When, in the summer of 1898, at the age of 56, William James went to Berkeley, California to deliver a series of lectures on pragmatism, he could have used his own life to illustrate the immensely difficult but successful application of one of its tenets: that truth is best seen as 'what it is better for us to believe', not as 'as an accurate representation of reality', and that what is better for us to believe is what can be ascertained only in and through our actions, not by consultation with fixed ideas or traditions or, notably in his case, by family example. Until his late thirties, like his father, the theologian Henry James Sr, he had experienced breakdowns in which invalidism was compounded by the threat of insanity; like his brother Henry, 15 months his junior, he had had acute problems with his back and with constipation; like his sister Alice and another brother, Robertson, he had suffered nervous collapses, then called neurasthenia, which were augmented by recurrent eye troubles. Thanks to the further example of his father, who was famously leisured and vague ('I am determined,' he wrote a friend, 'to take holiday for the rest of my life and to make all my work sabbatical'), and to his mother's benevolent inducement of hypochondria in all five of her children, William had been in danger of devoting himself, in Alice's phrase, to the 'life-long occupation of improving', even as he tried to make a go now of one thing, now of another. Howard Feinstein has written a brilliant study of William's crises over idleness, illness and vocation, within the context of intense parental and sibling entanglements, especially as these lead back to his father's own conflicts with his father, the fearsome William James of Albany. In the process, Feinstein offers an appalling account of the high incidence in three generations of the James family, and of many other privileged families in 19th-century New England, of affective disorders, alcoholism and psychopathology.
LRB 18 October 1984 | PDF Download