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Death and the James Family

The Diary of Alice James

edited by Leon Edel
Dodd, Mead, 241 pp., $5.00

The Diary of Alice James makes exacting demands of those readers who are not content with sickroom gossip or a few random anecdotes about William and Henry, but who wish to arrive at a responsible evaluation of the diarist, and the intellectual or spiritual style with which she occupied her niche in the James family. The task is not easy because for most readers Alice James will not, on first acquaintance, seem an appealing personality. There is often an aggressive shrillness in her voice which, coupled with an overdeveloped frankness, is sometimes accompanied by a slightly sour smell. But even on the level of the jeering invalid, she can often rise to the delightful and the wittily just.

Reading her diary after her death, Henry James wrote to William that “she was really an Irishwoman.” He was not, one would guess, referring to her ardent devotion to Irish Home Rule, which is a frequent subject in these pages, but to certain mannerisms of speech and tone one suspects most readers today must find slightly distressing, and which might be described as a blend of self-irony and unpalatable whimsy. Perhaps it is this “Irishness” as much as the uneventfulness of an invalid’s life that persuades her to fill space with “funny” stories. Is is sometimes difficult to be amused:

A young man took his young woman to a restaurant and asked her what she would have to drink with her dinner. “I guess I’ll have a bottle of champagne.” “Guess again!” quoth he.

A woman was brought to the London hospital the other day with a very bad bite on her arm. The doctor asked whether she had been bitten by a dog. “No, sir, ‘twas another lydy did it.”

Nor is this quality of “Irishness” (if that is what it is) enhanced by her humorous habit of frequently substituting the pronoun me for the possessive my.

Alice James possessed an extraordinary moral courage, but one becomes aware of this slowly, and only as one nears the end of her diary, because it is often obscured by an intrusive stoicism and denigration of pain more nearly related to vanity and self-aggrandizement than anything else. The pulling of a tooth provides an occasion for this quality to be put on view:

The dentist seized my face in his two hands and exclaimed, “Bravo, Miss James!” and Katherine and Nurse shaking of knee and pale of cheek went on about my “heroism” whilst I, serenely wadded in that sensational paralysis which attends all the simple rudimentary sensations and experiences common to man, whether tearing of the flesh or of the affections, laughed and laughed at ‘em.

This pose of the doughty little woman who comes through without a fuss where strong men break causes one to remember with pleasure and gratitude those richly orchestrated epical moans of self-pity Coleridge was in the habit of posting to his friends whenever he was suffering from atonic gout, looseness of the bowels, or the pains of drug withdrawal. It is unpleasant in Alice James because it is perfectly self-conscious, and it falsifies the true courage that she really possessed. Furthermore, she seems not to have permitted her “stoicism” to get in the way of that petulance to which, as a chronic invalid, she may have felt herself entitled:

I am in a Porcupine fit with little Nurse—she is no more bewildered than I am and we both have simply to undergo it as one of the endless forms of moral dyspepsia. There is one comfort—she doesn’t suffer 100th of what I do.

Alice James is decidedly not an ingratiating woman to meet for the first time. If the character sketched in above represented the totality of her personality, one would find extenuating circumstances for her in her long illness and the restricted society to which it necessarily limited her, and leave her diary unreviewed. But as one continues to read, one becomes aware of a personality or mind behind the invalid’s capricious entries that only occasionally flashes through, but with a light so serene and fine that it sustains one across prickly pages until the signal lights again. During the last months of her illness when she knew she was dying of cancer, the signaling lights become almost a steady beam, until, on March 4, 1892, too weak to write, she laboriously dictated this final entry to her friend Katherine Loring:

I am being ground slowly on the grim grindstone of physical pain, and on two nights I had almost asked for K.’s lethal dose, but one steps hesitantly along such unaccustomed ways and endures from second to second; and I feel sure that it can’t be possible but what the bewildered little hammer that keeps me going will very shortly see the decency of ending his distracted career; however this may be, physical pain however great ends in itself and falls away like dry husks from the mind, whilst moral discords and nervous horrors sear the soul. These last, Katherine has completely under the control of her rhythmic hand, so I go no longer in dread. Oh the wonderful moment when I felt myself floated for the first time into the deep sea of divine cessation, and saw all the dear old mysteries and miracles vanish into vapour. The first experience doesn’t repeat itself, fortunately, for it might become a seduction.

Whatever earlier entries may have suggested of petulant stoicism or the vanity of invalidism has been replaced by a courage and serenity that is wholly authentic and perfectly faultless. One is reminded, reading this last entry, of the closing passage of Tolstoy’s story, The Death of Ivan Ilych. Both Alice James and Ivan Ilych, as they sink towards death, experience something similar. This consists of a triumph over pain which diminishes or qualifies the personality of the sufferer; there is a stripping off from the mind and heart of the irrelevancies and distorted images of worldly life, of neurotic fears, and false values; and this brings a sense of release and purification. For each, there is a sense of the imminent discovery of something unknown, perhaps even unknowable, but immensely desirable.

