PRINT COLLECTION, THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY
All things literary lead to Henry James, or so it seems these days, and not just because he’s the consummate chronicler of success and failure and freedom and money, American obsessions, each of them, or because his novels frequently turn up as movies, as if the screen might at last capture the subtle presences he so knowingly conjures up. For surely his commitment to the excellent in art and to living and breathing it, as he once said of Balzac, inspires anyone who has labored over a word, a phrase, a comma. Then, too, there is the enigma of the man despite, or perhaps because of, Leon Edel’s multi-volume biography (1953-1972), which diligently traces the making of “The Master” (the title of Volume Five), while countless letters, speculations and suppositions keep coming to contradictory light and recent writers as varied as Colm Tóibín, Joyce Carol Oates and Richard Howard dazzlingly re-create him.
Nor does Henry stand alone. Flanking him is his restless brother William, the ebullient avatar of American philosophy, psychology, religion and good sense. Himself a lively writer of a different stripe, coining such felicitous terms as “stream of consciousness” and “the bitch-goddess success,” William is the Mark Twain of philosophy, says Stephen Pinker. A pragmatist par excellence in Louis Menand’s fine The Metaphysical Club (2002) and the subject of Robert Richardson’s splendid biography William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism (2006), William bravely stands, open-throated and compassionate, ready to embrace the contemporary world in all its blooming, buzzing confusion: “Life,” says William, “is in the transitions.” No surprise, then, that he is also the eponymous hero of books as different as Deborah Blum’s Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death (2006) and Michelle Huneven’s delightful Jamesland (2003), a novel of breakdown and belief.
And let’s not overlook Alice in Jamesland, the invalid sister with a gimlet eye as keen as those of her brothers. “I’m working away as hard as I can to get dead as soon as possible,” she acerbically quipped in 1890, two years before she succeeded. Henry, who once said he was haunted by her, was astonished by her privately printed diary, which William said produced “a unique and tragic impression of personal power venting itself on no opportunity”: a woman’s dilemma. But since its full publication, that astonishing diary has been admired and then superbly parsed by its author’s biographer, Jean Strouse, and, more recently, by Susan Sontag, whose play Alice in Bed (1993) brought the strength of Alice’s weakness to angry life.
More likely to be forgotten, though not forgiven, is Henry James Sr., the doting, self-centered father of a brood that included two other far more neglected siblings and who, in his own time (1811-82), cut a rather remarkable figure: his leg twice amputated in his youth and replaced with a wooden prosthesis, this Ahab of Swedenborgianism and Fourierism restlessly sought safe harbor in European and American ports, yanking his children here and there to prevent their becoming prigs. Long-winded, polemical, wearying and mercurial–but also brilliant–Henry James Sr. is characterized by Alfred Habegger in his resourceful biography The Father (1994) as part gifted seer and part crazed metaphysician. Son of William James of Albany, New York, an Irish immigrant who by the 1830s was one of the richest men in America, Henry Sr. was the country’s best talker, according to James Russell Lowell, and could well afford to be. But he’s also remembered as the father Alice watched working at his desk, wanting to knock off his head, and who, when she asked permission to kill herself, granted it.