James, Sr., Henry
Henry James, Sr. 1811-1882
American philosopher and theologian.
The father of two more famous sons—novelist Henry James and psychologist William James—Henry James, Sr., was an influential and original thinker who challenged many of the religious and social mores of his era. Regarded during his lifetime as an eccentric and bold author, lecturer, and critic, James was deeply influenced by the writings of eighteenth-century Swedish philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg and nineteenth-century social theorist Charles Fourier; the former helped shape James's views on God and human nature, while the latter helped inspire his ideas about human fellowship. James believed above all in spiritual freedom, rejecting organized religion, which he felt overemphasized the importance of the individual and promoted sectarianism rather than universal solidarity. This was a fairly unpopular view at a time when such denominations as Christian Science and Methodism were gaining strong footholds in the United States. In addition, he was staunchly opposed to the romantic idealizations of the individual advocated by many of his contemporaries, including Ralph Waldo Emerson. James considered an emphasis on the self—especially thinking highly of oneself—as one of the greatest of evils. Only by destroying this self-righteousness, he insisted, could one be "re-born" into society and thereby achieve communion with God.
Born in Albany, New York, on June 3, 1811, James grew up under the strict rule of his father, William James, a wealthy merchant and staunch Presbyterian who had emigrated from Ireland in the late 1700s. Early on, the younger James developed a distaste for Presbyterianism, resisting his father's belief in an angry God who instilled fear in his followers. When the younger James was twelve or thirteen, he suffered the amputation of one of his legs after it was severely burned when he attempted to stamp out a fire. The long period of painful and isolated invalidism that followed seemed to affect the youth profoundly; according to biographers, the formerly spirited young man became increasingly introspective during his convalescence. In 1828 he entered Union College in Schenectady, New York, enjoying the liberal religious atmosphere before graduating two years later. He then briefly studied law in Albany. Following his father's death in 1832, he inherited enough money to support himself for the remainder of his life, and in 1835 he abandoned his legal career in favor of studies at Princeton Theological Seminary, an ardently Presbyterian institution. However, he left the seminary just a few years later, dissatisfied with the school's strict piety and determining to devote himself to the study and expression of his own philosophy. In the late 1830s he traveled to Europe, where he became acquainted with the writings of eighteenth-century Scotsman Robert Sandeman, one of Fourier's disciples and the founder of an obscure religious sect dedicated to primitive Christianity. In part to acknowledge the influence Sandeman had on his thought, James edited Sandeman's controversial Letters on Theron and Aspasio (1838), which denounced the church clergy. In 1840 he married Mary Robertson Walsh, a devout churchgoer and the sister of one of his friends. Throughout the next two decades the Jameses moved between New York—where their first two sons (William and Henry, Jr.) were born—and various European cities. During one of their trips to Europe in the 1840s, the elder James became intrigued with Swedenborg's teachings. In fact, it was Swedenborg's writings that helped him overcome the emotional and spiritual collapse he suffered in 1844 during one of his longer periods of residency in Europe. This collapse is what he referred to as his "vastation," a stage that, according to Swedenborg, leads to the rebirth of the soul. During the 1840s James was also greatly inspired by the philosophy of Fourier, a social reformer who believed as did James in the solidarity of humankind. Continuing to move restlessly with his family during the early 1860s, James finally settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1866. Eventually fathering five children, he was a dedicated family man who believed in providing his children with a strong moral and intellectual background. He afforded them access to international travel, private tutors, experimental schools, and an academically stimulating home environment; in the decades before his death his household was often the site of fervent discussions among such eminent figures as Henry David Thoreau and Emerson. James suffered the death of his wife early in 1882, and he died soon thereafter, on December 18, 1882, in Cambridge.
