emancipated blacks. Bob quickly gave up on the Florida venture (Wilky would last for three years more) and struck out for the West, settling in Milwaukee, where he found work as a clerk with the railroad. In 1872, he married Mary Holton, the daughter of an extremely wealthy Milwaukee businessman. (Upon his death, Edward Holton left each of his three daughters a half-million dollars.)
A War with Alcohol
The relationship was volatile, with frequent separations and infidelity on Bob's part. Bob's chronic alcoholism, which had begun during his war service, exacerbated the situation. Bob drifted from one job to another, although Mary's personal wealth gave the couple financial security. In 1885, Bob returned to the East Coast, where he was tended to by his brother William and William's wife, Alice. He settled in Concord, Massachusetts, where he eventually got his drinking under control (helped, perhaps, by an intermittent five-year stay in a sanitarium in upstate New York).
Because of his drinking and other intemperate behavior, Bob is generally considered the least Jamesian of the Jameses. But he was not without artistic talents. In addition to painting, Bob wrote essays and poetry, publishing a poem, "The Seraph Speech," in William Dean Howells's Atlantic Monthly in 1885. In an autobiographical piece he wrote for his sister-in-law Alice, Bob lamented his ill fate at being born the younger brother of William and Henry and into a family where his talent appeared negligible.
Bob James died in Concord, Massachusetts, in 1910.
On February 24, 1898, from Dansville, New York, Bob James wrote his sister-in-law Alice Howe James a letter in response to her suggestion that he work on an autobiography. The following is an excerpt.
Down the palm of my left hand runs the so called line of Fortune and of Luck. Sufficiently defined is the line of the land, but badly broken. On the right palm the line not half so distinct and badly broken -- which signifies that Destiny of itself gave me bad fortune and that with my own right hand I made that Destiny worse. It would have to be the biography of broken fortunes.... More and more I take comfort in omens and portents and go to swell the ranks of those who lean on oracles. It is the return to childhood -- which would bring me back to 54 West 14th St. in N.Y. What a troop of figures come out of the shadows.... There are no end of figures which come and go in that New York house.... and then Boulogne-sur-Mer and the College Municipale and its stone vaulted ceiling where Wilkie [sic] and I went and failed to take prizes. But the day when the Mayor of the City distributed these I do remember... Around the mayor who stood on a platform with great civic splendor and officials in uniform, I see yet the fortunate scholars ascend the steps of his throne, kneel at his feet, and receive crown or rosettes, or some symbol of merit which we did not get. The luck had begun to break early! The only thing to say of it is that it was a beautiful and splendid childhood for any child to have had, and I remember it all now as full of indulgence and light and color and hardly a craving unsatisfied.
b. New York, 1850; d. London, 1892
Henry James wrote in a letter to his brother Robertson's daughter Mary James Vaux that "in our family group girls scarcely seem to have had a chance." Alice James was the one girl in the James family group, and her life bears witness to Henry's pronouncement. In 1853, three years after Alice's birth in New York, Henry James Sr. had written in an article on the "Woman's Movement": "The very virtue of woman... disqualifies her for all didactic dignity. Learning and wisdom do not become her." Alice's youth was marked by the same uprootedness as her brothers. In the family's travels between Europe and America, the boys attended a variety of schools -- the quality of which varied, but they received formal and organized education nonetheless. Alice's case was different. In America she attended several private schools for girls, but the education she received here was as much about female "accomplishments" as it was about academic study. In Europe, she attended no school at all, receiving instead desultory instruction in French and math from a series of governesses, but nothing consistent and nothing that would prepare Alice for an independent life away from her family.
The Affliction of Hysteria
The youngest of the five James children, Alice never married and lived with her parents until their deaths only months apart in 1882. After their deaths, Henry assumed much of the responsibility for his sister, seeing to her finances and health care. By this time, Alice had already suffered two major nervous and physical breakdowns, which would recur a number of times in the years following their deaths as well.
