James, Sr., Henry Essay - Critical Essays

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.

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.

Principal Works

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, Two Lectures; and the Church of Christ Not an Ecclesiasticism. A Letter of Remonstrance to a Member of the Soi-Distant New Church (letter and lectures) 1861

Substance and Shadow; or, Morality and Religion in Their Relation to Life: An Essay upon the Physics of Creation (essay) 1863, revised edition, 1866

The Secret of Swedenborg: Being an Elucidation of His Doctrine of the Divine Natural Humanity (treatise) 1869

Society the Redeemed Form of Man, and the Earnest of God's Omnipotence in Human Nature: Affirmed in Letters to a Friend (treatise and letters) 1879

Spiritual Creation (essay) 1882

The Literary Remains of the Late Henry James (essays, treatises) [edited by William James] 1884

Love, Marriage, and Divorce. A Discussion between Henry James, Horace Greeley, and Stephen Pearl Andrews. Including the Final Replies of Mr. Andrews. Rejected by the New York Tribune, and a Subsequent Discussion, Occurring Twenty Years Later, between Mr. James and Mr. Andrews 1889

Morality and the Perfect Life: A Republication of a Lecture by the Late Henry James (lecture) 1906

Henry James, Senior: A Selection of His Writings (letters, essays, treatises) 1974


James F. Clarke (essay date 1855)

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,...

(The entire section is 7960 words.)

The Atlantic Monthly (essay date 1869)

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...

(The entire section is 1056 words.)

The Spectator (essay date 1885)

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...

(The entire section is 2247 words.)

Henry James, Jr. (essay date 1914)

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 forgottenJames, Jr., offers his impressions of his father, portraying him as an absorbing and immensely humane figure.]


(The entire section is 2489 words.)

Ralph Barton Perry (essay date 1932)

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...

(The entire section is 5796 words.)

Austin Warren (essay date 1934)

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 entire section is 7609 words.)

Ralph Barton Perry (essay date 1935)

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...

(The entire section is 8142 words.)

Quentin Anderson (essay date 1957)

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...

(The entire section is 9728 words.)

Giles Gunn (essay date 1974)

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...

(The entire section is 12647 words.)

Alfred Habegger (essay date 1988)

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...

(The entire section is 3583 words.)


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....

(The entire section is 4335 words.)

Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 576 words.)