The Admirable Three Millions

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His attitude toward men like his self-made father was not generous. “A man of very large possessions,” he wrote, “unless he has come into them by inheritance [italics mine], is almost wholly absorbed by them. Instead of being rendered free and careless, his life is a perpetual servitude. His whole energy becomes demanded by the care of his property, while he himself gradually lapses from unqualified manhood into the mere man of money.... As a general thing therefore we may say, the larger the possessions the smaller the man.”

He was determined, Henry told a friend at forty-one, “to take holiday for the rest of my life, and make all my work sabbatical....” His tone was not always so lighthearted, however. Sometimes he sounded remarkably like his father: “Everyone respects labor; everyone respects the man who does something more to vindicate his human quality, than just live upon his ancestral fat.” When this was written, Feinstein points out, Henry “was in his fifties...and still living on his patrimony.”

The aversion to business persisted in the next generation. But whereas Henry, Sr., had indulged, as he himself conceded, in “a life-long career of luxury and self-indulgence,” his children did not have that option. The ancestral fat was running out.

Thus we have the spectacle of young William, the future philosopher, rather desperately trying to balance his accounts in his sophomore year at Harvard: “Theoretically in hand fifty-four cents, actually in hand eight-two [sic] cents. Gained somehow twenty-eight cents. Hallelujah!”

Two years later, in a letter to his cousin Katharine, William revealed that he was considering a career in medicine, but not because the work inspired him. “After all, the great problem of life seems to be how to keep body and soul together, and I have to consider lucre.”

Earlier William had hoped to be a painter. In 1866, as he neared the end of his medical studies, he felt no joy at the thought of the work that awaited him. He would earn his living, he wrote to a friend, by plying the “physicking trade like any other tenth-rate man.” Instead of practicing medicine, William got sick—so sick that he ran off to Europe for eighteen months. It was the sickness, Feinstein argues, of a “young man frantically running from inauthentic labor and premature responsibility.”

At age forty-one, William’s son was determined “to take holiday for the rest of my life.”

As the world knows, William found at last a career he could embrace. Commerce was beneath him, of course, as it had been beneath his father. In 1906, in a letter to H. G. Wells, this grandson of a hard-nosed merchant made his most famous comment on the role of business in American life: “The moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS. That—with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word success—is our national disease.”

William’s brother Henry was no more attracted to the world of William of Albany than his brother or father. In The American, published in 1877, when he was thirty-four, Henry took as his central character an American businessman in his thirties who has made his fortune and now seeks, in Europe, a different kind of fortune: “Throughout these rather formless meditations he sometimes thought of his past life and the long array of years…during which he had had nothing in his head but ‘enterprise.’…It struck him that if he had never done anything very ugly, he had never, on the other hand, done anything particularly beautiful. He had spent his years in the unremitting effort to add thousands to thousands, and, now that he stood well outside of it, the business of money-getting appeared extremely dry and sterile.…It had come back to him simply that what he had been looking at all the summer was a very rich and beautiful world, and that it had not all been made by sharp railroad men and stock-brokers.” (For readers who have never read the novel and who might take a look if given the proper bait, I note in passing that the poet John Berryman thought The American “the most important American novel yet written about a businessman.”)

In A Small Boy and Others, a volume of autobiography published near the end of his life, Henry, Jr., reflected on the history of his family in the decades that followed his father’s rejection of a worldly career. “The rupture with my grandfather’s tradition and attitude was complete; we were never in a single case, I think, for two generations, guilty of a stroke of business.”

But Henry’s memory was not quite accurate. His younger brother Robertson had failed in business, and also in farming, journalism, painting, and poetry. Though everyone remembers William James’s remark about the bitch-goddess, it is to Robertson, I think, that we should turn for a final perspective: “I wish,” he wrote at the age of fifty-two, looking back on three decades of frustration, “our own father had steered his sons into the soap or Baking Powder line.”