The Jameses

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FEBRUARY 12, 1936

The Jameses


There are biographies that seem compelled to inflate their subject, and others that engage in debunking their subject’s reputation. It is a pleasure to find a person whose life is so well worth writing as that of William James—one case of biography where it would not occur to anyone that either course is necessary. Again, there are biographies in which the subject is sacrificed to an account of the environment in which he lived and there are others that follow the reverse course. As Mr. Perry remarks in his foreword, the life and mind of James were interwoven with their context, and hence in his case no such separation or sacrifice has been necessary. If Mr. Perry has been extraordinarily happy in his choice of subject, it is also true that it has been the fortune of William James to find a biographer who is remarkably successful in permitting James not only to speak for himself but to be himself. An unforgettable figure emerges.

Because his life was so one with his mind and character, and these, in turn, were so interwoven with a rich and varied environment in Europe and America, and because James gave his vivid personality such free expression in friendships (involving voluminous letter writing), the resulting picture of the James family and of their friends, associates and correspondents is by far the best portrayal of the American Golden Age that has been drawn. One wonders, and with a certain sadness, whether there are or have been for many years in America such groups as are brought before us from both the New York and the Boston-Cambridge residence of the James family.

That the family as a family emerges as the center and focus of all the intellectual and moral interweavings with the environing “context” is what was to be expected. Yet the intimacy and vitality of the family connections were such that only a complete record like the present one could bring it fully home. The clearness and vigor with which the personality of Henry James Sr. stands forth is one of the triumphs of Mr. Perry’s record. It would not be true to say that he almost eclipses his distinguished children. But it is true that we have a constellation which without the presence of the father would be something wholly other than the system that now shines so brilliantly.

The growth of William James’s interests, his incomparably free and rich education at home and in his travels and residence abroad, his attempt at the career of the painter, his shifts to medicine, physiology, psychology and philosophy—these are portrayed in a masterly way. So is the development of his leading ideas in psychology and philosophy, with just enough comment from the editor to clear up dark spots, the editor’s unobtrusive mastery of all relevant material serving to bind details into a whole. In most respects, this material rounds out and completes the picture already drawn in letters previously published, in the reminiscences of his brother Henry, and his own psychological and philosophical writings. By contrast, it is the account of his father and his father’s influence that possesses the greatest novelty, for even the fairly informed reader. Moreover, the wealth of materials, in records of personal contacts and of ideas, is so vast that anything like an adequate review is out of the question. This fact, then, is an added reason for selecting the intellectual and moral connection of William James with his father for special consideration.

It would, indeed, be a simple (and a gratifying) matter to occupy my entire space with selections from the exuberant outpourings of the father, which are as pointed and often as stinging as they are richly unconstrained. Such an anthology would go far to account for the literary style of William James; it would be impossible to find any course of “literary” and stylistic education equaling the years spent by the latter within the hearing of his father’s conversations. I confine myself to a few instances. There is Carlyle, “the same old sausage, fizzing and sputtering in his own grease”; there is Hawthorne seen, in James’s delighted imagination, returning from a banquet at which he had declined to be a conversational lion, and falling on his knees to “ask his heavenly father why it was that an owl couldn’t remain an owl and not be forced into the dimensions of a canary”; there is his summoning up of the character of the English, too long to quote (found on pages 123-4 of Vol. I ) . There is his summary of the side of Emerson he did not like (on pages 96 7).

But this influence of the father upon the son’s mode of speech is only the outer side of a deeper influence, one that I think is at the heart of all the deeper philosophical insights of William James—in spite of the obvious gap that separates his formulations from the Swedenborgian-Fourierism of his father, differences typified perhaps in the fact that, while theological systematization was the key to everything in the mind of the father, the son had great interest in the “varieties of religious experiences” (practically all on the same level of worth provided they were genuine experiences) and practically none in theology.

I find the key to the continuity of the son’s thought with that of the father suggested, if only in some dimly felt analogy, in a letter written in 1873 by Henry James Sr., who expressed his shame that he should feel so much more keenly the sufferings of members of his own family than those of the rest of humanity. Coming from most persons, this feeling would seem to be sheer sentimentalism or Pecksniffian hypocrisy. But such traits are completely foreign to the character of the elder, as to that of the younger James. So when he goes on to say that he learned through the experience of the illness of his children to be willing “to ask for the amelioration of their lot only as a part of the common lot,” and that the one thing to be desired is “reconciliation of the individual and the universal interest in humanity,” I think we may assume we are at the heart of his thought. There is the same idea expressed here in a serious way that he expressed in a characteristically humorous way when he said that a crowded Cambridge street car was the nearest thing to heaven to be found on earth.