There is no point whatever in our asking what the nature of this discovery, if it is made at all, may be. The importance here is that the sense of death, being fully accepted and assimilated to the consciousness, virtually constitutes, for a mind like Alice James’s, a new and transcendent form in which to apprehend earthly existence and its inevitable termination. The last entry in the diary is greatly enriched and deepened in meaning if we read it in conjunction with an earlier entry, dated August 18, 1890—for it must not be supposed that the tone and attitude of the last entry developed overnight. I make no claim to philosophic competence, but it hardly requires special knowledge to find in the following passage a remarkable anticipation of the central belief of Heidegger (who was then one year old) that only in one’s profound and searching acceptance of the unavoidable “possibility” of one’s own death, which annihilates all other possibilities, can one achieve a dignified and authentic personal life and freedom. For Heidegger, this “consistent orientation towards death” has a transfiguring effect on one’s vision and knowledge, and consequent control, of existence. As one reads through Alice James’s diary, it appears that some such transfiguration, springing from her complete, almost loving, acceptance of her death, is in progress:

There has come such a change in me. A congenital faith flows thro’ me like a limpid stream, making the arid places green, a spontaneous irrigator of which the snags of doubt have never interrupted nor made turbid the easily flowing current. A faith which is my mental and moral respiration which needs no revelation but experience and whose only ritual is daily conduct. Thro’ my childhood and youth and until within the last few years, the thought of the end as an entrance into spiritual existence, where aspirations are a fulfilment, was a perpetual and necessary inspiration, but now, altho’ intellectually nonexistence is more ungraspable and inconceivable than ever, all longing for fulfilment, all passion to achieve has died down within me and whether the great Mystery resolves itself into eternal Death or glorious Life, I contemplate either with equal serenity. It is that the long ceaseless strain and tension have worn out all aspiration save the one for Rest! And also that the shaping period is past and one is fitted to every limitation through the long custom of surrender.

In the light of this perfect acceptance of death, Alice James’s life appears gradually to have assumed a proportion, a dignity, and a beauty it would not otherwise have had. Through the later pages of her diary we often find her using her suffering and her dissolution as a frame within which to experience and express those feelings and values that she seems to have felt more intensely, and in a new way, under the radiance of her sense of death. In a late entry, she transforms the malignant cancer in her breast into an almost shocking, yet strangely beautiful metaphor for her friendship with Katherine Loring:

As the ugliest things go to the making of the fairest, it is not wonderful that this unholy granite substance in my breast should be the soil propitious for the perfect flowering of Katherine’s unexampled genius for friendship and devotion. The story of her watchfulness, patience and untiring resource cannot be told by my feeble pen, but all the pain and discomfort seem a slender price to pay for all the happiness and peace with which she fills my days.

If, in all this, one catches existentialist overtones, it is still to her own remarkable family that one must relate her. The James family was much possessed by death, but with them it carried no mortuary sentiment or gloom. The family’s attitude doubtless had its origin in the theology of the father, Henry James, Senior. As with William Blake, the theology of the elder James, developed through more than a dozen published volumes, represents an original and independent improvisation on certain central tenets of Swedenborg. As every one knows, Blake saw the soul of his younger brother rise from his deathbed clapping his hands for the joy of his release. If this never happened to the elder James one is almost tempted to believe it is only because all his children outlived him. For both Blake and James, Senior, the individual identity was not separable or distinct from God. In his expository introduction to The Literary Remains of the Late Henry James, William James gives as succinct a description as possible of his father’s concept of the individual self:

The theology that went with all this was the passionate conviction that the real creature of God—human nature at large, minus the preposterous claims of the several selves—must be wholly good. For is it not the work of the good God, or rather the very substance of the good God, there being nought beside?

Unfortunately, in this world man constructs for himself a false selfhood, which he nourishes and sustains by his lust for self-righteousness, power, social prestige, possessions, and so on, and he hides in this false selfhood from the Divinity in himself, and from that freedom and spontaneity that is the very presence and life of God in his soul. To acknowledge this Divine life in himself would be to deny his absolute separateness, which is the illusion cherished by the false selfhood. As William James pointed out, although his father was by no means a complete Monist, the system he developed was almost Monistic, for “it makes of God the one and only active principle,” while the individual self “has no positive existence, being really naught, a provisional phantom-soul breathed by God’s love into mere logical negation.” It is obvious that in such a system which undervalues individuality as that term is commonly understood, the fact of death would receive a radically new and different emotional evaluation. The termination of a merely “provisional phantom-soul” is something quite different from the death of a substantive selfhood.

Apparently none of the children accepted the theological faith of their father, but they all appear to have been immersed in an attitude towards death that was contingent on it. In January, 1882, Mrs. James died, and Bob, the youngest son, has left a vivid picture, in one of his letters, of the James household in bereavement:

We have been all educated by Father to feel that death was the only reality and that life was simply an experimental thing and for this reason it may be that it is why we have taken Mother’s going as such an orderly transition. None of us would recall her for we feel that we are more near to her now than ever before, simply because she is already at the goal for which we all cheerfully bend our steps.

