The James Family: Alice, Henry, and William
Jennifer H. Williams
This course will explore the rather remarkable constellation of talent that occurred with the same family in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries: the James family. Embodying, although in a very particular way, the ideal America intellectual family, we will look at the writings of the Jameses as a window on the social, intellectual, and literary worlds of their time. William James, a physician by training, became a highly regarded psychologist and philosopher in American history. Henry James ranks among the greatest novelists in the English language. Last but not least, Alice James found herself in a role she did not particularly care to inhabit — that of the less-publicly successful little sister to her fabulously successful brothers and father. “When I am Gone,” she wrote to William as she was dying, “pray don’t think of me simply as a creature who might have been something else, had neurotic science been born.” Several critical accounts of Alice have read her in precisely the way she did not want — as a talented woman trapped in Victorian society and as adopting the role of hypochondriac in an attempt to wrest attention away from William and Henry. Alice, Henry, and Williams’s father, himself an accomplished academic, raised his children with the idea that “being extraordinary” was of vital importance, no matter what one actually chose to do. Jean Strouse writes that the preoccupation with being extraordinary “fostered in some of the Jameses a highly articulate self-awareness. . . . Most families generate myths about themselves, but few place the kind of premium the Jameses did on simultaneously reinforcing the myths and presenting private perceptions of truth for public consumptions.”
Our task, then, will be to examine to what degree the Jameses really represent a typical American family. Or, does being extraordinary make them unsuitable models? Is the value of being extraordinary itself a typical value for American culture at the time? Does being extraordinary actually allow them to be appropriate commentators on their culture? What role does the self-conscious construction of family myths play into this? Finally, is it true that Alice was not extraordinary? Are the claims that her sex prevented her from the kinds of success that her brothers enjoyed accurate? What does it mean for a woman in the 1880s and 90s to be extraordinary?
If Strouse is correct that the Jameses were deeply involved with the public consumption of their private truths, we will try to keep one eye turned to historical context as much as we can. To that end, our reading will move in a roughly chronological fashion. Proceeding chronologically will also allow us to make conjectures about the relationship between the texts the family members produced.
Written Work and Other Requirements
Written work will consist of an in-class midterm (25%), a 5-7 page paper (30%), an in-class final exam (30%), and 5 reading quizzes (5%). The remaining 10% of the grade will reward class attendance and participation.
Henry James, Portrait of a Lady
Major Stories and Essays
William James, The Principles of Psychology
The Varieties of Religious Experience
The Writings of William James, selections
Alice James, The Diary of Alice James Alice James: Her Life in Letters
Week 1 Introduction
HJ, “Daisy Miller” (1878) in Major Stories and Essays
Week 2 “Daisy Miller,” cont.
WJ, “Personal Depression and Recovery,” in Writings of WJ, 3-8
AJ, Her Life in Letters (selections)
Week 3 AJ, The Diary of Alice James (selections)
Week 4 Alice James, cont. HJ, Washington Square (1880)
Week 5 HJ, The Portrait of a Lady (1881)
Week 6 Portrait of a Lady, cont.
Week 7 WJ, Principles of Psychology (1890), in Writings of WJ, 9-133
“Does Consciousness Exist?” (1904), in Writings of WJ, 169-83
Week 8 HJ, “The Turn of the Screw” (1898), Preface to The Portrait of a Lady (1907-09), in Major Stories and Essays
Week 9 WJ, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), Lectures I, IV-VII, XIV-XX, Postscript
Week 10 WJ, “Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results” (1898). In Writings of WJ, 345-62; Pragmatism (1907)