James was the author of more than a dozen books and hundreds of treatises, pamphlets, letters, essays, and reviews. He treated such subjects as philosophy, metaphysics, politics, wealth, literature, and education, although many of his works are defenses of his theology. During his lifetime he published four full-length volumes outlining his thought: Christianity, the Logic of Creation (1857), Substance and Shadow (1863), The Secret of Swedenborg (1869), and Society the Redeemed Form of Man (1879). Of these, most critics regard The Secret of Swedenborg and Society the Redeemed Form of Man as his best. The former outlines James's belief in humankind's dependence on God, while the latter documents his thoughts on his spiritual breakdown as well as his vision of Christianity as a call for a new social solidarity. Other significant works include Spiritual Creation (1882), unfinished at the time of his death and later published by his son William, and The Nature of Evil (1855). In addition to the theme of theology that runs through his works, James's use of superlatives, his adeptness with language, and his use of obscure phrases mark his writing. Distinguishing his works also is his sense of humor, seen by some as grossly inappropriate but by others as charming. This charm, scholars have noted, is also evidenced in the hundreds of letters he exchanged with his formidable circle of acquaintances. Unfortunately, many of these private papers were destroyed by relatives soon after his death. Biographers have speculated that James's "indelicate" nature combined with the highly public controversies that often surrounded him prompted this destruction. In fact, James caused himself and his family considerable embarrassment as early as 1849, when he published his first major work, Love in the Phalanstery, a translation of Victor Hennequin's Les Amours au Phalanstère, a French tract on marriage. Proposing a new social order in which human sexuality would be freed from conventional laws, the work prompted critics to brand James as a libertine.
During his lifetime, James's works neither attracted a considerable number of readers nor enjoyed a large measure of critical understanding; commentators found his works obscure and doubted the intelligibility of his writings. Scholars have suggested that his subject matter was partly to blame for his unpopularity at a time when discussions of theology were rapidly going out of fashion. Moreover, treatises emphasizing humankind's need for community and man's reliance on God were often disregarded during an intellectualized age that celebrated the self. Many nineteenth-century critics did, however, praise James's style, calling it fresh, unconventional, entertaining, and eloquent. James was a "writer of extraordinary vigor and picturesqueness" and a "formidable master of English style," wrote E. L. Godkin, prominent journalist and founder of The Nation. Almost immediately after his death, James's reputation fell into obscurity, and his work was overshadowed by that of his sons William and Henry, Jr. Commentators who did study the elder James continued to find fault with his writings, characterizing his arguments as overly metaphysical rather than logical, and criticizing his tendency to restate his theology in several of his works. (James himself admitted that he had trouble expressing himself adequately.) It wasn't until the 1930s that a serious revival of interest in James's scholarship developed. In 1934 Austin Warren became the first critic to produce a full-length biography of James, and in 1951 Frederic Harold Young published the first full-length treatment of James's philosophy. Contemporary critics have claimed that James has been undeservedly eclipsed by the reputation of his sons, and have begun to regard him not as a weak, eccentric figure as some earlier critics had, but as a powerful presence who made a strong impact on his children, especially William and Henry, Jr. "It is owing to James's restless intellectuality that three of his children—William, Henry, Alice—are remembered today," wrote biographer Alfred Habegger in 1994. "For better and worse, he was responsible for their larger-than-life tensions, abilities, ambitions, achievements." Although contemporary critics have continued to commend James's striking and often startling rhetoric as well as the vigor and wit of his writings, his rich and varied diction, and his romantic style, his works have never found a popular audience.
Letters on Theron and Aspasio: Addressed to the Author [editor] (letters) 1838
Remarks on the Apostolic Gospel (treatise) 1840
What Constitutes the State? A Lecture Delivered before the Young Men's Association of the City of Albany (lecture) 1846
Tracts for the New Times, No. 1, Letter to a Sweden-borgian (letter) 1847
Love in the Phalanstery [translator; from Les Amours au Phalanstère by Victor Hennequin, 1847] (treatise) 1849
Moralism and Christianity; or, Man's Experience and Destiny (treatise) 1850
Lectures and Miscellanies (lectures) 1852
Love, Marriage, and Divorce, A Discussion between Henry James, Horace Greeley, and Stephen Pearl Andrews 1853
The Church of Christ Not an Ecclesiasticism: A Letter of Remonstrance to a Member of the Soi-Disant New Church (letter) 1854, revised edition, 1856
The Nature of Evil, Considered in a Letter to the Reverend Edward Beecher, D.D., Author of "The Conflict of the Ages " (letter) 1855
Christianity, the Logic of Creation (treatise) 1857
The Social Significance of Our Institutions: An Oration Delivered by Request of the Citizens of Newport, R.I., July 4, 1861 (speech) 1861
The Old and New Theology,...
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SOURCE: "James on the Nature of Evil," in The Christian Examiner and Religious Miscellany, Vol. LIX, No. 1, July, 1855, pp. 116-36.