Alice James's medical history reads like a primer on Victorian psychiatric treatment. She traveled to New York for "therapeutic exercise" in 1866; she took the "rest cure" in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, in 1883; and she received electrical "massage" in New York from another doctor and in another clinic in 1884. In late 1884, Alice traveled to England with her companion, Katherine Peabody Loring, believing that a change of scene and circumstance would improve her health. For the next eight years, until her death from breast cancer, she suffered recurring bouts of what was diagnosed as hysteria, a systemic nervous and physical collapse occurring almost exclusively in leisured female patients (Not until World War I would "male hysteria" also be diagnosed, specifically in men returning from the horrors of battle. For a thoughtful exploration of the factors common to the experiences of both genders under such widely different circumstances, view the episode In Search of Ourselves from A Science Odyssey, available on PBS home video.
What Alice Knew
To identify the class and gender biases underlying the 19th-century diagnosis of hysteria in women is not to discount its reality or to dismiss the seriousness of its symptoms. As a number of feminist thinkers have argued in recent years, hysteria may well have resulted from the widespread suppression of women's energies and talents in the name of "femininity" and ladylike conduct. Alice James certainly recognized this, understanding her own collapses as the failure to control feelings of rage that were leveled primarily at the father who kept his daughter in the house, tied to him and removed from outside stimulation and outlets.
Alice did circulate to a small degree in the life of New England. As a young girl, she sewed bandages for the Newport Women's Aid Society during the first two years of the civil war. In 1868, she joined the Female Humane Society of Cambridge with her mother. Five years later, she embarked on a three-year engagement as a history teacher with the Society to Encourage Studies at Home, a national correspondence course for women based in Boston. But in her own correspondence, she tended to discount the importance of this work, focusing instead on her failure to marry or to have any prospects for marriage as the defining feature of these years.
A Posthumous Career
If Alice James during her lifetime lived a largely private and confined existence, she has become a feminist icon as a result of her posthumously published diary. For years, Alice had rejected (at least privately) her family's understanding -- or misunderstanding -- of her. Her breakdowns had only exacerbated this misunderstanding, giving her parents and brothers, especially the psychologist William, license to study her as a "collection of symptoms" rather than to view her as a human being. In 1889 in London, she began to keep a diary, in which she recorded her own understanding of herself. Seeking freedom through writing as her father and two of her brothers had done, Alice finally found her own words and her own voice in which to tell her own story.
Alice died in London of breast cancer in 1892. She entrusted the diary, for posthumous publication, to Katherine Loring. Henry James feared that the diary's gossip -- with recognizable names attached -- would endanger his own social standing and access if it were published. It was first published in 1934 (18 years after Henry's death) as a kind of tribute to Garth Wilkinson and Robertson James, the "lesser" of the James brothers, by Robertson's daughter, Mary James Vaux, who called it Alice James: Her Brothers -- Her Journal. The diary had been corrupted by a number of editorial excisions, and it was not until 1964 that Leon Edel, Henry James's biographer, published a restored version based on Katherine Loring's transcription of the original. Since then, Alice James has become a figure in her own right, viewed not only as a representative of Victorian womanhood and of the neuroses of her famous family but also as herself.
Susan Sontag's play about Alice James, called Alice in Bed, opened in New York in a new production in the autumn of 2000.
The following is the first entry in what will be posthumously published as The Diary of Alice James, edited by Leon Edel in 1964. The entry was written on May 31, 1889, only three years before her death from breast cancer at age 44.
I think that if I get into the habit of writing a bit about what happens, or rather doesn't happen, I may lose a little of the sense of loneliness and desolation which abides with me. My circumstances allowing of nothing but the ejaculation of one-syllabled reflections, a written monologue by that most interesting being, myself, may have its yet to be discovered consolations. I shall at least have it all my own way and it may bring relief as an outlet to that geyser of emotions, sensations, speculations and reflections which ferments perpetually within my poor old carcass for its sins; so here goes, my first Journal!
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