William James

Further thoughts on Feinstein’s Becoming William James

If I have expected Howard Feinstein’s Becoming William James to be another touching tale of cultured Antebellum New Englanders fleeing from the dumbification of the Gilded Age (1) for the artistic fleshpots of Europe — something you might get from the artistic biography of Wharton, say, or Sargent — I was to be disappointed.  Instead, it is a grim portrait of a seriously dysfunctional family ruled by a religious madman of the most dangerous sort:  the near normal.

Near normals are dangerous because, capable of convincingly passing themselves off for what they are not, they manage to have themselves taken seriously, while any madman only a smidgen madder would most certainly be locked up.  An element of willful self-delusion is at work here: though any close reading of Henry James Sr.’s writings would have to reveal to any objective reader the man’s essentially unstable mind — his permanently “oscillating” views — Feinstein calls it his “voices” (2) — yet, his sons have utterly failed to read the signs and continued all their lives long to struggle with their father’s mutually contradictory injunctions, trying to make sense of out of them. Love is not so much blind, as — blinding.

But that’s not all:  the children permanently fleeing from home, keep returning to it.  They do not explain anywhere why, though, if asked, I suppose they would say what we usually hear in such situations:  “well, the family isn’t great, but, still, it’s family“, as if “family” were some sort of a transcendental principle — Marcus Aurelius’s gold, ivory, purple; Platonic ideal circles — worth sacrifice for its own sake, while the obvious truth surely must be that a good family being most certainly worth having, one is invariably better off ridding himself entirely of a bad one.


(1) The dramatic dumbification of New England — and American cultural life in general — following the Civil War is convincingly discussed in William Peterfield Trent, and, as far as I know, nowhere else.  It is as if no one else noticed the dramatic qualitative discontinuity.  I believe R.W.B. Lewis makes an oblique reference to the same discontinuity when discussing the two artistic American diasporas in Paris around the turn of the last century — one “pre-gilt”, like Wharton, the other one “post-gilt”, like Gertrude Stein — which, he points out, did not mix, and had no interests in common, but he does not enlarge upon the idea.  He seems to think it would be “controversial” to do so.

This “controversiality” is an interesting point.  Scholars appear to refuse to see elementary facts: today’s serious art historians treat our Hirsts and Banksys as if there had not been a discontinuity, as if these luminaries were somehow in the same vein with their predecessors.

Interestingly, Trent blames this dumbification on the opening of the West whose economic opportunities sucked out all talent out of New England’s books, starving its culture of human resources.  Trent’s discussion amounts to a revision of the generally dictum that good economy leads to good culture.  (Which, if you look around, can’t possibly be true).  Trent says, in fact, that the opposite is true.  Some evidence may support him:  second half of 15th century in Italy was a period of a protracted recession, for instance.  Which makes me hopeful that today’s recession, likely as it is to last a decade, might lead to cultural revival as people who’d otherwise go into banking enter literature, theater and opera.

(2) Henry James Sr. is a good illustration for my friend’s dictum — call it Anand’s Law — that the people most likely to hang on to religious principles are the confused sort.  About the only thing constant in Henry James Sr’s mind is the presence of Jesus.  Though the figure itself constantly shifts in meaning and character, the constancy of the name Jesus gives Henry Sr the comfortable illusion that he, and his views, are somehow stable.

Feinstein’s Four Laws of Vocational Selection

Feinstein’s Becoming William James will tie your stomach in knots.

The book stands alone, a genre of its own: it is a minutely researched historical biography written by an insightful psychiatrist and focused on a single life problem of a future great psychologist: his choice of profession. The insights into the psychologies of all the people involved are terrifying, both for their penetrating power and for the ugly mental mechanisms they reveal.

The true hero of the book — if that is the word — is not actually William James, but his father, Henry James, Sr., son of a powerful personality, a hail-and-brimstone Presbyterian and a successful real estate speculator, William of Albany, who made a fortune in upstate New York and proceeded to mold his children ruthlessly according to his will. Young Henry rebelled, refused to study law, and fled to Boston where he took up a job as a religious newspaper editor and — despite his father’s predictions of imminent bankruptcy, actually managed to make a good living. Reasonably successful in his act of defiance, he nevertheless eventually crumbled under pressure from family and friends (set upon him by his father) and, perhaps most importantly, under his father’s express threat to cut him out of his will; returned home contrite; and enrolled in college to study law as his father desired, which resulted in a severe depression.

