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 as a father was formed by his struggle with his own father, his strict and puritanical upbringing, and the matter of the will. As everyone knows, he devoted himself to bringing up a family in perfect intellectual freedom. But it is as if Grandfather William’s attitudes simply passed covertly on through the blood-stream, and when his namesake grandson tried to define himself and his vocation he was blocked, not by the original attitudes themselves but by his father’s ambivalence about them—which is worse, because more mystifying. A conflict “shrouded in vague benevolence,” as Feinstein calls it, is really more desperate than an open one. Simply defining it is the prime task, and it is not certain that William James ever succeeded in doing so.

His brother was more acute, as well as better endowed with the instinct to make a getaway from the whole entanglement. Of the gentle discouragement applied to every attempt at a career, he wrote: “What we were to do instead was just be something, something unconnected with specific doing, something free and uncommitted, something finer in short than being that, whatever it was, might consist of.” And Feinstein points out that though the sons of Henry Senior apparently knew little or nothing of the affair of the will, Henry James’s early novel Roderick Hudson contains a son embattled against a father “determined it should be no fault of his if the boy were corrupted by luxury,” and who is concerned with litigation over a will.

Swedenborgianism, itself chosen in reaction against the hell-fire puritanism of Henry Senior’s upbringing, was one of the other formative influences on the family philosophy, though perhaps it did no more than put a glaze on the original fiery pietism. No James scholar, so far as I know, has been brave enough to seriously tackle Henry Senior’s books on the subject, let alone the Swede’s monumental volumes. Its significance for Henry Senior was absolution from damning guilt; the gist of its message being that all is safely in the hands of a loving Father, who had no plan to sacrifice his only Son, and that sin is the result of demonic temptation rather than inborn corruption. The heavens stand prepared for any man who lives an honorable life. Feinstein sees Henry Senior’s famous “vastation” experience in 1844 as religious parable rather than a literal account of how melancholia seized him and Swedenborg saved him. He is not entirely convincing about this. An attack of religious depression was in fact prone to hit nineteenth-century sufferers suddenly and dramatically, as witness Tolstoy’s “night at Arzamas” and of course William’s own collapse, so extraordinarily like his father’s, in 1872. We might say that their defenses were greater yet more brittle than those of post-Freudians, more liable to sudden massive fracture. The fact that Henry Senior, William, and Henry Junior (in 1908, when he was sixty-five) all had similar dramatic collapses raises the interesting possibility of hereditary predispositions.


Feinstein takes up his main story of “becoming William James” at the time in 1860 when the nineteen-year-old wrote, “I have come to the conclusion that ‘Art’ is my vocation.” “Art,” Feinstein shows, must have seemed to Henry’s children to be the kind of noble, illustrious occupation one would do well to aspire to. He himself used the vague concept to justify his own lack of occupation; to scorn business pursuits and devote one’s life to amateur expositions of Swedenborgianism was “artistic.” Yet no sooner had William settled on his choice than the whole weight of paternal authority was set in motion to make him give it up—indeed, the family was transported wholesale to Europe, away from the drawing school.

He was, eventually, allowed to enroll there, but not surprisingly soon dropped out. Feinstein suggests that this may have been partly because Henry Senior at once began to have unexplained fainting spells and to talk about how much better off the family would be without him. William, at any rate, quit. Feinstein’s contention is that he never ceased to see art as the “murdered self” he should have been true to. “I envy ye the world of art,” he wrote to his brother later. “Away from it, as we live, we sink into a flatter, blanker kind of consciousness, and indulge in an ostrich-like forgetfulness of all our richest potentialities.” Later still, as he so successfully organized for himself the late career that used all his talents and reading and experience, he was to become much more patronizing to Henry. It seems unproven that on the basis of a slight talent for sketching he really yearned lifelong for the “vanquished possibility” of art.

Feinstein has the scoop of reproducing a number of sketches from William’s notebooks of around 1859–1860, when he was in his late teens. What is remarkable, as he points out, is their obsession with violence and anger: frightened men pursued by a charging elephant, another man in the embrace of a strangling bear, a giant crunching up a helpless human, a fight to the death between a group of swordsmen, the head of a corpse impaled on a spike. The remorselessness of the savage animal always stood for the dark side of the world to him. There is a peroration in The Varieties of Religious Experience in which he justifies the melancholic view of life as the accurate one:

To believe in the carnivorous reptiles of geologic times is hard for our imagination—they seem too much like mere museum specimens. Yet there is no tooth in any one of those museum-skulls that did not daily through long years of the foretime hold fast to the body struggling in despair of some fated living victim. Forms of horror just as dreadful to the victims, if on a small spatial scale, fill the world about us today. Here on our very hearths and in our gardens the infernal cat plays with the panting mouse, or holds the hot bird fluttering in her jaws. Crocodiles and rattlesnakes and pythons are at this moment vessels of life as real as we are; their loathsome existence fills every minute of every day that drags its length along; and whenever they or other wild beasts clutch their living prey, the deadly horror which an agitated melancholiac feels is the literally right reaction on the situation.

