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Wednesday
Oct032012

James and Hawthorne

The writer at eleven: a daguerrotype of Henry James Sr. and Jr. in 1854. Henry James had what could generously be called an “unusual upbringing.” His family, descended from a wealthy Albany clan, found themselves continually at the mercy of his father’s wanderlust. They traveled here and there, often in Europe, then settling in Newport one day, New York City another ("uptown," at 14th and 6th), and Cambridge, Massachusetts, yet another.

James and his brothers were tossed from one school to another, one tutor to another, with little regularity or discipline. Sometimes, Henry James—“Harry” to his family—was left on his own to wander New York City or Geneva, Switzerland, at the age of eight or ten; sometimes, he was locked up in brutal, repressive classrooms chanting Latin verbs. It never was the same day to day.

Yes, the James children each grew up to be formidable in his or her own right: his brother William, one of the most famous psychologists of his day; his brothers Wilky and Bob, military leaders of some renown; his sister Alice, one of the great diariests of her age, despite a debilitating opium addiction after a hysteria diagnosis; and Harry himself, one of the finest writers of the English language. But all that was in the offing. The downward slope of the family’s finances, combined with their father’s persistent boredom, crazed utopian efforts, and desire for lecturing fame on a level with Emerson or Alcott, would surely have obliterated the egos of all but the most resilient.

By 1862, Henry James was nineteen and directionless. His father didn't want him to go to college; the old man thought the institutions not up to snuff with his radical ideals. Yes, older brother William was going to Harvard—but only because the school had instituted courses in the modern sciences, housed in an outlying building, lest they contaminate the famed seminary.

A portrait of Henry James by John La Farge from about 1862.On the sly, Henry James enrolled in Harvard Law School. It wasn't college, per se. It wasn't even a graduate program in those days. His father still didn't approve--but didn't seem to care enough to do more than rant at the dinner table about Harry's choices. Even so, law school seemed like a direction, a profession, something.

Months before, Harry had seriously hurt his back pumping water for a house fire in Newport. He spent most of the summer of 1862 flat on his back, reading. Allegedly, he was boning up for law school. In fact, he was reading every word Hawthorne ever wrote. He had always thought that no American could produce good literature. Then he found the modern-day Massachusetts Puritan.

The great thing was that Hawthorne existed. Harry had gotten an itch to be a man of letters. He hadn’t told anyone--especially not his father who dreamed of being a man of letters. But Harry knew of no American writers who were of the stature of the Europeans. At last, here was Hawthorne: a strange case, yes, more a student of pyschology than history, more concerned with the world of spiritualism and magnetic forces beneath the obvious externals of American life, more concerned with sin than redemption—but a rich source, nonetheless.

Harry did indeed go off to law school that year. He attended lectures given by the faculty, all successful but unimaginative lawyers who had played small parts in the American legal system. But Harvard itself was the great prize. Harry could break the claustrophobia of his family. He had friends outside his siblings—for the first time in his life. He had access to one of the great libraries in North America. And he could sneak off to hear James Russell Lowell hold forth on literature. There was no English department back then. Instead, the professors of modern languages would occasionally discuss books, Lowell more so than the others.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., about 1870It was here, too, in Cambridge, that Henry James fell in love for the first time: with Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the son of the writer, poet, lecturer and first-tier Boston Brahmin. Wendell, as he was known in his family, was a beautiful young man, given a bit to drink and the high life. Yes, he eventually became one of the greatest legal minds in the United States, sitting on the Supreme Court for decades, his mark still felt on American jurisprudence. But in the 1860s, he and the future writer consummated a fevered relationship in Harry's rooms: his private space, ever his refuge from an unpredictable and dismissive world. Harry would eventually become the great writer of the inner space, the private life. He had good cause.

In later years, Holmes dismissed the incident, writing that it all came down to a “difference in the sphere of our dominant interest.” But James was left both shattered and new--or as he would write of others up against a love that should not be: "panting." Holmes eventually spurned Harry and settled into a conventional life. And by the writer's own admission in both his journals and in the descriptions he penned, the character of Basil Ransom in THE BOSTONIANS is based directly on his first love. But the mark was left, more profound perhaps, and stiller. Years later, on tour, he wrote about that night in his journal, using all the characteristic indirection he could muster:

How can I speak of Cambridge at all. . . . The point for me (for fatal, for impossible expansion) is that I knew there, had there, in the ghostly old C[ambridge] . . . l’intitation première (the divine, the unique).

In some ways, it all started with Hawthorne.

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