From Genuine Reality: A Life of William James
by Linda Simon


IN THE LATE 1800s, the trip from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Syracuse, New York, was long, convoluted, and uncomfortable. But it was a trip that William James undertook regularly in his role as overseer of the James family property. He traveled to Syracuse at least once a year, often more; and whenever he went, he had money on his mind. For himself and his siblings, a few stores on Salina Street, owned by the family since the eighteenth century, meant mortgages and repairs, bankers and agents, and most of all, rent. The Syracuse property supplemented James's income, subsidized his travels, had helped pay for the publication of his first book, and always served as a reminder of his origins.

He was descended from one of America's richest men, a captain of industry so wealthy that, rumor had it, only John Jacob Astor exceeded his fortune. Then as now, wealth meant power, and the first William James, grandfather of our philosopher, was a powerful man: restless, decisive, fiercely willful. He believed, with unwavering certainty, that money and power reflected a man's ultimate achievement.

When our William James stepped off the train in Syracuse each year, he was convinced that he had rejected his grandfather's mercenary values; he believed that he would be judged by his teachings, his writings, what he called his "message to the world." He identified himself with an intellectual elite that pretended to have finer preoccupations than cash. James never knew his grandfather, but he knew that his own father had repudiated the business tycoon who raised him, and he and his siblings professed that they, too, had no respect for "the counting-house."

Yet James's private and public writings are peppered with metaphors drawn from the world of business, and he strived, with no apology, to shape his publications for the marketplace. His philosophical works, focused as they are on questions of free will and human potential; his personal struggles with power and authority; and his anxiety about his self-worth suggest his affinity, by more than blood, with his grand and looming patriarch. The first William James, of course, did not consider philosophy a suitable occupation for any of his descendants. Family legend has it that he was known as "the Patroon."

William was eighteen when he emigrated from Ireland to America in 1789, twenty-two when he arrived in Albany, where he would make his fortune, take three wives, and sire thirteen children. His career as a businessman began when, with a partner, he opened a small store that sold tobacco and cigars. The shop soon expanded to include dry goods and groceries, but James was not satisfied with being a modest merchant. Shrewd, sharp, ambitious, he built a tobacco factory, leased and operated the saltworks of Syracuse, and, among many civic roles, served as first vice president of the Albany Savings Bank, director of the New York State Bank of Albany, and trustee of Union College. He was a significant force in the decision to build the Erie Canal, which established Albany as a major center of trade.

Billy James, as his friends called him, first married when he was twenty-five. Just starting out as a merchant, he chose a wife suitable to his station: Elizabeth Tillman, twenty-two, the daughter of a mariner. Nine months and three weeks after the marriage, Elizabeth died, a few days after giving birth to twins.

Two years later, James married again. Mary Ann Connolly was twenty, the daughter of a New York merchant and substantial landowner. Like James, she came from Irish ancestry, but unlike her husband, she was a practicing Catholic. James, during his two years as a widower, rapidly increased his business holdings. He now had two stores, and he had just built a tobacco factory. He was thriving as a businessman and in love with his wife. Within the year, Mary Ann was pregnant, and in April 1800, the Jameses became parents of a daughter, Ellen. In June, James took a partner to acquire yet another store, larger and grander than the others. The summer of 1800 was an ebullient time in James's life. With three children, a young and lovely wife, and four flourishing businesses, James was by all accounts a success. But the summer ended, and his family again was struck by tragedy. In October, when she was just twenty-two, Mary Ann died.

Twice a widower, with three small children, William James needed a wife. Three years after Mary Ann's death, he found one. Catharine Barber, the twenty-one-year-old daughter of Judge John Barber, a New York State assemblyman, seemed a likely choice for the thirty-two-year-old James, whose businesses and landholdings afforded him a prominent place in Albany life. Catharine was rather timid, it seems, not given to displays of emotion, but no doubt she and her family thought that William James would be a good match. William and Catharine were married on December 16, 1803, a few months after James became a naturalized citizen. During the next twenty-five years, they would have ten children, eight of whom survived to adulthood. In 1809, their third son, Henry, died when he was two months old. Two years later, on June 3, 1811, they bestowed the same name on their fourth son.

Henry James grew to be an active and independent child who exhausted himself running and playing and who was glad that his parents were too busy--his mother with many children and a house to run, his father with business, banking, and political concerns--to bother him.

Catharine Barber James, often pregnant, usually sequestered herself at home. Although both her father and husband were eminent figures in upstate New York social and political life, Catharine seems to have been uneasy in society, frequency retiring to a corner with a book when her husband had visitors. Henry remembered that his mother was much more comfortable with social inferiors than with those of her own class. It surprised him, he said, that she could get so much pleasure from having a conversation with a seamstress. While Henry enjoyed chatting with the family's coachman, gardener, maid, or cook, he was aware that his relationship with the servants "could not be one of true fellowship, because the inequality of our positions prevented its ever being perfectly spontaneous." As an adult, Henry generously explained his mother's preference in friends as a reflection of her "democratic" spirit, but more likely it reflected her shyness, lack of confidence, and the intimidating presence of her overpowering husband.

