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In fact, there is nothing to exclude the possibility that the vision of the epileptic occurred
the Renouvier episode. Such a theory was proposed by the psychiatrist Howard M. Feinstein in an article published in 1981, which became the basis for his fascinating work of biographical speculation,
Becoming William James
(1984). Feinstein begins with the psychiatrist’s standard presumption that whatever the etiology of a crisis, the patient’s own account of it cannot possibly be the correct one. In his diary and letters beginning around 1867 and continuing into the early 1870s, James complains continually of a bad back, an inability to use his eyes, poor digestion, restlessness, pessimism, melancholy, misanthropy, general feelings of ineffectualness, and, a few times, suicidal impulses. Something, as Miss Clavel liked to say, was not right. Feinstein’s diagnosis is family dynamics: he thinks that (among other things) Henry Sr. was driving
his son nuts on the subject of his future career. The Renouvier episode, in Feinstein’s view, was just another self-punishing effort by William during this period to take himself in hand and make something of his life—specifically, by denying himself (as the diary puts it) the “speculation and contemplative
in which my nature takes most delight.” There does indeed seem to be a load of bad superego in that passage.
Feinstein quotes a letter from William to his brother Robertson, who had settled in Milwaukee (a reasonable distance from the indeed distracting Henry Sr.), which seems to support the contention that the Renouvier episode was a hollow epiphany. The Renouvier diary entry is dated April 30, 1870; on July 25, 1870, William informs Robertson that “my own symptoms of improvement 2 months ago have not amounted to anything.” “As is so often the case with such self-treatment,” observes Dr. Feinstein, “the ‘cure’ was part of the problem.”
But Feinstein did not wish to abandon the crisis-and-recovery narrative. He only wished to invert it. In his new chronology, the Renouvier episode becomes the crisis, and the vision of the epileptic marks the breakthrough. James had the vision, Feinstein argues, not in the winter of 1870, which is where Perry and most other commentators place it, but two and a half years later; and he offers as evidence another letter to Robertson, this one written in 1874, in which William reports that “I had a crisis just before and about the time of your last visit here.” Robertson’s “last visit” to the James family home in Cambridge took place in November 1872: he had just gotten married, and was introducing his new wife to the family. (She was approved, but only just: “She is in no way responsive; takes everything as her due, is a peer of all the world, and don’t know the beginning of a life beyond sense,” Henry Sr. reported serenely to his son the novelist.)
The vision of the epileptic, Feinstein concludes, must have happened in the fall of 1872, long after the Renouvier episode. Many people, including the editors of the marvelous twelve-volume edition of
The Correspondence of William James,
have accepted Feinstein’s chronology.
But it has a few holes. The July 25, 1870, letter to Robertson which Feinstein cites to show that the Renouvier “cure” had failed
(“my own symptoms of improvement 2 months ago have not amounted to anything”) was preceded by another letter from William to Robertson, dated April 17, 1870, in which William reports that “after 3 months prostration I begin to show signs of getting on my legs again.”
This can’t be an allusion to the Renouvier episode, because the diary for April 30 states that “yesterday was a crisis in my life”—that is, April 29. What James is referring to, in fact, is his bad back, which was almost always the leading item on his list of health problems, and which at times prevented him from walking even short distances without pain. “Getting on my legs” is not a metaphor. There is, in James’s letters, always a strong correlation between the state of his back and the state of his spirits, as would be natural for someone with a chronic ailment. But he is not saying, in that July 25 letter, “Renouvier has failed me.” He’s saying that his back is bothering him again.
And the 1874 letter, also to Robertson, that Feinstein offers in support of his dating of the vision of the epileptic is at odds with his own theory. Feinstein cites the letter, but he does not quote it. Here is what it says:
I had a crisis just before and about the time of your last visit here, which was more philosophical than theological perhaps, that is did not deal with my personal relations to God as yours seem to have done [Robertson had written to William about his own developing religious interests]—but it was accompanied with anxiety and despair &c—I worked through it into the faith in free-will and into the final reign of the Good conditional on the co-operation of each of us in the sphere—small enough often—in which it is allowed him to be operative. Why God waits on our cooperation is not to be fathomed—but as a fact of experience I believe it—and having that belief open to me, I have lost much of my former interest in speculative questions—I have taken up Physiology instead of Philosophy and go along on a much calmer sea with a more even keel.
This is essentially the language of the Renouvier diary entry.
Whatever this “crisis” in the fall of 1872 entailed, therefore, it was not a renouncement of Renouvier. On November 2, 1872, James
wrote a letter to Renouvier himself, in which he expressed “the admiration and gratitude that reading your essays has inspired in me … . Thanks to you, I possess for the first time an intelligible and rational conception of freedom.”
