Henry James Sr was a redoubtable patriarch who received a large inheritance from his father - an Irish immigrant who had made a fortune in upstate New York - and spent it on a life of leisure and religiosity. He shuttled back and forth to Europe on a kind of one-man cultural exchange which combined the grand tour with a Continental education for his children. During a period in England, he introduced them to the likes of Carlyle, Tennyson and John Stuart Mill. He expressed himself in a characteristically Jamesian way: 'I will not attempt to state the year in which I was born, because it is not a fact embraced in my own knowledge, but content myself with saying instead, that the earliest event of my biographic consciousness is that of my having been carried out into the streets one night, in the arms of my negro nurse, to witness a grand illumination in honour of the treaty of peace then just signed with Great Britain.' He said of Emerson that he was 'like an unsexed woman'. The remark was intended as a compliment. His religious impulse expressed itself in the devising of his own version of Christianity, which incorporated more than a scruple of Swedenborgian vastation into his ancestral Presbyterianism. His wife, Mary, about whom less is known, seems to have been all that was expected of an American mother of the mid-19th century: a provider of piety and apple pie.
LRB 5 March 1987 | PDF Download