There is, of course, an apparent contradiction between son and father on this important point. The father felt himself justified in arriving at the individual only through the conception of the unity of humanity; the son’s regard and esteem for humanity was derived wholly from his profound sense of the basic reality of the individuals who compose it. But I think the contradiction is only apparent or at best formal and dialectical. The son began where the father left off. He did not need the intellectual apparatus by which the father reached his conclusion as to the worth of individuality. He started with it as a fact and as the fact of which he was most certain when doubts arose as to all else.

The pluralism of James, his indeterminism, his relentless opposition to absolutes and dogmatisms, all had their source in this basic idea of individuality that underlay all of William James’s thinking. There is nothing new in this statement and I do not suppose anyone would question it. What the volumes before us have taught me in addition to this fact is how acutely and deeply this idea bears the impress of his father’s character and thought.

To one who has not taken into account William James’s profound, unremitting and sincere sense of the ultimate nature and value of individuality, the philosophy of James will always remain a closed book. In some of his later writings, James said that the proper title for his essay called “The Will to Believe” was “The Right to Believe”—a right that existed in certain cases, namely, those momentous in issue and where objective evidence is inconclusive. To my mind this “right to believe” was an expression of James’s sense of the indefeasible worth of individuality and its right to its own expression. Many sayings of James’s that are superficially capable of interpretation as mere concessions of a compromising (if not a time-serving) sort to the ideas of others have their root, I am sure, in this same sense of the ultimate right of individuals to be themselves and to have their own ideas—provided only they are sincere. If he sometimes overstepped the mark, it was because he tended to impute to others the same sincerity that marked his own beliefs. He was always saying in effect, “How can I claim a right to my own ideas unless I grant the same right to others?”

If I may introduce a personal recollection in this connection, I recall the enthusiasm with which James greeted an essay in which Schiller developed the idea that an Absolute might be the culminating climax toward which things tend. My own enthusiasm being somewhat less, James added: “Oh, I don’t myself need the conception of an Absolute at the end any more than at the beginning, but there are many who can’t get along without the Absolute in some form.” This remark suggests that quality which laid James open to accusations that are completely removed from his life and character. But James himself had achieved, along with an acute and penetrating insight into intellectual sham and pretense when they are elaborately formulated, the kind of spiritual innocence which his father thought the ultimate goal, in connection with his feeling for the rights of others.

I may seem to have got away from the volumes that are my nominal subject; in a way I have. But volumes of sixteen hundred pages that record a full and vivid career lived in a richness of context most of us can only dream about, elude conventional literary notice in any case. Anyone who reads these volumes with the spiritual continuity of father and son in mind will see clearly many things that otherwise may escape him. The grandfather, “William of Albany” had no misgivings with respect to forming the character and beliefs and dictating the conduct of his children. The father, Henry Sr., found himself in complete revolt. He wrote: “Accordingly as you inconsiderably shorten the period of infantile innocence and ignorance in the child, you weaken his chances of a future manly character.” The positive statement of what is said negatively here is, “Liberty . . . consists in the inalienable right of every man to believe according to the unbribed inspiration of his heart, and to act according to the unperverted dictates of his own understanding.” Anyone who has a responsive sense of the meaning of these words and who reads the sayings and doings of William James in their light, will, I am confident, better understand William’s philosophical formulations. He will also understand better his depressions and uncertainties (in a body less vigorous and less assertively sure of itself than was his father’s), will appreciate his sympathetic and often, in retrospect, unduly intense response to writings that gave back to him some of his own ideas; and will realize that something more than ill health is behind what his sister meant when she called him a “blob of mercury, unable to stick to anything for the sake of sticking.” Temperamental and cultivated responsiveness to whatever seemed genuine in the ideas of others is not favorable to systematized logical continuity. But it will, unless I am vastly mistaken, give his work an enduring vitality denied to philosophic writings whose chief claim is a logical consistency. What seems a lack of conclusiveness in James is due to what James shares with life itself—its many-sidedness.


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