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William James Finds His Vocation
One of America s truly great men—scientist, philosopher, and literary genius—forged his character in the throes of adversity
February/March 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 2
But all this is to anticipate. It was thanks to physical mischance suffered at the right time by a pair of brothers that this country can now boast of the achievements of two of her greatest sons. William and Henry James had turned twenty by the height of the Civil War and in the normal course would no doubt have enlisted on the Union side like their two brothers, their cousins, and their friends. But Henry was disabled after an injury to his back and William was prey to a recurrent nervous ailment. The younger brothers, Wilky and Bob, who came back shattered from Fort Wagner and other places, serve as a “control” in this small test of the effect of war on the culture of nations.
Such accidents of chronology are seldom made enough of. Likewise, the main facts of William’s upbringing are given in all the books, but what they suggest has not been sufficiently insisted on. To say that as a child William was moved from school to school too often for good results conveys no special image, nor does it define the sort of mind that emerged from his globe-trotting and broken schooling. There have been, after all, many hotel-bred children of no more than ordinary capacity. But genius, especially genius in which intellect is fused with imagination, cannot be well understood without recapturing the quality of its earliest experience. For experience is an instinct of life, as Wilde said, and what matters is the way life is “taken” by the experiencer. We know St. Augustine, Rousseau, and Berlioz as we do not know Aristotle, St. Thomas, and Bacon, because the first three wrote autobiographies whose opening chapters give us a direct view of the “taking” in childhood. To know William James, we go to his early letters and find there not only the quality of his power to experience but also the germs of almost all his original ideas.
Young James’s nervous instability or neurasthenia, as it was then called, was no temporary trouble of late adolescence. It was a deep-rooted depression which held up his choice of career till his mid-twenties, which he overcame in part by an heroic effort of will, and which periodically returned, though less crippling, throughout his life.
Whatever the cause, it cannot have been lack of parental love. The Jameses were an uncommonly united and affectionate family. As the letters show, every member of it took enormous pleasure in the person and the company of the others. The father, Henry James, Sr., was a genial, unworldly man with a humorous eye and an extraordinary way with words. He also had a cork leg, the consequence of an accident in boyhood. Having independent means, he divided his time between domesticity and writing works of theology and social reform. He had a wide circle of friends among intellectuals, in particular Ralph Waldo Emerson. But his family was his paradise.
This father was what we should call a permissive parent in an age when fathers knew their rights. Like a man of the twentieth century, he wanted not to repeat the mistakes his father had made in rearing him; so he indulged his children with a sublime confidence that their characters were indestructible. Regular schooling was fitful, the slackness of tutors was tolerated, freedom of speech and movement at home and outside was pushed to the limit, and extravagant, paradoxical opinions were bandied about to stimulate thought. The system—or absence of system—would either ruin or make strong original minds. Judging by William, Henry, and their sister, Alice, it succeeded, though at a cost.
Willy, the eldest, was an active, talkative, willful little boy, whose lust for exploring, trying out, and uttering his discoveries soon shattered the household calm that his studious father had once enjoyed, even though his restlessness was also an obsessive trait. The Jameses were originally from New York and soon from everywhere. The grandfather (the first William), who had come from Ireland “to see a revolutionary battlefield,” settled in Albany in 1789. He became one of the builders of that city, a promoter of the Erie Canal, and the possessor not only of wealth but of cultivation. His son, Henry, Sr., born in Albany in 1811 and a graduate of the new Union College in Schenectady, was in New York with his wife when his first son was born, at the old Astor House, on January 11, 1842.