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The Wild Man

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 ever tried harder to find his own internal gyroscope, to hack out a way of living and thinking that was absolutely his own.

Habegger gives full emphasis to the truly awful thing that shaped Henry’s teen-age years. Everyone knows that the James father was one-legged, following an early accident, but he (and his sons) said so strikingly little about it that it could be forgotten. Nevertheless, as Habegger so forcefully says, what happened to him “reeked of turpentine, burned flesh, blood, pus, rot, agony, guilt, and endless waiting, and its fluids soaked so deeply into the folds of the boy’s mind that he was permanently altered.”

Habegger has disentangled fact from myth here; so try this on a teen-ager you know. A thirteen-year-old gets a badly burned leg from a rather brave attempt to put out a fire. For nearly four years it stays unhealed, keeping the boy at home and mostly in bed. If he has the chance, he gets drunk. Every so often the doctor calls and cuts bits of flesh away with a small, sharp knife. Eventually black spots appear on the leg, and the doctor is called to the house again. At twelve o’clock noon the boy is held down and his leg is sawn off above the knee; it takes six minutes. Arteries and tendons are sewed up. But the stump does not heal. A few days later he is held down again and another piece of the leg is sawn off, higher up.

James had been brought up in the cruel Presbyterianism of his northern Ireland forebears, and Habegger makes it clear that the sense of doom and guilt and repentance was never really expunged in spite of a lifetime of trying to outwit it. He makes us imagine what the long and unjust punishment of his illness must have felt like to the boy. When the ordeals were finally over he plunged pretty quickly into what would be considered now normal adolescent misbehavior—failing grades, drinking, for a time quitting college and home. He did graduate, but when his father died—early, only four years after the amputation—he was already firmly established as a black sheep of the family.

William of Albany’s will, which made this clear, must have been a cruel hurt. Those nineteenth-century wills, those strikes from beyond the grave! Out of all his children by three wives, only one, Augustus or Gus, was singled out as satisfactory; he got partnership in the businesses, the rents from the huge real-estate holdings, and double as much for his children as was allowed any of the other grandchildren. He was also made executor, with power over his siblings. If any of the boys led a “grossly immoral, idle or dishonorable life” they could be cut out; the girls only had to fail to behave “dutifully and affectionately” to lose their marriage settlements. Of all the children, Henry was assigned the smallest legacy.

It was too crushing a will for a Trollope novel, though Dickens might have handled it. The actual wording was that the “power herein conferred of punishing idleness and vice and of rewarding virtue…shall be carried into execution with rigid impartiality, sternness and inflexibility.” Spend a lifetime fighting that! In fact, in his time William of Albany’s son Henry was to leave a will that was almost as unfair to his five children as their grandfather’s had been.

As this will was also particularly unjust to the widow, it went lengthily to law and in the end Henry did get more. There was in any case plenty of money, and unless he had been actually disinherited he would always have had enough. It must have been the finality of the judgment on him that hurt—and only a few years after his father had so supported him through his dreadful operations. As Habegger says, Henry’s collapse at this point followed the paradoxical combination of being singled out as pariah and at the same time not ever needing to work again. He threw up his law studies and his own account of the next few years is that his “decline was rapid. I fell in with professional gamblers, and became demoralized pretty generally. I scarcely ever went to bed sober, and lost my self-respect almost utterly.”

In New York State in the 1830s a strict temperance movement was afoot for the first time, and Henry threw himself into this early version of Alcoholics Anonymous. It was a benign swell for this particular cork to float on. With temperance he whole-heartedly took on religion again, and in one or another form never left it—his son William was to say after his father’s death that the one message his father’s life had summed up was that religion was real. But again, the decision was not without context: Habegger recounts that religious conversion was so widespread in upper New York State in the early 1830s that it was known as the “burned-over district.” (Henry had indeed been burned over already, and was to be again some ten years later.)