I feel justified in the luxury of quoting this splendid Jamesian passage because it embodies much of what he did succeed in becoming: masterly, stylish—and a man who left his father’s confused optimism behind to integrate within his work the point of view of the “agitated melancholiac” which he once actually was.


This author’s story, however, does not go on to that point of success; it ends just as James is taking his first steps to health and independence. Between his leaving art school and that time there were to be twelve years of sporadic study, vacillation, and illness. He completed medical school, but did not practice; went on an expedition to Brazil, and disliked it; went abroad for his health, and became suicidal. Feinstein has an interesting chapter on the uses of invalidism, both within the James family and in the New England society of the time; what is striking is that William’s and Henry Junior’s vague but incapacitating complaints were by no means unusual; many young men in their circle were prey to “neurasthenia,” breakdown, or mysterious ill-health. The language of the complaining body was by no means confined to women like Alice James. Feinstein touches too on the sad decline of the younger sons Bob and Wilky. It is extraordinary that while Henry Senior pulled every string possible to keep the two clever elder sons out of the Civil War, he enthusiastically sent his teen-agers into battle with many pious invocations.

In all this we know very little about Mary James. As has been pointed out in considering a family with so much crippling anxiety we can hardly ignore the role of the mother.* There is the tribute at her death from son Henry, who had spent his life staying away from her, that she was the most perfect and angelic of beings ever to have lived. There is the ambivalence in his books about powerful and mysterious women. There are quotations from letters about her daughters-in-law and grandchildren here that suggest she was both cold and shrewish. Like all the Jameses, she used the dreadful family habit of jocularity when she wanted to touch on hostility or anxiety. “My daughter a child of France!” she wrote to Alice when she heard she was enjoying herself abroad.

What has become of the high moral nature, on which I have always based such hopes for her for this world and the next? That you should so soon have succumbed to this assault upon your senses, so easily have been carried captive by the mere delights of eating and drinking and dressing, I should not have believed…. Indeed I see it all now, to be merely the effect of a little cerebral derangement produced by the supernatural effort you made in crossing the Channel.

William for his part would write mock letters of passionate love to his sister. It is noticeable that his mature style, even in letters, was almost free of this uneasy habit of raillery.

In a chapter of pregnant quotations from Henry Senior, Feinstein shows how during the years of William’s struggle to find a vocation, everything he showed an interest in became, for his father, the wrong thing. Art was after all not the answer. When William turned to science his father expressed doubts about its spiritual value; when the son showed an interest in philosophy (Henry Senior’s own field, in his opinion) he doubted the value of anything technical and irreligious and unlike his own version of it. Passionately concerned as he was about his sons’ choice of work, still attached to his own father’s work ethic, and tending to scold about every penny being wasted, he had himself never actually done a day’s work, in office or laboratory or studio. It was as though he were not really very anxious that his children should better him in this respect. As Feinstein says, William James “had to find his way through a labyrinth of contradictory paternal injunctions”—and a labyrinth of Calvinism and free thought, secrecy and openness, freedom and constraint.

The lowest point in these years in the wilderness, William’s breakdown point, came when he was thirty, in the famous “vastation” (Swedenborg’s word) that came upon him in so similar a fashion as his father’s had. Feinstein clears away myths here. James was not “cured” by reading Renouvier on free will, he argues; for one thing, he had probably known Renouvier’s work for some time, and for another he was to continue the struggle with anxiety and illness for some time. The famous statement that he would make it his first act of free will to believe in free will is perhaps too pat.

How then did he make his recovery? Perhaps, having reached the ultimate in terror and survived, he was freer to start an ascent back to health. Perhaps he had “worked through” the family confusions, got bored with them and ready to leave them behind; as in his illustration in The Principles of the will to get up in the morning—suddenly one finds oneself up. He read Wordsworth—presumably The Prelude, that unique account of the vital principle of life lost and refound. In particular, he found himself, through a lucky accident (aided, apparently, by Mrs. James’s string-pulling) actually doing a job he proved good at—teaching physiology at Harvard. Throughout his work he stresses the value of action as worth any amount of mental decision-making. Action saved him; he found it possible to do what his father had intimated as the impossible, i.e., work. From then on he worked from small strength to strength.

It is doubtful whether his twelve years between nineteen and thirty-one were really any more wasted than in the case of a present-day youth who spends them going through university, graduate school, a European backpacking trip, a psychoanalysis. Most of what James knew he learned in those years. His reading was more prodigious than any course prescribed by a university, and prepared him many times over for university posts. He spoke several languages, knew what it was to paint and write. Surviving his mental agonies was just what made him so acute, large-minded, and free of rigidity, able to see both with the healthy-minded and with the sick soul: one of the twice-born.

This Issue

May 31, 1984