Although Catharine kept an orderly household, requiring the children to maintain regular hours for study, meals, and play, Henry recalled later that he "felt no absolute respect for [this order], and even violated it egregiously whenever my occasions demanded." Those occasions included visits to the local confectioner's, where he ran up debts far greater than his small weekly allowance and which he paid by pilfering change from his father's drawer. Or he would take his rod and run off to go fishing or pick up his gun and go hunting.

His father, less concerned with the daily control of his children, seemed "easy" if not "indifferent." William James rarely asked his children how they were doing at school or what interested them or who their friends were. Looking back on his childhood, Henry came to regret this lack of closeness with his father, but when he was young, the indifference allowed him considerable freedom. Beginning at the age of eight, for example, the precocious Henry frequented the local cobbler's shop, where a few young men worked in the back room making shoes. Henry often stopped in at the cobbler's for a drink of whiskey or wine before going to school; sometimes he did not arrive at school at all.

The cobbler's shop gave Henry an experience of a world far different from the conventional, pious atmosphere of his overstuffed and overpopulated home. The young cobblers were bawdy and irreverent, and Henry coveted their approval. He and his friends--who included the sons of the governor of New York--smuggled from their homes fruit, cakes, eggs, and even aged Madeira to share with the cobblers. And Henry brought novels, which, he remembered, "they were fond of reading, and their judgements of which seemed to me very intelligent. The truth is, that we chits were rather proud to crony with these young men, who were so much older than ourselves, and had so much more knowledge of the world." If his parents disapproved of his companions, so much the better. If his mother imposed rules and curfews, he simply ignored her.

Living with such a crowd, not including servants, it is no wonder that the young Henry noticed "a certain lack of oxygen" at home. Although there were many children, only one, Augustus, four years older, was a boy near his own age. Otherwise, he had two half brothers fourteen years older, and two others five and seven years younger. With few comrades within the family, Henry looked for friends away from home. He led an unfettered life, except for "paralytic" Sundays, when his parents' rules were unalterably enforced:

we were taught not to play, not to dance nor to sing, not to read story-books, not to con over our school-lessons for Monday even; not to whistle, not to ride the pony, nor to take a walk in the country, nor a swim in the river; nor, in short, to do anything which nature specially craved. How my particular heels ached for exercise, and all my senses pined to be free, it is not worth while to recount . . . Nothing is so hard for a child as not-to-do.

His family, he said, like most American families, lived in "contented isolation," thoughtlessly accepting religious dogma because it was prudent to do so, following social conventions and expectations without reflection. But even if Henry rejected religious ritual, he inhaled the basic tenets of his parents' Protestantism and constructed his own theory of sin and redemption. It was a sin, Henry believed, to behave rudely to other people. Hurting another's feelings made Henry fear "the terrors of hell" and "a dread of being estranged from God and all good men." And he felt the blessings of God whenever he "had a marked escape from fatal calamity." These escapes were not infrequent, he claimed, considering his taste for hunting, sports, and generally running amok. "I distinctly remember," he wrote later, "how frequently on these occasions, feeling what a narrow escape I had had from rock or river, I was wont to be visited by the most remorseful sense of my own headlong folly, and the most adoring grateful sentiment of the Divine long-suffering."

His parents were equally grateful, fearing as they did that his imprudent escapades would lead to injury or even death. One can imagine that they implored their impetuous son to slow down, be careful, be good. Henry was not malicious, but he was not obedient.

If we know few details of specific escapades, one is imprinted in James family lore. Sometime during his years at the Albany Academy--the exact date is unclear--Henry participated in an experiment with a group of boys and their tutor in a field in front of the school. To learn some principles of flight, the boys made balloons that were heated by igniting flax balls dipped in turpentine. When the balloons rose, the fiery balls fell to earth, where the boys stamped them out. One day, however, in the fury of kicking and stamping, the boys sent a burning ball sailing up into a nearby stable, where the hay instantly caught fire. Henry, arriving first on the scene, thought that he could stamp out this fire just as he and his friends had done in the field. But the blaze was too strong, turpentine spills on his trousers ignited, and Henry's right leg went up in flames.

The burns were severe and the pain agonizing. If Henry had felt remorse after his narrow escapes, how much more he suffered now, when his own misjudgment, his own wildness, left him bloody and charred. If he felt ashamed whenever he disappointed his parents, how much more wounded he felt now, seeing their worry and grief. Henry, who had exulted in the role of family rebel, now became the focus of the family's constant attention and pity.

