The Father: A Life of Henry James, Sr.
by Alfred Habegger
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 578 pp., $30.00
Seen in isolation, the author of The Father says, the life of Henry James Senior “moves like a vessel guided by its own internal gyroscopes”; in the context of other lives, he seems “one of a million corks companionably bobbing on immense swells.” This is the joy of good biography: it shows, as far as it ever can, how a unique person lived, but also that even the most unconventional life is conditioned, unaware, by those immense swells of contemporary thought. And good biography balances the two: The Father is as much a study of nineteenth-century religious aspirations as the life of an eccentric and interesting man. And of course its title tells what else it is: a close examination of the back-ground of two extraordinary sons. As well as throwing a flood of light on their development, it is a rare case study of something we ought to know more about: how families work. (Except, of course, that, in nineteenth-century fashion, the central family figure here is a blank: the mother.)
Professor Habegger, as author of Henry James and the ‘Woman Business,’ was already deep in Jamesiana; The Father is bold and witty as well as widely researched, incorporating many new minutiae. He starts from the arrival in the United States of—since most James males were either William or Henry, this is difficult—the man he calls William of Albany, as it were the founder of a royal line. It was the 1790s, and this Irish grandfather of the William and the Henry was dead long before they were born, but he worked powerfully on them through the medium of their father, his seventh child, Henry. William of Albany was a strong, severe, successful man who amassed a fortune; he died when his son was twenty-one, leaving him racked with guilt and determined (as so often) to be a completely different kind of father when his own time came. But, as also is often the case, the imprint of a forceful ancestor hung around, and confused Henry Senior’s attempt to bring his children up in perfect liberty. If, as Henry the novelist said, these children “lived and breathed contradictions” throughout their upbringing, this was often because William of Albany’s spectral voice was booming louder than his son’s.
Henry the novelist also said in his A Small Boy and Others that the family background was a “chronicle of early deaths, arrested careers, broken promises, orphaned children”—but without much further elaboration. Habegger does go further and calls Henry Senior and his family “a small band of survivors who, through great effort and by drawing on what was darkest in their lives, turned catastrophe into achievement.” The very checkered early career of Henry Senior is not outlandish in the context of alcoholism, eccentricity, and breakdown in his family network. He was not only a cork bobbing on the swells of nineteenth-century ideas; he also bobbed on a very rough family sea. So much predetermination: yet no one …