The new evangelism meant cries and groans and fervent praying, long, spontaneous preaching, and even an “Anxious Bench,” where sinners could choose to sit—a useful idea that might be brought back. Henry prayed fervently and read the Scriptures, examined his conscience to extirpate every emotion but “complete benignity towards my kind” (early training in the attitude that made his daughter brood about throwing something at him), and in 1835 enrolled in the Princeton Theological Seminary. He made formal application for admission to a Presbyterian church and so returned to the stringent piety of his upbringing. He declared a horror of Catholics and Spiritualists; Habegger comments that William the psychologist’s interest in psychical research and Henry the novelist’s Turn of the Screw demonstrate “a traditional Protestant demonology” transforming itself into “a primitive kind of psychiatry.” But this is off-target! Neither William’s psychiatry nor Henry’s psychology was primitive.

During Henry’s nearly two years at the seminary he was the devoutest of Presbyterians, cleaving to the demoralizing doctrine that faith, not works, is the only hope of salvation. Be good, do good, and it will help you not at all; and even if your faith is total, you hang pretty helplessly on divine mercy. Then even this was not rigorous enough for him; in 1837, responsive in part to another contemporary trend, he dropped out and joined an obscure congregation inspired by the Scotsman Robert Sandeman. Sandeman’s was one of the many movements by which a religion reaches back to its austere beginnings: all clericalism and all ritual were judged corrupt, all doctrines superfluous except the depravity of man and the authority of Scripture.

Henry was able to drop the prospect of being a working clergyman, and to enjoyably submit himself to yet another American-Puritan torture chamber. There was never anything slow or patient about his conversions; there had to be thunder and lightning. Habegger points out that the sons evidently knew nothing about these years of their father’s between quitting the seminary and marriage in 1840. Yet the moralism that menacingly flavored their liberal upbringing, William’s fascination with conversion, and Henry Junior’s with secrets point back to all the years of Calvinism. And one of its tenets that remained with their father was the denial of personal, selfish feeling—personal feeling being the subject that each of the elder sons in his way was to specialize in. In this the sons, too, were bobbing on a turn-of-the-century swell, as well as responding to parental currents they were scarcely aware of. The concept of will was so central to all three of them—and yet looking at the family labyrinths one might wonder where free will ever gets a toehold!

Puritanism was on both sides of the family, for Henry met his future wife at a tiny “Primitive Christian” community that congregated in Canal Street in New York. Our ignorance about Mary James is even more appalling than it is about most wives and mothers of the period. Many ordinary women of the nineteenth century come through to us as real people, but on Mary James we have only the hot air about her perfections that was spouted on her death, and the fact that she (or the achievement of marriage) settled Henry considerably. Hardly a joke, or a quarrel, or an eccentricity, or even a hair style, is attributed to her. We are left to conclude that perhaps she was not very interesting, or very clever, or very nice—which may be grossly unfair. We know that there was somebody there, because Henry Senior pined away after her death, and Henry Junior was much preoccupied by powerful, controlling women.

The first two sons were born to the couple in New York in the early Forties, while Henry was continuing the lifelong religious project by giving his first lectures, meeting Emerson (a whole subject in itself), and organizing the Euro-American way of life for his family that was later divided between his two elder sons. He was in England in 1844 with wife and children when the crisis that he called his “vastation” happened.

Anyone with knowledge of the James family will know about the moment when Henry James Senior, sitting comfortably after a good dinner, fell headlong into a pit of terror which changed his whole life; and about the fact that his son William at the age of thirty had a horrific panic attack of the same sort; and that Henry Junior’s breakdown in 1910 involved the same sort of crash into bottomless fear. Most people don’t experience these things; with the James family history to scrutinize, one wonders whether there could be a genetic basis for such extreme experiences of reality dislocation. Henry Senior, dismissive of all introspection and “feeling,” had no real idea why it happened to him, but Habegger makes good sense of the incident. Henry was far from home; it was the same time of year that they had cut his leg off; a “fetid” shape that he felt staring at him was both the rotting leg and the long-agonized conscience about his father; a “meticulously constructed and tended inner ice palace” had finally cracked. Conversion backward, a somersault into hell.

Henry was cured partly by time and marriage, partly by the application of wet towels, and partly by Emanuel Swedenborg. Habegger is evidently less interested in the extraordinary Swedenborg than in American theological movements, but we can see that the Swede provided Henry with the reassurance that he needed. God was not a cruel Calvinist father who sacrificed his son. Sin was not deep inside the man, it was wafted about by spirits; Swedenborg knew, because he had talked to them.

