Becoming William James

by Howard M. Feinstein
Cornell University Press, 377 pp., $24.95

William James
William James; drawing by David Levine

“Henry’s brother”: in Britain this is still how William James is seen. For was not Henry really Europe’s—ultimately and benignly and oh, so splendidly a British citizen? In the United States William James’s stature is, I would suppose, different, and attracts the attention of academics and biographers. But does he yet have the importance that he should have? In a recent book Jacques Barzun asked why his face never appears on an American stamp, when many less eminent people make the grade. The fact is that psychology is such a shoddy and fashion-ridden discipline that yesterday’s heroes are blanked out, scarcely even worth a laugh for their fuddy-duddyness; as for philosophy, people don’t very much care. And it has yet to be recognized that hidden in The Principles of Psychology and The Varieties of Religious Experience is a tremendous autobiography. With James one is drawn continually to the biographical, to the drama of his extraordinary family. Possibly there is no family, famous or not, whose workings we are so near to getting the hang of.

Howard M. Feinstein has gone several steps forward in showing us the James family as it was, stripping away myths and revealing new material. Becoming William James is earnest rather than elegant, but it is painstakingly researched and for once such labor really does uncover things new and interesting. Feinstein’s intelligent idea is to go right back, from our William James, via Henry Senior, to an earlier William—the psychologist’s grandfather. Tracing with him the connections between the three, one wonders why the influence of the grandparent is so ignored by Freudians and everyone else. William James—our William James—never met his paternal grandfather, but he was indubitably a force in shaping the grandson’s life.

Grandfather William James was a poor Ulsterman who made his fortune by hard work and business sense in America. He wanted a son to succeed him in business, but Henry Senior (father of William and Henry) was a rebellious, unsettled boy, crippled of course by the childhood accident that cost him his leg, and fond of drink. In mid-rebellion, at twenty-one, his father died and he found himself cut out of his will. This at least is how Feinstein puts it, and makes it a key to Henry Senior’s character, but there is a lack of precision here about detail. It seems—it is not quite clear—that the will tied the capital up in a twenty-one-year trust fund which left everyone, including the widow, short of money. A brother, admittedly, was favored over Henry Senior by being appointed trustee and left some capital assets, but it is not quite the situation of a black sheep denied his family portion. At any rate, fourteen years of trust-busting litigation followed, and Henry Senior was married and a father before he became a securely rich—and idle—man.

Whatever the exact testamentary situation was, clearly Henry Senior’s odd character…

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