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Alice James: A Biography

by Jean Strouse

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251388,551 (4.06)14
"The Jameses are perhaps the most extraordinary and distinguished family in American intellectual life. Henry's novels, celebrated as among the finest in the language, and William's groundbreaking philosophical and psychological works, have won these brothers a permanent place at the center of the nation's cultural firmament. Less well known is their enigmatic younger sister, Alice. As Jean Strouse's generous, probing, and deeply imaginative biography shows, however, Alice James was a fascinating and exceptional figure in her own right. Tortured throughout her short life by an array of nervous disorders, constrained by social convention from achieving the worldly success she so desired, Alice nevertheless emerges from this remarkable book as a personality every bit as peculiar and engaging as her two famous brothers. The moral and philosophical questions that Henry wrote up as fiction and William as science, writes Strouse, Alice simply lived. With a psychological penetration and high eloquence that are altogether Jamesian, Strouse traces the formation of a unique identity, from Alice's unconventional peripatetic childhood in continental Europe through her years of spinsterhood… (more)
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He did not claim that “woman” was incapable of learning and wisdom, but that they did not “become” her: as man’s spiritual superior, she should consent to rule him by letting him please her. But she was not man’s intellectual equal, and needed him to tell her (as Henry Sr. does in this article) about her true nature and duty…She was above all a “form of personal affection…Her aim in life is…simply to love and bless man.”

He came to the conclusion that selfish pleasure incurred punishment, and that suffering brought love. And he passed both those notions along to his own children.


If ideas had no power, we'd have no use for alcohol and politics. Here we have the biography of a woman, part and parcel of an upper class 19th century family beloved by the echelons of literature, and events fall out as expected. Maybe not for the men with their thousands of disposable income, their boundless paternal encouragement towards a career that was not for the money, their ability to theorize and move their family across continents multiple times in order to experiment on their children for the sake of said theories. Their lives were always theirs for the taking.

James [Sr.] wanted to triumph over his own selfishness by loving his children the way a mother would; but a mother did it by nature, not by choice. She was at once all virtue and no virtue, since she did not have to struggle to be good. Struggle, the essence of manhood, marked the path to divinity. Woman, therefore — mindless, selfless, naturally virtuous — was of no real account.

Alice James, a woman in the house of cosmopolitan delights. Sexually objectified by the eldest brother William, sanctified by the second eldest Henry, let alone by the two less famous of the four James' boys. All of them suffered under their father's solipsistic benevolence, his breed of pedagogy both anarchical and naive, nauseating freedom with puritanical focus that kept their intelligent minds ignorant of evil until they were let loose as adults to find a meaning of life. All suffered through mental breakdowns and crises of conscience of various intensities, but it is one thing to do so in the midst of self-assertion and institutional guidance at a distance, and quite another to live with the source that could only be escaped via submission to another.

Alice was fighting for self-control and for a strengthening sense of moral responsibility. In placing blame on an external "diabolical influx" at war with her pristine soul, her father's exonerating analysis took responsibility and control out of her hands.

Alice described wanting to “knock off the head of the benignant pater as he sat with his silver locks, writing at his table.” She disguised this murderous wish thinly, with compliments and jokes, and slipped it into her narrative as a casual aside. She could not turn the towering rage that comes through in her writing even twenty years after the experience itself against the kind father who had so blithely stimulated and thwarted her. Instead, she turned the full force of her fury on herself, making herself literally ill.


My previous experience with the infamous James' lies solely in a reading of [The Turn of the Screw] that did not end well, so rather than coming to this book in an effort to extend a long-running edifice of knowledge ever further, I came looking for a kindred spirit. My instincts weren't wrong, for the line of Dickinson-Woolf-Plath trails as long as the history of the patriarchy, and it is sickeningly easy to follow the breadcrumbs to yet another brilliant soul that made do with a toothpick while others fended freely with swords. What is special about these particular crumbs was the holistic approach of this book, one that did not flinch away from combining the assertions of the subject with the observations of the many around her, splicing movements of both history and thought into a story of times that were 'a-changin', told in such a way that one could feel it in the marrow. One could use the term 'objectivity', but I much prefer the credit Strouse gave to Alice for her life that took neither the form of infantilizing pedestal nor androcentric condemnation, but as erudite an empathy that there can be.

At the age of fourteen, she had concluded that life for her meant renunciation, a sort of spiritual suicide…

It was as if she ceded her body to the “feminine” principle of frailty and submission, while cultivating with her mind a “masculine” strength and indifference to pain.


