The Nature of True Virtue: Theology, Psychology, and Politics in the Writings of Henry James, Sr., Henry James, Jr., and William James

By James Duban | Go to book overview

10
The Nature of Radical Virtue:
The Bostonians and The Princess Casamassima

ATTENTIVE TO THE ATTRACTION HARBORED BY THE ELDER JAMES FOR JONATHAN Edwards's The Nature of True Virtue, preceding chapters have shown how several of Henry Jr.'s most culturally refined and economically ambitious characters refuse to concede the base "nature" of their claims to virtue. They instead disguise self-interest as disinterested benevolence. Still, selfishness spans political inclination and class stratification. Aunt Maud, in The Wings of the Dove, "'fairly terrorises'" with her own self-seeking "'idea'" (WD, 370); so do the radical idealists of The Bostonians and The Princess Casamassima. Published consecutively in 1886, these novels illustrate the paucity of virtue among social reformers, whose utopianism masks reckless self-indulgence and whose intolerance of aesthetic endeavor proves antagonistic to the very existence of the artistic impulse that the senior James naïvely associated with the life of the soul under socialism. In several vital respects, therefore, these political novels are indebted to—and respond to—"the father."

While The Bostonians and The Princess Casamassima most conspicuously resonate with the feminist and anarchist movements of nineteenthcentury America and Europe, these novels likewise allude to the "armchair" socialism of the elder Henry and anticipate the subtle criticism of the father's radicalism found in A Small Boy and Others and Notes of a Son and Brother. Moreover, just as William James challenged Edwardsian premises about disinterestedness—including the place of "true virtue" in the political theology of his father—so The Bostonians and The Princess Casamassima dramatize how the radical virtue of Olive Chancellor, the Princess Casamassima, and Paul Muniment is undermined, despite their disinterested political rhetoric, by passion, envy, and self-serving amusement of a kind that Hawthorne had depicted in the social reformers of The Blithedale Romance.1 Still, Henry Jr. believed that Hawthorne's novel lets the author's radical companions "off easily" after they advance "a hundred interested

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