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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
When Willy was about a year and a half, the paternal wanderlust asserted itself and the family was whisked off to Europe—Paris, England, Paris again—for a visit that lasted two-and-a-half years. Abroad, Henry, Sr., met Carlyle, Tennyson, Lewes, Mill, Thackeray, and others, and he also experienced a severe mental crisis—almost a total breakdown—that resisted medical treatment. The chance discovery of Swedenborg’s works began to effect a cure and also redirected his thought and writings. After some two years he regained his composure permanently, but for those months the tension and anxiety of both parents doubtless affected the two uncommonly perceptive boys. Back in this country, the family lived first in Albany; then, for an unexampled stretch of seven years, in New York, on West Fourteenth Street, where Alice was born in 1848.
James’s nervous instability was a deep-rooted depression that held up his choice of career till his mid-twenties.
But the cosmopolitan ideal still ruled the father’s mind, and Willy was sent for his first schooling to a French institution in New York where he learned nothing but the art of dodging the books hurled by perpetually angry masters. Shifted after a while to another school, he enjoyed being taught to draw. His brother Henry remembered Willy on Fourteenth Street “drawing and drawing, always drawing, not as with a plodding patience … but easily, freely, and, as who should say, infallibly.” Both had begun to “write”—that is to say, compose original “works”—spurred no doubt by the abundant conversation of interesting visitors in the parlor and of the family at table, where a free-for-all was encouraged among their own and “father’s ideas.” A dinner guest has recorded a somewhat later scene of the children’s vehement disputes at mealtimes drowning out the voice of the father-moderator and accompanied by alarming gesticulations, knife or fork in hand. Mrs. James would reassure the visitor: “Don’t be disturbed; they won’t stab each other. This is usual when the boys come home.”
By June 1855 Europe beckoned again, and the family trooped over. By then it included the last two children, Garth Wilkinson (Wilky) and Robertson (Bob), equally cherished and appreciated by the rest, and not less mentally alert, but soon to be overtaken by ill chance before their time. From this trip forward—with Willy now in his teens—the story of the Jameses, and especially of the oldest boy, is an account of perpetual motion. It has to be summarized quickly, if only to avoid protracted dizziness: Geneva, Paris, London; tutors and governesses. A year at Boulogne-sur-Mer (1857–58) where Willy, at the excellent lycée , earned praise for work in science and bought a microscope. Back in the States (for no more than a year), a new setting and new friends, at Newport, Rhode Island. It was there that the beautiful child cousin Minny Temple became for William and Henry a beloved emblem of the beauty of life and, by her early death, the very figure of tragedy.
At Newport the leading American painter William Morris Hunt had his studio, in which a young man of French origin, John La Farge, was a pupil with a future. From him William took fire and decided he too must be a painter. There ensued a disagreement between Willy and his father that must be unique in the annals of fathers and sons quarreling over careers. The father’s strenuous opposition to Willy’s desire was not because being an artist was “unpractical”—unlikely to bring in the livelihood that was now needed, owing to family losses and the prospective division of the estate among five children; nor was it because the father doubted his son’s talent and chances of success. What he feared was that the profession of artist would not bring Willy the intellectual and spiritual satisfactions his son craved and deserved. Henry, Sr., as an advanced thinker, did believe that “the artist or producer is the only regenerate image of God in nature,” but the artist’s career was still questionable.