Six weeks later, he wrote to Robertson, who was safely back in Wisconsin again, advising him that when feelings of depression come, “the only thing is to have faith and wait, and resolve whatever happens to be faithful ‘in the outward act’ (as a philosopher says) that is do as if the good were the law of being, even if one can’t for the moment really believe it. The belief will come in its time.”
And there is a letter from William’s father to Henry the novelist (then living in Rome), apparently written in March 1873, in which he reports that William has been crowing recently about the improvement in his health and spirits since the previous spring: “I ventured to ask what especially in his opinion had produced the change. He said several things: the reading of Renouvier (particularly his vindication of the freedom of the will) and of Wordsworth.”
Finally, there is a piece of evidence that has not been mentioned before, but that brings us as close as we are likely to get to this mysterious crisis of 1872. It is on a single sheet of notepaper dated October 21, 1872, and it reads, in part:
Tonight I feel full of
[optimism] because of the unforeseen awakening in me within the past few days of dormant feelings and keen powers of thought. But this is an irrational ground of reconciliation with the Universe, being based on accidental particulars of experience, the which if they happened to be of an opposite quality wd. justify an opposite conclusion. The desideration is a conception of the whole which, no matter what be the experience of the moment, will reconcile one to it. So far I see only the: “for the sake of—!” The evil is somehow mechanically continuous with the good. The latter is thus ever imminent, ever potential and for its sake I’ll go the former.
This does not correlate very well with the feelings aroused by the apparition of the epileptic patient described in
The Varieties of Religious Experience.
What is significant about these notes and letters from 1872 and 1873 is that they indicate that James was still struggling to recover from some sort of breakdown two and a half years after recording in his diary the fresh start inspired by Renouvier. Feinstein is surely right to point out that an experience that does not produce results for almost three years can hardly be counted a breakthrough. The most we can say is that Renouvier’s idea about free will was one of the things James preserved from a long period of ill health and poor spirits. It was neither the cause of a breakdown nor the cure.
the problem? In 1979, a graduate student felicitously named James William Anderson reported, in his dissertation, rumors that James had once been a patient at the McLean Asylum for the Insane, outside Boston. The same rumor has been reported since by the historian of science Robert J. Richards, who said it had been confirmed for him by “someone who had worked in the hospital in an official capacity”; by Feinstein, in
Becoming William James;
and by Alfred Kazin, who wrote in 1993 that “years ago the famous Harvard psychologist Henry A. Murray told me that at one point in his life James had put himself into McLean’s.”
In her biography of James,
Genuine Reality
, Linda Simon names a psychiatrist, Ruth Tiffany Barnhouse, who did her residency at McLean in the 1950s and who says that she saw James’s patient records in the archives there.
This fresh wrinkle has had two effects. It has devalued somewhat the biographical significance of the Renouvier episode—since if James was hospitalized, it is not likely to have been for frustration with what is, after all, a fairly ancient philosophical puzzle about whether there is such a thing as free will. And it has redirected attention to the story about the epileptic patient. Hospitalization for a mental disorder not only seems to explain the shock of recognition in that story
(“That shape am I”);
it suggests that something more is possibly being masked than the nationality of “the sufferer.” James may have had deeper reasons for not wishing to give himself away, reasons having to do with an incident in his life he wished to remain
suppressed, when he recalled the vision in
The Varieties of Religious Experience.
But is it so? The McLean Hospital (the name was changed in 1892) still exists. Robert Lowell was a patient there; so was Sylvia Plath. It is now located in Belmont, and is affiliated, as it has been since its founding, in 1811, with Massachusetts General Hospital and the Harvard Medical School. Scholars who have asked to see James’s patient records there have been informed that hospital policy forbids the release of information about individual patients, including confirmation that someone was ever a patient.
I wrote to the archivist at McLean asking whether James might simply have been at the hospital in his capacity as a medical student, and met with this boilerplate rebuff. But when I approached the administration of the hospital, I got a different response, which is that requests for information about William James had been forwarded to the James family, which has refused to permit the information to be released.
Robertson James, in later life an alcoholic, was a patient at McLean;
so was William’s cousin Kitty James Prince (he used to visit her there). And William James, Jr., James’s son, may, as Linda Simon notes in her biography, also have been hospitalized at McLean for depression. So that the family’s reluctance to send researchers into the archives looking for folders labeled “James”—or even “James, William”—might only be an effort to protect the privacy of some of its less celebrated members. On the other hand, if the celebrated one was never an inmate, a statement to that effect would have sufficed to shield the rest. In the absence of such a statement, we can probably assume that he was.
