Up@dawn 2.0

Monday, July 10, 2017

Week five essay July 10, 2017

                Did Henry James have an “affinity for philosophy”? Bertrand Russell stated, “To understand an age or a nation, we must understand its philosophy, and to understand its philosophy we must ourselves be in some degree philosophers.”[1] Henry James understood an age and two nations. If you want to have a greater appreciation of the scope of his knowledge, visit the James Walker library and access the catalogue which lists nine hundred eighty-one books written by him or about him.  Many of those may be eBooks, but if you walk in the stacks, you will discover twenty shelves in one area with books related to Henry James. He was a prolific writer and we are asked to comment on a portion of English Hours, an infinitesimal portion of his total production.
                Before I began to read English Hours, I wanted to understand a little of what preceded it. Henry James was born into privilege and was already traveling to Europe when he was still in his diapers. He met John Stuart Mill before he was a year old. Although he undoubtedly did not recollect the encounter, he was probably told of it when he was older. James’s father moved in the social and intellectual sphere that enabled him to meet individuals like Mill. This opportunity was not available to most people. Consequently, Henry James’s education began at a very early age and he could learn, discuss, and observe class distinctions and later comment on them in English Hours, “There are few hours of the day when a thousand smutty children are not sprawling over it, (Green Park) and the unemployed lie thick in the grass…these particular grass-plots and alleys may be said to constitute the very salon of the slums.”[2]
                James wrote the English Hours over several years. I am uncertain why he chose to list the latest writings as his first two chapters unless he wanted to begin with an overview before presenting flashbacks. Chapter 1 written in 1888 reminisces about events twenty years earlier. If we consider the timeline, he would have been twenty-five, the United States was in Reconstruction with members of Congress and the Executive engaged in a bitter controversy over restitution, repatriation and punishment, and women’s suffrage was just garnering attention.
               Per Vivian Zenari Henry James “wrote three short stories (the last in 1868) with Civil War settings, but he did not fight in the American Civil War. He was drafted, but he was exempted for unspecified medical reasons.”[3] In the Spring of 1868 he travelled to England and wrote the four stories related to his experiences; all were published in 1872. At age thirty, he had already travelled extensively and as several Americans of the era did, like Mark Twain, he reported on his travels through essays for literary magazines which were read primarily by an American audience. His writing as exhibited in “Chester” was very descriptive, detailed, and filled with imagery. He described the architecture in a manner that would induce readers to want to travel to Chester then and even today to see the “Rows” unique in all the world as well as other features, remnants of an earlier Roman civilization, but he also noted their reality of living in a world dependent on tourism for a source of income as they dealt with “the economic struggle for existence.” [4]
                He also recognized the challenges Mill’s philosophy would have met in Chester, “They suggested too what is suggested in England at every turn, that conservatism here has all the charm and leaves dissent and democracy and other vulgar variations nothing but their bald logic. Conservatism has the cathedrals, the colleges, the castles, the gardens, the traditions, the associations, the fine names, the better manners, the poetry; Dissent has the dusky brick chapels in provincial by-streets, the names out of Dickens, the uncertain tenure of the (I couldn’t determine what this one letter was), and the poor mens sibi conscia recti (the consciousness of right).”[5]
                Every philosopher that I have studied or know is very knowledgeable and well-educated and engaged in a never-ending quest to answer life’s great questions and as Bertrand Russell said to “search for certainty, it is natural to begin with our present experiences, and in some sense, no doubt, knowledge is to be derived from them.”[6] I look forward to learning more about Henry James’s experiences. One area that I am particularly intrigued about and would imagine he and Mill would have found agreement was the importance of the feminine side of human beings. Ann Douglas in her book, The Feminization of American Culture relates the overpowering effect that Margaret Fuller had on Henry James, “the ‘Margaret-ghost’ haunted him as no other could. In elucidating her strange power over him, he brings us very close to Fuller and the issue she poses. She suggested for James the boundary between fantasy and reality, literature and history, a distinction fraught for him with sexual connotations. One critic has described James as the ‘great feminine novelist of a feminine age of letters.’”[7]
                In Subjection of Women, Mill argued that, “the legal subordination of one sex to the other – is wrong in itself, and … that it ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality, admitting no power or privilege on the one side, nor disability on the other.”[8] It is reasonable to believe that Henry James read Subjection of Women, probably many times.  Maria Edgeworth was another woman besides Fuller who influenced James. He mentions in English Hours that he “perused in childhood”[9] some of her novels. Miss Edgeworth was one of the first realist and her writings may give some insight into James’s personal philosophy and his own realism.
                Was he a philosopher? Did he use a narrative format to seek answers to questions about right and wrong, good and evil? If yes, then he had an affinity for philosophy.

[1] Bertrand Russell, The History of Western Philosophy (New York, Simon & Schuster, 1945), xiv.
[2] Henry James, English Hours (New York, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989), 55.
[3] Vivian Zenari, "Henry James's civil war stories: the homefront experience and war romance." War, Literature & The Arts no. 1, 2015.
[4] James, “English Hours”, 54.
[5] Ibid. 55-56.
[6] Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy (New York, Oxford University Press, 1997), 7.
[7] Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture (New York, Avon Books, 1977), 314.

[8] John Stuart Mill, Subjection of Women, Second Edition (New York, Longmans, Green, Reader, and Dyer, 1869), 1.
[9] James, “English Hours,” 54.


  1. Terrific, Don. Some commentators want to make much of Henry's sexuality (or asexuality, or repression, or whatever) but I think you're right to focus instead on his proto-feminism: nice work connecting those dots! His relationships with women were egalitarian and, for their time, progressive. I'll bet he'd read his Mill too.

    As for being a philosopher, Henry wrote his brother after reading "Pragmatism" that he'd been a pragmatist all along without realizing it. He did seek answers, and "scenes" that would dramatically pose the questions worth answering.

  2. Don,

    How would you use Henry James in a class lecture in a Women & Gender Studies course?