The popularity of the James family as subjects for biography has held steady throughout the twentieth century. A number of factors account for this phenomenon. First, it is one of the few nuclear families to produce two giants of American letters, William James in philosophy and psychology and Henry James, Jr., in fiction. Second, its members wrote to one another frequently and at length not only about their everyday affairs but also about their feelings regarding family conflicts. Hence, the plethora of source materials, coupled with the stature of the two brothers, has led a number of distinguished scholars to explore the lives of these enigmatic figures whose love-hate relationships lie at the base of some of the most important literary works produced in America in the decades on either side of the turn of the twentieth century.
William James, eldest son of Henry James, Sr., and Mary Walsh James, comes alive for readers in Linda Simon’s Genuine Reality. An accomplished biographer whose life study of twentieth century literary figure Alice B. Toklas received highly favorable reviews, Simon focuses her attention on the man behind the public persona. Known for nearly a century as the chief proponent of the philosophy of Pragmatism in America and one of the founding fathers of the study of psychology, James emerges from the pages of Simon’s book as a neurotic, confused, but caring son, sibling, husband, father, and colleague. As Simon carefully demonstrates, his cheerful public presence and his captivating lecture style masked a personality torn by doubts about the reality of life beyond death and concerns about his ability to achieve the high standards set for him by a father who, for nearly four decades, dominated every aspect of his life.
Consequently, Simon devotes more than a quarter of the book to an examination of the career of Henry James, Sr., a self-made intellectual whose pursuit of religious truths drove him to a mental breakdown and whose mania for finding a place where he would be appreciated drove the family hither and yon in New York, New England, and across England and the European continent. The elder James was a domineering presence in the lives of all of his children; psychologists and biographers of the James family have had a field day exploring the impact that the father had on everyone living under his roof. William’s desperate pleas for acceptance and acclaim are chronicled in letters to his family members; those of Henry, a more fluent and accomplished writer, appear not only in private missives but also in a number of books that give insight into the strange lifestyle Henry, Sr., forced upon his precocious and sensitive children and his long-suffering wife. These documents, and scores of others in collections at New England’s major research universities, provide Simon valuable insight into the growth of William’s mind and character as he struggled to define for himself who he was and what he was to accomplish in his life.
In Simon’s view, William suffered more than any of the other children because he was the eldest, and his father was most anxious that he make something of himself. Henry, Sr., never realized that it might be necessary to establish roots for the family in order for William, or any of the others, to grow and blossom into an intellectual giant. Disdaining traditional forms of schooling (although he had attended Union College in New York), Henry, Sr., moved his sons and daughter from school to school, hired a string of private tutors, and insisted all along that the children would be great thinkers and sound moral citizens only if they learned directly from him. Simon’s unflattering portrait of Henry, Sr., is not drawn in order to elicit malice toward this misguided and distraught intellectual; rather, it is intended to explain why William turned to the studies that would occupy his adult life, moral philosophy and psychology.
As Simon demonstrates, young William James was nothing like the self-confident and popular teacher who was the darling of Harvard undergraduates during the first decade of the twentieth century. More badgered than his siblings, William struggled to make his father proud of him. He tried to become an artist when he heard his father glorify that life, only to find that what his father praised in theory he despised in practice. He went into medicine for similar reasons, but he discovered that he did not have the aptitude to take up a practice. The stress to please his demanding and somewhat unbalanced...
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