The next question is, When? What makes incomplete biographical information generally worse than no information at all is that speculation fills the gaps and eventually becomes indistinguishable from “the facts”—as has happened with the dating of the episode of the epileptic patient. In the case of James’s hospitalization, the inclination is to insert the information into the period of his physical and mental distress—that is, sometime between 1867, when he began to complain regularly about his various symptoms, and late
1872, when, at the age of thirty, he finally got a job, as a part-time teacher at Harvard—and then to try to rewrite the crisis-and-recovery narrative around it.
The boldest venture in this direction so far is by Kim Townsend, in an original book called
Manhood at Harvard,
which is about the construction of a weirdly brittle culture of masculinity in late-nineteenth-century Cambridge. James is, quite appropriately, a leading character in the book, and Townsend has a long analysis of his breakdown. Townsend thinks that James’s hospitalization occurred before 1870, and he offers a letter (until now unnoticed) that appears in the second volume of Henry James the novelist’s autobiography,
Notes of a Son and Brother
(1914), as a possible smoking gun.
The letter is from Henry Sr. to Henry the novelist, written, according to the autobiography, in “the spring of ’70.” “Horatio Alger is writing a Life of Edwin Forrest,” the father reports in this letter, and has recently paid a visit to the James home in Cambridge. (Forrest was a popular actor whom Henry Sr. had known when the family was living in New York City.) “Alger talks freely about his own late insanity,” the letter continues, “—which he in fact appears to enjoy as a subject of conversation and in which he has somewhat interested William, who has talked with him a good deal of his experience at the Somerville Asylum.”
“The Somerville Asylum” is McLean, which was originally located in Somerville. The “his” in that last clause is ambiguous: it can refer either to William’s or to Alger’s “experience at the Somerville Asylum.” But Horatio Alger was never a patient in an asylum.
Townsend (following Feinstein) believes that the episode of the epileptic patient happened later, in 1872, but he also thinks that the passage recalling it contains a screen memory: he thinks that the patient (“a black-haired youth with greenish skin, entirely idiotic, who used to sit all day … with his knees drawn up against his chin, and the coarse gray undershirt, which was his only garment, drawn over them”) is a man who has been driven insane by masturbation. Thus the shock of identification, and thus the “panic fear.”
The notion that James had a “problem” with what one biographer
rather quaintly calls “self-abuse”
predates the rumor about McLean. It seems to have been introduced to the world by the historian Cushing Strout, in an article published in 1968. Strout’s idea is that the episode of the epileptic occurred sometime between 1866, when James returned from a scientific expedition to Brazil led by Louis Agassiz, and decided that he didn’t want to become a naturalist, and 1869, when he received his medical degree, and decided that he didn’t want to become a doctor. Strout thinks that James became convinced, after reading a work called
The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs,
by William Acton, that there is a linkage between introspection (“speculation and contemplative
”) and masturbation, and between masturbation and insanity. So that, Strout concludes: “That hideous figure [of the epileptic] … objectified not only the self-punishing guilt in his own symptoms, but also his fear of being trapped in a medical career which seemed to be his only option after his disillusionment with natural history.”
This interpretation was amplified a little by Sander Gilman, in a book on
Disease and Representation
, who suggested that the source for James’s vision of the epileptic patient might have been a work called
Des maladies mentales,
by Jean Etienne Dominique Esquirol, published in 1838 (and written, as Gilman points out, in the supposed language of James’s “sufferer”). Esquirol’s book contains full-length illustrations (drawings, obviously, not photographs) of mentally ill persons, one of which depicts a patient who looks uncannily like the epileptic described by James, and whom Esquirol identifies as an idiot and a masturbator. “James’s fear of madness,” Gilman concludes, “ … was a direct fear of receding into madness as a result of his own behavior.” And he quotes a passage from James’s diary, dated February 1, 1870, which, he says, refers to James’s masturbatory habit “in a direct manner”: “Hitherto I have tried to fire myself with the moral interest, as an aid in the accomplishing of certain utilitarian ends of attaining certain salutary but difficult habits. I tried to associate the feeling of Moral degradation with failure … . But in all this I was cultivating the moral … only as a means and more or less humbugging myself.”
We have moved some distance from the philosophy of Charles Renouvier.