[In the following review of The Nature of Evil, Clarke examines James's doctrine of evil, finding the author's theories inadequately developed and therefore impossible to comprehend, and concluding that James ultimately fails to solve "the problem of evil. "]
[The Nature of Evil] is a remarkable book by a remarkable man. Mr. James is remarkable because he combines, in no small degree, the qualities of a seer, a metaphysician, and a poet. His spiritual insight, or intuitive glance at spiritual realities, is penetrating, and gives solidity to his books. They possess an internal substance which differences them from the writings of metaphysicians who, like Brownson and Bowen, for example, dwell mainly on the forms of thought and their external relations. Again, Mr. James is a metaphysician, with an intellect full of force and with great penetrating power, though, as it appears to us, in its order more synthetic than analytic. Again, his rhetoric flows in a stream of life through the book. His words are not the current coin of logic, passed from hand to hand till it is worn and has lost all sharpness of impress, but they have a power of their own and a life within themselves. Known by his former writings as the great Antinomian of our day, hating moralism as...
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SOURCE: A review of The Secret of Swedenborg, in The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. XXIV, No. 6, December, 1869, pp. 762-63.
[In the following unsigned review, the critic provides a favorable overview of James's treatise The Secret of Swedenborg. The critic predicts, however, that the work will disturb some readers who might oppose James's belief that humans are creatures of God and that their existence depends entirely on Him.]
[In The Secret of Swedenborg] Mr. James rejects the idea of a Supreme Being, who, having created the heavens and the earth, and set life in operation according to certain universal laws, has ever since been resting and enjoying himself. Our author aims to show, from what he believes about the inspired philosophy of Swedenborg, that God is now and ever was the striving, self-devoted Christ, loving his creatures supremely, and living for them; and he teaches that the creature exists only and continually from the Lord, and that whatever conception of human freedom involves the notion of a completed and independent existence is false. Nature is the implication of man, and spirit is the fact; matter is illusory and insubstantial; a reflex, a shadow cast from the essence of another and real world. Nature is divine because God includes it; but, though full of God, it does not include him,—a point at which the Swedenborgian philosophy diverges finally and forever...
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SOURCE: A review of The Literary Remains of the Late Henry James, in The Spectator, Vol. 58, No. 2986, September 19, 1885, pp. 1237-39.
[In the following unsigned review of The Literary Remains of the Late Henry James, the critic offers a brief assessment of James's philosophy and contends that the volume is valuable not only for its content but also "as a psychological study of a very unique mind. "]
[The Literary Remains of the Late Henry James] is a book of considerable interest, though more, perhaps, as a psychological study of a very unique mind, than for the speculations which it contains.
The late Henry James, the father of the well known Henry James, the American novelist, was during his life more or less of a celebrity in his own country as an eccentric and bold thinker. His somewhat mystical books, especially his Society the Redeemed Form of Man, the Secret of Swedenborg, and various essays in the North American Review and other periodicals, have been read and studied with an interest hard to imagine in so realistic an age. The present volume consists of posthumous writings, some of them fragmentary, edited by one of his sons, from whose Introduction we confess that we have derived a somewhat clearer understanding of his father's thoughts than it was possible to attain from the writings of the author himself....
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SOURCE: An excerpt from Notes of a Son and Brother, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1914, pp. 155-212; 213-47.
[The second son of Henry James, Sr., Henry James, Jr., was a novelist, short story writer, critic, and essayist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He is admired as a lucid and insightful critic and is regarded as one of the greatest novelists of the English language. In the following excerpt from his autobiographical volume Notes of a Son and Brother—published at a time when the elder James's works had largely been forgotten—James, Jr., offers his impressions of his father, portraying him as an absorbing and immensely humane figure.]
We took his "writing" infinitely for granted—we had always so taken it, and the sense of him, each long morning, at his study table either with bent considering brow or with a half-spent and checked intensity, a lapse backward in his chair and a musing lift of perhaps troubled and baffled eyes, seems to me the most constant fact, the most closely interwoven and underlying, among all our breaks and variations. He applied himself there with a regularity and a piety as little subject to sighing abatements or betrayed fears as if he had been working under pressure for his bread and ours and the question were too urgent for his daring to doubt. This play of his remarkable genius brought him in fact throughout the long years no ghost of a...
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SOURCE: "Religion versus Morality According to the Elder Henry James," in The International Journal of Ethics, Vol. XLII, No. 3, April, 1932, pp. 289-303.
