James, Sr., Henry Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.