…The last two weeks of my life have been the happiest I have known…

Before that year was over, the elder James also died. William was in London then, and during his father’s last illness he wrote him his final letter which, tender and compassionate, yet strikes that note that always slightly astonishes the ear when one of the Jameses speaks of death:

Darling old Father…We have been so long accustomed to the hypothesis of your being taken away from us, especially during the past ten months, that the thought that this may be your last illness conveys no very sudden shock. You are old enough, you’ve given your message to the world in many ways and will not be forgotten; you are left alone, and on the other side, let us hope and pray, dear, dear old Mother is waiting for you to join her. If you go it will not be an inharmonious thing…

His father was dead by the time William’s letter arrived, and Henry wrote to his brother:

I went out yesterday (Sunday) morning to the Cambridge cemetery…I stood beside his grave a long time and read him your letter of farewell—which I am sure he heard somewhere out of the depths of the still bright winter air. He lies extraordinarily close to Mother, and as I stood there and looked at this last expression of so many years of mortal union, it was difficult not to believe that they were not united again in some consciousness of my belief…

The concluding line of Henry James’s letter is an early statement of a theme he was to strike again more insistently in his strange story “The Altar of the Dead.” This story is often condemned because it appears to exploit religious ritualism without the sanctions of religious faith. It is in fact very easy to be puzzled about James’s intention in telling this story of a man who (without a religion at all, one gathers) endows an altar in a Catholic church so that he may keep perpetual candles burning there to commemorate each friend who dies. Over the years until his own death, the shrine with its radiant candles becomes the scene of his meditation and the source of spiritual peace to him.

This is indeed a precarious theme, carrying as it does a note of religiose aestheticism; but in view of the attitude towards death in the James family, it is far less dangerous artistically than one might suppose. “My being,” wrote the elder James, “…lies, in fact, in honestly identifying myself with others.” Because God was incarnated in all men who had broken down their false selfhoods, the Divine-Natural Humanity in which he believed was, from one point of view, communal in nature. To say that in “The Altar of the Dead” James was concerned with celebrating a miracle of consciousness, a vital community with the dead in the thought of the living, is perfectly true, but it was a habit of thought, a point of view, that had been engendered in him in his youth in the house of his father, and it did not require a belief in his father’s theology for him to persist in it. The best descriptive definition of James’s meaning in “The Altar of the Dead” I have ever come across is, rather oddly, in an expository essay not on Henry James but Sartre. The commentator is paraphrasing an argument from L’Etre et le néant:

…dying has no future open to phenomenological inspection; not having a future, it is denied the possibility of having that significance that always accrues to human action. Indirectly, however, there is a future to my death, a future that is not for me but for others. On the occasion of my death, my entire life is past. But the past is not a nonbeing; it is, on the contrary, in the mode of the in-itself. In and by itself the in-itself is without meaning, but the in-itself that is my past may have meaning bestowed upon it by other human beings who are therefore cast in the role of the guardians of my life.

If this is the real meaning of “The Altar of the Dead,” as I think it is, it is a meaning Henry James shared with Alice James, and it seems quite possible to me that the suggestion for his story may have come from her diary. At the end of May, 1894, James received a copy of his sister’s diary from William James, which he then read for the first time. When he speaks in The Notebooks of “The Altar of the Dead” in the early autumn of that same year, his thoughts may well have started from the following entry, dated August 13, 1890:

As they drop off, how we bury ourselves, bit by bit, along the dusty highway to the end! The especial facets of our being which turned towards each one will nevermore be played upon by the rays which he gave forth. How darksome then the last stages if we have not made our own his individual and inextinguishable radiance, to warm the memory and illuminate the mind.

However that may be, in Alice James’s diary the particular consciousness of death which she inherited from her father, and which was fostered in the bosom of the James family, divested in her of theological sanctions, renewed itself in a form of radical acceptance that impresses one as peculiarly contemporary. As for Ivan Ilych, so for Alice James, the process of dying was a process of concentration, of divesting oneself of the inessential—as her father might have said, of escaping from the artificial selfhood. In one of the last entries in her diary she writes:

One sloughs off the activities one by one, and never knows that they’re gone, until one suddenly finds that the months have slipped away and the sofa will never more be laid upon, the morning paper read, or the loss of the new book regretted; one revolves with equal content within the narrowing circle until the vanishing point is reached, I suppose.

Vanity, however, maintains its undisputed sway, and I take satisfaction in feeling as much myself as ever, perhaps simply a more concentrated essence in this curtailment…

The language and imagery in which she speaks of death often has a quality that makes one think of Emily Dickinson, whose 1890 volume of poems she read and admired. She speaks of “Magnificent Death,” and hearing of the death of one of Henry’s friends, she invents a conceit that reminds one of the poet:

I ne’er saw the youth, but I wonder if we shan’t soon meet in that “twilight land,” swooping past each other like Vedder’s ghosts. Will he pause and ask: “What is your name?” And shall I say, “I do not know, I only died last night”…?

In December, 1915, as Henry James collapsed from his first stroke that preceded his death in the following February, he heard a voice in the room saying: “So here it is at last, the distinguished thing!” The final effect of the diary on one’s imagination is to make one believe it must have been the ghost of Alice, come back to reassure and congratulate her favorite brother on the threshold of his absolute moment.

Letters

Letters December 17, 1964

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