[Perry was an American philosopher and biographer whose two-volume biography of William James won the Pulitzer Prize for that genre in 1935. In the excerpt below, he argues that James, Sr., was an antinomian, or one who believes that under the gospel dispensation of grace the moral law is of no use because faith alone is necessary to salvation.]
Morality and religion are related in many ways. For example, each may be taken as the sanction of the other—belief in God as a foundation for morality, or the moral law as a proof of God. These aspects of the question I omit altogether. The point to which I wish to direct attention is the relation between the moral life and the religious life. In some sense it is doubtless true that when the moral life reaches its highest stage of perfection it passes over into the religious life. We have a set of terms such as "saintliness," "piety," "blessedness," "spirituality," which suggest that this form of life is super-moral. Now, granting this, our question is as follows: Should we think of the religious life as consummate, perfected morality; or should we think of it as something distinctly different, which supersedes morality? Shall we say that on some level of spiritual growth religion is opposed to morality, or...
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SOURCE: "The Philosophy," in The Elder Henry James, The Macmillan Company, 1934, pp. 189-218.
[In the excerpt below, Warren discusses James's philosophy, examining in particular the relationship between the spiritual and the social.]
Whenever the eye falls upon one of Mr James' pages,—whether it be a letter to a newspaper or to a friend, whether it be his earliest or his latest book,—we seem to find him saying again and again the same thing; telling us what the true relation is between mankind and its Creator. What he had to say on this point was the burden of his whole life, and its only burden. When he had said it once, he was disgusted with the insufficiency of the formulation (he always hated the sight of his old books), and set himself to work to say it again. But he never analysed his terms or his data beyond a certain point, and made very few fundamentally new discriminations; so the result of all these successive re-editings was repetition and amplification and enrichment, rather than reconstruction. The student of any one of his works knows, consequently, all that is essential in the rest [William James, in The Literary Remains of the Late Henry James].
A young author's first book must compress between its covers a complete transcription of his experience and his theories. James never outgrew this adolescent...
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SOURCE: "Father and Son: Style and Criticism," in The Thought and Character of William James, Vol. I: Inheritance and Vocation, Little, Brown, and Company, 1935, pp. 125-45.
[In the following excerpt from the first part of his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, The Thought and Character of William James, Perry assesses James, Sr. 's literary style and his critical methods and theories. The critic also discusses the elder James's influence on his son William, both personally and professionally.]
[For Henry James, Sr.] the most natural form of art, if art it can be called, was talk. Of all the arts, unless it be dancing, talk is the directest and most contemporaneous form of expression, the least detached and externalized. It is infused with bodily heat: like a blush or a gesture it reflects the feeling and the insight of the moment as it passes. The style of the natural talker is emphatic and mobile—meant to be listened to, with a brief and constantly shifting focus of attention, and not designed for contemplation. When this style is transferred from the spoken to the written word, it takes on an aspect of exaggeration, so that while James's talk was full-blooded, his writing at times seems plethoric. Nevertheless, as representing style of this intensely vital sort, he ranks high among English writers, despite the forbidding character of his subject matter. It is doubtful if Carlyle or Melville...
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SOURCE: '"Father's Ideas,'" in The American Henry James, 1957. Reprint by John Calder, 1958, pp. 51-82.
[Anderson is an American critic, educator, and editor. In the following excerpt, he contends that Henry James, Jr. 's published reminiscences of his father prove the son's in-depth understanding of his father's philosophy, and that the younger James subsequently employed his father's beliefs in his fiction.]
In 1885, the year of the publication of A Little Tour in France and the serialization of The Bostonians, Henry James received copies of The Literary Remains of the Late Henry James from his brother William. The father they both admired and cherished had died in 1882. In his letter of thanks and appreciation Henry Junior is forthright about what had been called, in the family circle, "father's ideas." Referring to the extracts William had selected from their father's work, he writes: "It comes over me as I read them (more than ever before,) how intensely original and personal his whole system was, and how indispensable it is that those who go in for religion should take some heed of it. I can't enter into it (much) myself—I can't be so theological nor grant his extraordinary premises, nor throw myself into conceptions of heavens and hells, nor be sure that the keynote of nature is humanity, etc. But I can greatly enjoy the spirit, the feeling, and the manner of the...
