Alice James, who was born in New York City on August 7, 1848, lived during a period in American history which was marked by enormous social, educational, and technological change. She knew many of the major social leaders and writers in America and in England. She was financially independent and was cared for by family, friends, and servants. When Alice was born, she found herself in the finest residential area in Manhattan, living in an ample three-story house in which lived her parents, four older brothers, her Aunt Kate, and several servants. Neither her father nor her mother ever worked at a conventional profession: her mother, Mary, maintained the family structure; her father, Henry Sr., maintained the family philosophy. There were books, visitors, lively discussions, and trips abroad. William and Henry Jr. thrived; Alice, the baby, became a neurotic invalid. Before she was forty-four, she was dead. From an external perspective, Alice James had a great deal—money, family, intellectual and cultural stimulation. Internally, however, she had very little—poor self-esteem, self-discipline, and social skills. This paradoxical impoverishment in the midst of riches is the real story of Alice James.
There are three major ways of approaching the life of Alice James: through her roles in her family, her role as a woman in the nineteenth century, and her role as an intellectual and literary influence. In all areas, she had opportunities to flourish. That she chose none is perhaps the most significant comment on her suppressed competitiveness with and jealousy of her illustrious family and social environment. Distinguishing herself by nervous fragility and invalidism, Alice kept the people in her world reliably solicitous, caring, and concerned. She became an outstanding eccentric, holding court in her sitting rooms and retiring to her bedroom when the stresses of living became too great. After a while, the pattern became ingrained. She stopped walking or moving about but developed more and more internal restlessness and depression. Near the end of her life, she developed breast cancer and regularly used morphine to subdue the pain. Death, which she had eagerly anticipated for years, claimed her ravaged body on March 4, 1892. After years of pain, she died in her sleep, peacefully, “like a child.”
Henry James, Sr., himself the son of one of the richest men in New York State, prided himself on his paternal mission. Having had little contact as a child with his father William, who was busy with his banking and commercial interests, Henry yearned for paternal closeness. Significantly, one of the ways that Henry temporarily earned this closeness with his father was through illness. When Henry was seventeen, he had an accident which resulted in the amputation of one of his legs. Henry, who had previously exasperated his parents by his energetic and dare-devilish antics, received the respect and involvement he had yearned for as a child. After this incident (occurring at about the same age as his daughter Alice’s first nervous breakdown), he continued with bouts of alcoholism, dissipation, and gambling. The restless despair again surfaced and alienated him from his father. When Henry’s father died, he cut out his rebel sons William and Henry from his will. The sons brought suit and eventually divided the property. Henry James, Sr., received an annual income of ten thousand dollars, never worked a day after that and used the money to pursue his own intellectual pursuits which were to form the basis for his own maverick style of parenting.
Henry James, Sr., became a philosopher, writer, and lecturer. Basing his ideas on a distorted reading of the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, James decided that evil and pain are a part of God and that “if man, [were] not free to be selfish and evil, he could not freely choose goodness and God. Only when men voluntarily [abolished] their natural selfishness [could] they know and love each other as God knows and loves.” The family situation was the place where the divine journey began. Children were to be free to explore and learn. “Intelligent, conscientious parents would cheerfully subordinate themselves to the welfare of their children, rather than insist on their own prerogatives.” Yet, paradoxically, James was very protective of his children. He wanted them to be innocent, obedient, and moral, and willingly to give up their evil impulses. What all this meant was that the children were encouraged not to seek after the darker sides of life, not to confront openly their selfish, competitive, destructive impulses. Contrary to his espoused philosophy, the family message really was: be happy, intelligent, cultured, and successful.
The children’s responses to their father’s benevolent despotism were mixed. Henry James’s convoluted prose and emotionally controlled plots were most likely a response to his father’s teachings. William, disturbed and tormented as his father was as a young man, gradually settled down in his thirties when he married a calm, strong, relatively unimaginative woman like his mother. Like his father, he shifted his angst into philosophical inquiry. He did not, however, use his family as a laboratory, having learned the painful results of such unstructured experiences.
The two brothers born after William and Henry did not have the aptitude, cleverness, or imagination to use their father’s teachings. Garth Wilkinson (“Wilky”) and Robertson (“Rob”) both decried the lack of disciplined education and fatherly love. They did not possess the brilliance of the older brothers and could not compete in the verbal jousting ever-present at Jamesian dinners. These sons generally felt themselves to be a disappointment to their father. Both moved away from the family as young men. Wilky suffered from rheumatism and heart disease, went bankrupt at age thirty-four and died at thirty-eight. Rob, following in the footsteps of his father as a youth, led a life of...
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