He must have been shocked therefore to discover upon his father’s death a few years later that, despite all his promises to receive him back in his favor, William of Albany in the end did cut Henry out of his will after all, perhaps deciding that a) Henry’s one act of rebellion proved him untrustworthy forever after; and b) that the untrustworthy do not deserve to be honestly told of our own intentions regarding their fate.

This was not just a financial shock to Henry, but a well aimed slap in the face — a slap from behind the grave and therefore one he could not return. He felt that the will covered him in shame and the pain of parental rejection never really went away. As he grew older, he could forget about it for long stretches of time, but then unexpectedly, recalled by accident, the old wound would open up and hurt again as fresh as if it had been dealt that morning.

This is the common experience of children rejected by their parents.

Henry challenged his father’s will successfully and became a religious thinker and publicist. Eventually, he published 18 books on religion, and countless articles, all of them Utopian theoretical exhortations on how things ought to work (make love not war and all that). Not surprisingly, perhaps, one way in which they should work was, according to him, that it was a father’s duty to accept his prodigal sons; to love them especially; and that, secondly, sons ought to be able to pursue their own ambitions unfettered, their natural inclinations being nothing but expression of a divinely inspired plan of salvation. In one essay, carried away by heat of polemic, Henry even claimed that criminals were in fact saints merely struggling to realize their personal freedom denied them by an unjust society.

In many of his writings Henry proclaimed his intention to be a lenient and liberal father and to allow his children all the freedom they will ever need to pursue their own ideas of personal fulfillment. He seemed doubly well positioned to manage this: first, his own experience taught him how horrible it was to be subjected to his father’s domineering will; and, second, having won the suit to break his father’s will, he and his family were able to live in comfort off their capital, meaning that his children were economically free to do whatever they pleased.

For all that, Henry, Sr., did not live up to his oft-proclaimed ideal and, with respect to his first born William, at least, exerted all sorts of powers in order to manipulate the boy into a profession he had chosen for him: science. (William had both the talent and the strong inclination to become a painter). Henry’s tactics ranged from persuasion, to manipulation (such as the decision to move the family to Europe for a year in order to remove William from the influence of his painting teacher), to violated promises, to threats of imminent death. His drive did not respect truce: when the two men agreed that eighteen-year-old William would try his talent for two years before making a final decision, his father found a way to force his hand only six months later. Letters survive which show how dramatic these struggles were for young William.

Defeated in the end, William enrolled at Harvard to study science where, not surprisingly, he suffered from severe depression. Though his later writings never state it clearly, it is possible to see that even in his sixties, as a successful psychologist and philosopher, he probably regretted the decision. (Forty years later, he wrote obliquely, regarding the matter of a young man’s choice of profession: “he may sometimes doubt whether the self he murdered in that decisive hour might not have been the better of the two”).  And he was to suffer recurring bouts of depression for the rest of his life.

In passing, other aspiring painters of William’s social class are mentioned — all students in the same studio in Newport. And, it turns out, all of them were pressured by their parents not to paint but to pursue a remunerative profession instead. All but one gave in.

A few salient facts emerge from the story. We could summarize them as

Feinstein’s Four Laws of Vocational Selection:

1.  It seems an incontrovertible law of psychology that independently wealthy parents must pressure their children into financially sound professions which their children neither want nor need and that such pressured children, despite seeing the obvious nonsense of the particular choice of profession, almost always give in.

2.  It is also a law of psychology that parents feel justified in resorting in this struggle to ugly and, not infrequently, outright dishonest methods.

3.  Another law seems to state that professions perceived by parents as remunerative are none such: it is little known by people who themselves do not work, or at least not in the profession in question, that though successful doctors and lawyers are among the highest paid professionals in the world, the majority of these professionals are not successful at all.  Parental guidance is, to coin a glib phase, misguided — because it is conducted from a place of ignorance.

4.  Lastly, the fourth law states that such compelled children tend not to make any use of the profession in the end, anyway, the whole thing being a huge trauma for all parties involved — for nothing:  it serves no purpose at all.