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SOURCE: An introduction to Henry James, Senior: A Selection of His Writings, American Library Association, 1974, pp. 3-29.
[In the following essay, Gunn provides an overview of James's life and philosophy, discussing his theology, his relationship to prevailing nineteenth-century views, and his influences on his sons William and Henry.]
On May 30, 1850, Edwards Amasa Park of Andover Theological Seminary preached an important sermon in Boston's Brattle Street Meeting House before the Convention of the Congregational Ministers of Massachusetts on "The Theology of the Intellect and That of the Feelings." Though his subject may have been suggested to him two years before when his theological colleague from Hartford, the more famous Horace Bushneil, made use of a similar distinction in an address also delivered at Andover on the relation between "Dogma and Spirit," Park's title reflected an opposition which, in the American tradition, had found its chief exponent a century earlier in the person of Jonathan Edwards and which, in the European tradition, went all the way back through Friedrich Schleiermacher and Martin Luther to the Bible itself. Park was hardly insensible to the importance and magnitude of this legacy, but his chief purpose was less to establish or defend it than to interpret its consequences, to show how each kind of theology needed the other to do full justice to...
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SOURCE: "The Bostonians and Henry James Sr.'s Crusade against Feminism and Free Love," in Women's Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol. 15, No. 4, 1988, pp. 323-42.
[Habegger is the author of the full-length biography of James entitled The Father: A Life of Henry James, Sr. (1994). In the following essay, he argues that Henry James, Jr. wrote his novel The Bostonians (1886) in reaction to his father's involvement with the free love movement and his encounters with the radical press.]
There are some books that seem ugly, dull, and all wrong to contemporary readers and then strike a later generation as brilliant and right and presently get enrolled, in the canon of all-time greats. We generally trust that this sequence of events represents the triumph of taste over local prejudice—even for those books the local society would seem best situated to make sense of, realistic fiction. But what if someone wrote a realistic novel about us which we all felt to be cranky and off, and a hundred years later we were waked up in our graves and informed that this book was regarded as the authoritative mirror of our lives? Would we take it lying down?
At the end of World War II Philip Rahv brought out the first twentieth-century edition of a novel that fell flat when first published one hundred years ago, The Bostonians by Henry James. One of the reasons Rahv...
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What did Henry James Jr., born in 1843, make of his father's views on sex, love, and marriage? The son was obviously too young in 1852 and '53 to confront these views, although it is clear that he was uneasy about his father's contradictions and weaknesses. Twenty years later, however, when the father once again got himself embroiled in a public debate with Stephen Pearl Andrews on free love, and once again bespattered himself, Henry Jr. was old enough to understand.
The episode began in 1872, when the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher was accused of committing adultery with Mrs. Tilton. A correspondent from St. Paul, Minnesota, wrote Henry James Sr. and pressed him to comment on Beecher's apparent infidelity. James, who was now famous for his "philosophy of marriage," as E.L. Godkin called it, replied by rehearsing his now standard argument that marriage stimulates men's spiritual growth by confining desire. Unfortunately, his letter contained a passage that was so indiscreet it could easily be construed by readers as a confession: "I marry my wife under the impression that she is literally perfect, and is going to exhaust my capacity of desire ever after. Ere long I discover my mistake."
The correspondent was Harvery Y. Russell, and he worked for the St. Paul Daily Press (Stern). He got James's letter printed in his paper and then sent a clipping to Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly in New York. This journal,...
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Emerson, Edward Waldo. "Henry James." In The Early Years of the Saturday Club: 1855-1870, pp. 322-33. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1918.
An anecdotal account describing how James formulated his religious and philosophical views. Also portrays the vivacity and affection of the James household and depicts the elder James's associations with such figures as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edmund Tweedy, and Thomas Carlyle.
Habegger, Alfred. The Father: A Life of Henry James, Sr. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994, 578 p.
Full-length biography of James in which the critic details James's life and analyzes the domestic environment in which William and Henry, Jr., were raised.
——"Henry James, Sr., in the Late 1830s."New England Quarterly 64, No. 1 (March 1991): 46-81.
Purports that from late 1837 to 1840 James involved himself with the most radical aspects of the Scotch-Irish Protestant movement, leading to the "fanatically devout state of mind that attended his courtship of Mary Walsh."
Lewis, R. W. B. "Henry James, Sr.: The Endangering Self." In The Jameses: A Family Narrative, pp. 37-70. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991.
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