That pity was more evident from his father than his mother, and made Henry aware, as he never had been before, that his father cared about him. Henry's only memory of his mother at that time was of her, coming into his room at night to pull the covers over his shoulders: she did not speak to him; she did not offer comfort to her son, wakeful from throbbing pain. She only tugged at the covers, turned, and left. Henry decided that she must have been sleepwalking. When William showed unrestrained anguish over his son's suffering, Catharine, uncomfortablewith open displays of emotion, felt that she had to impose "due prudence" on his behavior.

William's extreme despair may have been compounded by otherrecent losses. A few years before, his eldest son, Robert, had died. Robert, his father's favorite, had been groomed to succeed William in business and already had taken charge of some of his holdings. His sudden death, while he was on a family visit in Geneva, New York, was a stunning blow to William. Two years later, in the spring of 1823, his beloved daughter Ellen, the only child of his marriage to Marry Ann Connolly, died, leaving behind a year-old child, Mary Ann. Threatened with the loss of another child, William wanted desperately to save him. Henry, in spite of his earlier bravado, wanted to be saved, and he wanted to be loved. His father's anguish convinced him, finally, that his father did love him; it was the first time that his father seemed to see him as an individual, not merely one among many of his offspring.

For a few months after the accident, with Henry prostrate frompain, liquor, and tincture of opium--laudanum--the family mustered hope that the wounded leg would heal. In the spring of 1827, the burns seemed to be healing rapidly; but during the summer and in the fall, progress reversed. "Henry's leg is not as well at present as it was in the Spring," his sister Jannet wrote to Marcia James, wife of her half brother William, in November 1827. The following April, Augustus James reported again to William "that several black spots had appeared on his leg which it was feared were the forerunners of mortification." The family's doctors advised amputation, and "after mature deliberation on their part, and indeed of us all, it was concluded to perform the operation." A month before his seventeenth birthday, on May 6, 1828, Henry was prepared for surgery.

Amputations were common in the early nineteenth century. If a wounded limb did not heal, there were no antibiotics to arrest the spread of infection. The only recourse was to cut off the offending limb, hoping that the surgical wound might heal more successfully. Although the operation was performed often, it was, as the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal reported,"difficult to do well."

The operation, without anesthesia, took about half an hour from the first cut to the final tying of the blood vessels. First, a tourniquet was applied to cut off the blood supply to the lower leg. Henry lay on an operating table, fully conscious, held down by a surgeon's assistant, with his knee extending beyond the table edge. With an amputating knife, the operator, as the surgeon was called, cut into the skin below the knee all around the leg. Drawing back the skin about two inches, he sliced in to the muscles with a scalpel, and into the bonewith a saw. When the bone was sawed through far enough, he was able to snap it off, making as clean a break as he could. While the actual cutting took onlya few minutes (six, in Henry's case), finishing the procedure, which meant tying off the veins, arteries, and tendons with silk ligature, was excruciatinglyslow. Finally, with the wound wrapped in a cloth, Henry was carried to a bed, dosed with laudanum. After an hour or so, the wound was dressed with an adhesive plaster.

For several days after the operation, Henry was watched for fever, nausea, diarrhea, pallor, high pulse, or other signs of infection. Dressings, were changed daily, and the wound was inspected. Physicians and surgeons were powerless to do anything but wait, watch, and pray. Healing depended more on the strength of the patient than on the skill of the surgeon.

Henry was strong and healthy, but as he recovered from surgery, he did not feel as hopeful as his physicians. Confined to his bed, Henry realized that he was lame; he would be lame forever. He was no longer an ebullient, energetic adolescent. His childhood, innocent, careless, and benign, had ended violently. And it was his own fault. His punishment was pain, physical affliction, and relentless boredom. One day after another was like those paralytic Sundays that he chafed against and despised.

Henry had few personal resources to sustain him as he lay bedridden. He was not the kind of boy who lost himself in the imaginary worlds of books. He did not sketch or paint. He had always been impatient during periods of enforced reflection. Besides, he was groggy from pain-killing narcotics and liquor. For the two years surrounding his surgery, Henry James was an invalid, dependent on his family, cutoff from his friends. In those two years, he changed irrevocably.

In his later writings, James argued that children should be unfettered, allowed to indulge their natural impulses. Childhood, for him, was a time of "divine rapture" and "magical light." The dictates of religion, which he saw as an "outrage to nature," would repress children and "draw a pall over the lovely outlying world of sense." More important, religion asked children to defer to an inviolable authority, a cruel and hateful God, who wanted to deny the child expression of his individuality. This God that James created in his private universe acted upon the child in the same way that James's injury affected him: "as an outside and contrarious force.... The conviction of his supernatural being and attributes," James said, "was burnt into me as with a red-hot iron, and I am sure no childish sinews were ever more strained than mine were in wrestling with the subtle terror of his name." In perpetual battle with this hostile force, James said that, as a child, he could never feel pleasure or happiness without an underlying sense of fear that God would strike in retribution.

This excerpt is from Genuine Reality: A Life of William James, by Linda Simon,
which may be ordered through or through Barnes & Noble.

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