The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.XII. Henry James
§ 5. Parentage and Education
William James, the novelist’s grandfather, was an Irishman settled in Albany. He was described in a New York newspaper of 1832 as “the Albany business man”; and he laboured so well at business that he left several millions to be divided among twelve heirs. Otherwise the relatives of the novelist were quite innocent of practical affairs. His father, Henry James, was a philosopher-clergyman, a friend of Emerson’s, who carried with him everywhere the entire works of Swedenborg. Henry James, Jr., was born 15 April, 1843, in New York; but he went to Europe as a babe in arms. Two years later, still in long clothes and waggling his feet, he noted from the carriage window “a stately square surrounded with highroofed houses and having in the centre a tall and glorious column”—the reader will recognize the Place Vendôme. From the earliest times, in New York and Albany, all his conceptions of culture had a transatlantic origin. The caricatures of Gavarni, Nash’s lithographs of The Mansions of England, the novels of Dickens read aloud in the family circle,—these fed his imagination. He and his brothers went regularly to a New York bookseller for a boys’ magazine published in London. Even their sense of a “political order” was derived from Leech’s drawings in Punch. Their education was amazingly various and spasmodic,—better adapted, one might suppose, to the formation of novelists than of philosophers. Dozens of private schools and tutors succeeded one another in bewildering rapidity in New York, not to speak of later instruction in Bonn and Geneva, in Paris and London.
All this while the main occupation of the future novelist was the contemplative observation of character. The world of Albany and New York was a world not of vulgar persons but of artistic “values.” Everyone was interesting as a “type”: type of “personal France” or of French “adventuress” (referring to early governesses), type of orphan cousins, type of wild young man. Cousin Henry was a kind of Mr. Dick, cousin Helen a kind of Miss Trotwood. James’s account in A Small Boy and Others shows him in those early days a mere vessel of impressions suitable to the uses of art. All this was fostered by the kind of discipline, or no discipline, maintained by their metaphysical father. For religion, the boys went to all the churches, and, we gather, in much the spirit in which they approached any other æsthetic experience. As for livelihood, or occupation, the father was always inclined to discourage any immediate decision upon that point, lest a young man might prematurely limit the development of his inner life. We are reminded how small a place is taken in the stories of James by what men do to earn a living. In America, it seemed, there were—apart from the unique case of Daniel Webster—but two possible destinies for a young man. Either he went into business or he went to the dogs. But the immediate family and connections of James were always aspiring to that more liberal foreign order in which was offered the third alternative of a person neither busy nor tipsy,—a cultivated person of leisure.