The hand-crafting of the James religion went on after the vastation was assimilated, and included a phase of Fourierism and an eventually embarrassing one of free-love preachment; but as the narrative proceeds, it inevitably begins to be more the story of the background of William the Psychologist and Henry the Novelist. Habegger’s meticulous unraveling of the elder Henry’s life up to the birth of his children has already provided all the material to understand how it was that these children had to eat and drink contradictions—a diet that only two of them were able to thrive on. They had, Habegger says, to “learn to live with paradox, to convert the literal into the symbolic, to turn themselves inside out”; they had to “develop their own mechanisms for holding this man at a distance.” Their education, as they were shuttled from school to school and country to country, was planned as perfect freedom and the opposite of their father’s own; yet they were subject to a man who monitored and counteracted their every thought and movement. They were to be offered the whole world to choose from—but then the satisfaction of personal desire was, as younger son Bob was told, “precisely our conception of the devil.” The twists and turns of James Senior’s thought were more the record of a life therapy than a comprehensible philosophy. He was, it was agreed, “wonderful”—affectionate, talkative, not like other fathers. But the remark that young Henry famously made to young Alice—that “this might certainly be called pleasure under difficulties”—could apply to their whole family life.

There was no question of treating all children in the family alike. William was unambiguously the chosen one, though driven to the edge of breakdown by his father’s attitudes toward his attempt to choose a career, as Howard M. Firestein spells out in Becoming William James (1984). Henry Junior was summed up as sweet, not very bright, and his mother’s favorite; he made a getaway. The three younger children were, so to speak, extras.

While Henry Senior was pulling every string to keep his two elder boys out of war service, Bob and Wilkie were sent off at the ages of sixteen and seventeen to fight for the Union cause. When Wilkie was brought home on a stretcher, his father gave him a lecture on the text of “The Lord is my shepherd.” Yes, the boy said, but when I was lying on the ground wounded, a man without a jaw crawled across and poured blood all over me. We don’t know what his father said, though he wrote in a letter that it “made me realize some of the horrors of this dreadful war.” In other letters he mocked gently his son’s insistence that the black troops he fought with were as fine soldiers as the white. Both younger sons died early, though not too soon to be outraged by a paternal will in which, as his own father had done, Henry Senior discriminated against them.

And Alice? For her there was even less on offer. Habegger’s account shows how biased even by the standards of the time James’s view of the sexes was. An opponent of women’s suffrage, he had described woman in an early article as man’s “inferior in passion, inferior in intellect, and inferior in physical strength.” It was in fact this delightful inferiority that made her so appealing to man. And “no woman had a right to be plain,” he had ineffably said in a lecture; “her nature entitles her to be beautiful only.” Alice was plain. Her brother William’s grotesquely flirtatious letters home can only have increased her misery, as she learned to “peg away” at ” ‘killing myself,’ as someone calls it—absorbing into the bone that the better part is to clothe oneself in neutral tints, walk by still waters, and possess one’s soul in silence.” A tougher feminine voice from outside the family circle gives her own view of the “wonderful” patriarch: Uncle’s philosophic talk, cousin Minny Temple wrote, was neither “reasonable nor consoling,” was in fact “ignoble and shirking” and “didn’t give me the least comfort or practical help & seemed to me wanting in earnestness & strength.”

For this and many reasons one does come rather to dislike the subject of The Father as one follows him through his middle and later years. It is much easier to empathize with the tormented and defiant young man than with the one described by a colleague as “a little fat, rosy Swedenborgian amateur, with the look of a broker, & the brains & heart of a Pascal.” The price of giving up drink and despair was a certain complacence, bossiness, and invulnerability. Hypocrisy over the years had become a comfortable way of life. Possibly Habegger himself loses some sympathy with the older James; as the problems of the growing family are sympathetically examined, James becomes “the crazed old man,” “the wild old man.” But Habegger always balances judgment with sympathy, as well as scholarliness with intuition; all in all, not just an addition to Jamesiana here, but an immensely searching study of how time and place and person interact on one another.

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