Throughout 1887 and 1888, Alice kept a collection of quotes that lay akin to her own views. It wasn't until 1889, age 41 and four years before her death, that she began her diary, finding her "voice", as it were. I am further along at age 22 than she ever was in terms of feminism and political consciousness, but I have had both education and the Internet. Despite those differences, what she has to say in regards to nervous disorders, colonialism, and melding care for one's life with moral statutes in an immoral world are of great worth to me.

In her attitude toward her own suffering, Alice was in the process of finding a plot of moral ground on which to stand. She did have a choice about how to bear what she could not change...she wanted to learn not "forgetfulness" but rather "a certain fortitude — how to live and hold up one's head even while knowing that things were very bad. A brazen indifference...”

“Ever since I have been ill, I have longed and longed for some palpable disease, no matter how conventionally dreadful a label it might have, but I was always driven back to stagger alone under the monstrous mass of subjective sensations, which that sympathetic being ‘the medical man’ has had no higher inspiration than to assure me I was personally responsible for.”

Finding a way to think and speak for herself was, for Alice, her life’s highest aim.


I've heard mournful stories told of the advent of the digital age meaning the death of letter writing, the end of the paper trails scholars so love to dig through in search of the core of their dead patrons. While I am grateful to biographies such as these that do their subjects respect to the utmost, I hope for a day when the words of others are given more value when they are alive than when they are available for exhumation. Alice wished her diary to be published; let no one living today share her fate.

The diary made a start. In deciding to speak up at last, to articulate her life, Alice announced that private experience had inherent value, and that she had something to say about it. She was finding in the process of keeping a diary a nascent sense of self, much as William had one in determining that his first act of free will would be to believe in free will. Less assertively than William, less deliberately than Henry, Alice was taking hold of the reins at last. ( )
  Korrick | Aug 29, 2014 |
read with [book: The Jsmeses.] ( )
  dagseoul | Mar 30, 2013 |
This comprehensive book about the insightful but often thwarted Alice James, the lone daughter in the family that included novelist Henry James and psychologist and philosopher William James, shines a bright light on the post-Civil War/pre-suffrage lives of women born into educated New England households. The Civil War created a surplus of women in Massachusetts; there were almost 50,000 more women than men in 1870 and by 1880 that number had increased to 66,000. Naturally, many of these women were unable to marry, and scores of them, inspired by the success of Harriet Beecher Stowe, turned to writing popular novels. Though disparaged by the admirers of Transcendentalists like Thoreau, Emerson and Hawthorne, literature by women had a large almost captive audience of disenfranchised females.

When her diaries were published after her death Alice was celebrated as a talented writer but she was not one of the new female novelists. Alice was never expected, encouraged or often even allowed to do much of anything at all. During this era there seemed to be an epidemic of women suffering “nervous disorders”, and their number included Alice, because in spite of her excellent mind for much of her life she had no real work to do. Her father, Henry James Sr., was wild and unmanageable in his youth, rebelling against his strict religious father, and he was generally forward thinking as an adult, providing a rich environment for his children that helped nourish his oldest sons’ abilities, but there was a dichotomy in his thinking because he could only be so progressive based on his upbringing and the age he lived in. He believed women were superior to men and meant to be admired and emulated, but because of that they were uninteresting, had no need of education or cultivation, and needed to be protected. Growing up in this situation Alice spent much of her life at war with herself, and her health suffered.

This is not a downer of a book, however, because Alice ultimately does find a place for herself in the world as it was, and it’s fascinating to have an intimate glimpse of the lives of women in the late 1800’s and the and early family years of Henry and William James. Alice James: A Biography also provides many opportunities for further reading if you are interested. I haven’t been able to find a source for the diaries of Alice James, but the background information about William and Henry James inspired me to read or reread at their writing, and then there is also all those female novelists, whose work can often be downloaded as e-books at sites like Project Gutenberg. ( )
1 vote Jaylia3 | Nov 28, 2011 |
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"The Jameses are perhaps the most extraordinary and distinguished family in American intellectual life. Henry's novels, celebrated as among the finest in the language, and William's groundbreaking philosophical and psychological works, have won these brothers a permanent place at the center of the nation's cultural firmament. Less well known is their enigmatic younger sister, Alice. As Jean Strouse's generous, probing, and deeply imaginative biography shows, however, Alice James was a fascinating and exceptional figure in her own right. Tortured throughout her short life by an array of nervous disorders, constrained by social convention from achieving the worldly success she so desired, Alice nevertheless emerges from this remarkable book as a personality every bit as peculiar and engaging as her two famous brothers. The moral and philosophical questions that Henry wrote up as fiction and William as science, writes Strouse, Alice simply lived. With a psychological penetration and high eloquence that are altogether Jamesian, Strouse traces the formation of a unique identity, from Alice's unconventional peripatetic childhood in continental Europe through her years of spinsterhood

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