Alice James

A Biography

by Jean Strouse

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Alice James
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A Biography
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Jean Strouse

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Biographer Jean Strouse delves into the life of Alice James, the enigmatic younger sister of the renowned intellectuals William and Henry James, with a sympathetic portrayal of a sharp-witted but conflicted writer.

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Excerpt: Alice James: A Biography

Divine Maternity and a Calvinist God

Interesting perceptions are preferable to marketable achievements only when there is enough money to go around. The money that paid for the unusual freedom of the James family had been earned long before Alice's parents were married.

On both sides, her forebears had been Calvinist for several generations. Her mother's maternal grandfather, Alexander Robertson, brought a strong Scottish strain into a lineage that was otherwise Irish. He came to New York City from Reading Parish, Palmont, Sterling County, Scotland, in 1761, at the age of twenty-eight. Two years later he married a Philadelphian, Mary Smith, whose father was also Scottish. They had eleven children before Mary died. In 1890, one of Alice's cousins told her that the Robertson descent could be traced back to Robert Bruce, King of Scotland. "I asked how," reported Alice. "'Oh, why Robertson, son of Robert — er, er, — Bruce!' She showed me the coat-of-arms, but whether it was of the house of Robertson, Bruce, or 'Er — er,' I couldn't clearly make out." Whether or not there was royal blood in Alexander Robertson's veins, he appears have been a wealthy man even before he emigrated, and by the 1780s he was a highly successful merchant in New York.

His tenth child, Alice James's grandmother Elizabeth, was born in 1781. At the age of twenty-five, she married James Walsh, a young tobacco and cotton merchant, the oldest son of her father's Irish friend Hugh Walsh. Her new father-in-law had come to Philadelphia from Killingsley, on the west shore of Strangford Lough, County Down, in 1764. During the Revolutionary War he furnished the American army with supplies, and when the war was won he bought land up the Hudson River near Newburgh, New York, and set up a general merchandise and freighting business, operating sloops between Newburgh, Albany, and New York City. He also established one of the first paper mills in New York State, and left a substantial fortune when he died in 1817, at the age of seventy-two. His wife, Catharine Armstrong, was a small, delicate woman who gave birth to nine children, was something of an invalid, and died sixteen years before her husband, at the age of forty-six.

James, Hugh and Catharine's third child, married Elizabeth Robertson on November 18, 1806. The young couple settled on John Street in lower Manhattan to be near Walsh's merchant offices, at 66 South Street. By 1815 they had six children — Alexander Robertson, Mary Robertson, Catharine, John, Hugh, and James — and had moved to a larger house, at 49 Warren Street. James Walsh was away from home much of the time on business, leaving Elizabeth to manage on her own. One morning in March of 1820, he was found dead of apoplexy in his bed in Richmond, Virginia.

Elizabeth remained in deep mourning for several years. She withdrew inside a small circle of relatives and old friends, worshiped her Presbyterian God, and continued to raise her children by herself. Although she had ample income from the estates of her husband, father, and father-in-law, she refused to spend it on cultural pleasures. Her children did not go to New York's opera, theater, museums, or concert halls; they lived quietly together at home. As they reached young adulthood, some of the sons were sent uptown to Columbia College, and several of the young Walshes were seized with a passionate Presbyterian piety. Mary, Catharine, and two of the boys joined the Murray Street Presbyterian Church.

Young Hugh Walsh soon decided to be trained for the Presbyterian ministry and enrolled at the Princeton Theological Seminary. There, in 1835, he met a fellow student, from Albany, called Henry James. The two had a great deal in common — including prosperous fathers and Presbyterian catechisms — and quickly became friends. Together they argued over the teachings of the seminary, found them unsatisfactory, and in 1837 both young men abandoned their studies at Princeton. Walsh returned to his family in New York to take up the study of medicine. Henry James, after a summer trip to the home of his ancestors in Ireland, also went to New York, but with no clear plan for further study or a career. He read widely on religion, politics, and philosophy, and he spent a great deal of time with the family of his friend Hugh, now at 19 Washington Square, where Elizabeth Walsh had had a house built for herself and those of her children who remained at home. Hugh's sisters, Mary and Catharine, were captivated by the intensity and originality of their brother's friend. Mrs. Walsh, too, was intrigued by this energetic young talker who argued so good-heartedly against her religious beliefs that she grew fond of him, though she remained unconverted. Her daughters, however, were convinced. In the comfortable parlor of Washington Square the young women listened quietly to Henry James's denunciations of Presbyterian theology, and they soon withdrew from the Murray Street Church.

Mrs. Walsh, described by her friends as prudent rather than generous, had raised her daughters carefully in her own image. Mary and Catharine were serious, practical women. They were not young — Mary was thirty in 1840, and Catharine twenty-eight. They ought to have married. Neither had artistic or intellectual aspirations: their talents and interests were entirely domestic. Both were charmed by the young man from Albany who paced their drawing room as he argued, and when Mary agreed to marry him in 1840, her decision came as no surprise to her family.

Many years later, Henry James, Sr., described his wife to their novelist son: "... She was not to me 'a liberal education,' intellectually speaking, as some one has said of his wife, but she really did arouse my heart, early in our married life, from its selfish torpor, and so enabled me to become a man. And this she did altogether unconsciously, without the most cursory thought of doing so, but solely by the presentation of her womanly sweetness and purity, which she herself had no recognition of.

Mary, for her part, found in Henry James a tender man who needed her love and ministrations; "intellectually speaking," she endorsed his ideas without question. She wrote to him, thirty years after their wedding, when she was away from home with Alice and he was ill, "My heart melts with tenderness toward you my precious one, but my prayer is that we may both be saved from the great folly and wickedness of anxiety about each other — Your loving wify." And to her mother-in-law she gave an account of one of her husband's books (probably The Church of Christ Not an Ecclesiasticism, 1854): "It is addressed to the church and meets so rationally and satisfactorily so many of the difficulties, that every one in the church, who is not a mere formalist must sometimes have felt in many of its teaching [sic], that I am sure you will read it with interest. It fills too with new meaning and beauty, so many of the old Scriptures, which we have all been taught to revere, by giving them their true spiritual significance that no one I think can read it attentively without going with new delight to their Bible."

Mary had so far accepted the unorthodox sentiments of her future husband that she agreed to a civil ceremony. On July 28, 1840, wearing India muslin and a gold headband, she was married to Henry James in her mother's parlor at 19 Washington Square by the mayor of New York, Isaac Leggett Varian.

Excerpted from Alice James: A Biography by Jean Strouse. Copyright 2011 by Jean Strouse. Excerpted by permission of New York Review Books Classics. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.