The notion of William James as a compulsive masturbator (but
are they, as the protagonist of the episode in the
says of himself, afraid of the dark?) has a certain sensational appeal, so it is slightly disappointing to discover that every one of the leaves comes off this biographical onion. Townsend has, to begin with, made a mistake all students of the Jameses eventually learn to avoid, which is to rely on anything Henry James says in his autobiography. Henry freely changed dates, suppressed facts, and rewrote passages from other people’s letters, and then often added injury to insult by destroying the originals. Horatio Alger didn’t write a biography of Edwin Forrest. His cousin William Alger did. William Alger was a Unitarian clergyman who lived in Boston and was a friend of Emerson, which is how he would have known Henry James, Sr. Henry James, Jr., though, had probably never heard of him, or by 1914 had forgotten him if he had, so in transcribing this letter, he very likely either added the first name or changed it to Horatio on the assumption that his ditsy father had got it wrong.
Horatio Alger, too, had been a Unitarian minister, in Brewster, on Cape Cod, but he had been obliged to resign his ministry in 1866 following accusations (which he did not contest) of pederasty with members of his congregation. He fled to New York City, and soon after began his career as the author of the famous books for boys. He continued to cultivate friendships with eligible boys, but he is supposed to have forsworn further sexual indulgence. Alger evidently felt a good deal of anguish about his “sin,” but he is not likely to have volunteered to chat about it four years later with people he barely knew, and “insanity” (Henry Sr.’s term) seems, in any case, a couple of shades too strong.
William Alger, on the other hand, really had been insane. During a trip to Europe in 1871, he collapsed in Paris and was pronounced “hopelessly insane” by Charles Brown-Séquard, a renowned physiologist. (The diagnosis was reported in the Boston newspapers: so much for nineteenth-century notions of medical confidentiality.) Alger was brought back to Boston and immediately admitted into the McLean Asylum. He was released in the spring of 1872, and was able to return to his work.
Life of Edwin Forrest: The American Tragedian
was published in 1877.
Then when did William Alger have his conversation at the James
family home about his (not William James’s) experiences at McLean? In his autobiography, Henry says his father’s letter reporting that conversation was written in “the spring of ’70”—a year before William Alger’s breakdown. But he is, as usual, making it up. Henry Sr.’s letter, changing topics, continues: “Everyone hopes that J. G. hasn’t caught a Rosamund Vincy in Miss M.” J. G. is John Chipman Gray, an intimate friend of Henry and of William’s favorite cousin, Minny Temple (who died, of tuberculosis, in 1870, and who was the inspiration thirty years later for the character of Milly Theale in
The Wings of the Dove
). Miss M. is Nina Mason; she and John Gray were married on June 4, 1873. Rosamund Vincy, of course, is the woman who marries and then ruins the ambitious physician Tertius Lydgate in George Eliot’s
That novel was published in December 1872. Henry’s date was therefore three years off. His father’s letter was written not in 1870, the year of the Renouvier diary entry, but in 1873. (The life of the Grays, by the way, did not imitate art. John Gray cofounded Ropes & Gray, the famous Boston law firm, and was a professor for forty years at the Harvard Law School. Nina Gray became, in later years, a confidant of her husband’s old friend Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.) The “Horatio Alger letter,” in short, is a red herring.
Which leaves the self-abuse. There is no evidence that James ever read Acton on
The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs
or Esquirol on
Des maladies mentales.
But (as Townsend notes) he did read, and with some admiration, Henry Maudsley’s
Body and Mind
(1870), a respected psychology text, which warns that “the development of puberty may lead indirectly to insanity by becoming the occasion of a vicious habit of self-abuse in men.”
But the connection between masturbation and mental disorder was a commonplace of nineteenth-century neurology. James was a medical student with a special interest in nervous disorders; he would not have needed any particular book to pick up the idea.
Leaving psychoanalytic interpretations of the story of the epileptic patient aside for the moment, it is not easy to find evidence that James ever felt that he had a problem with masturbation himself. The passage from his diary that Gilman quotes—“Hitherto I have
tried to fire myself with the moral interest, as an aid in … attaining certain salutary but difficult habits”—is suggestive, but only if we read “moral” and “habit” in a twentieth-century sense. James was taking those terms from Alexander Bain’s
The Emotions and the Will
(1859), for decades a standard text in British psychology and a work James later relied on in key sections of his own
Principles of Psychology.
(This is the same Bain who turns up in the Renouvier entry three months later: “Today has furnished the exceptionally passionate initiative which Bain posits as needful for the acquisition of habits.”) In a chapter called “Moral Habits,” Bain uses, as an example of a situation in which such habits might be developed, what he describes as “one of the strongest of our fleshly indulgences”: sleeping late. The passage is such a choice specimen of the Victorian rhetoric of moral hygiene that it is worth quoting the heroic climax:
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