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

6
"A Very Long Letter" and the
"Interest" of William

TO INTRODUCE THE CHALLENGE POSED BY WILLIAM JAMES TO THE EDWARDSIAN disinterestedness advocated by his father, the current chapter explores senior Henry's efforts to silence his opponents at the Christian Inquirer through the deployment of a dramatic monologue in the section of Lectures and Miscellanies entitled "A Very Long Letter." Without acknowledging its origins in the Christian Inquirer, "A Very Long Letter" replies to several arguments posed to the elder Henry by the newspaper. At the same time, "A Very Long Letter" evades the objections, voiced in the newspaper's letters of 29 March 1851 and 5 April 1851, that "private interests" and "personal seeking" are components of religious beneficence and the religious sentiment. For that reason, the current chapter features a discussion of William James's defense of self-interest in his psychology, philosophy, and views about religion.1 William's attention to "interest" picks up where the Christian Inquirer of 29 March 1851 left off, when Henry Whitney Bellows insisted that "Man's nature is in one view essentially selfish; and Christ has sanctified its selfishness, by making self-love the measure of fraternal love." Henry Senior's socialistic outlook on Edwardsian disinterestedness finds an even more compelling repudiation in the "interest" of William, whose views could not be silenced by dramatic monologues or other rhetorical devices employed by his father.2

Preceding miscellanies methodically flow toward "A Very Long Letter" in the course of the book's surreptitious (and retrospective) anticipation of objections posed by Bellows to Henry Senior's allegiance to the "old dogma of disinterestedness." Since, in Lectures and Miscellanies, the elder James never mentions the effective rejoinders of the Christian Inquirer, "A Very Long Letter" features a contrived salutation to an anonymous "MY DEAR ———" and commences with an only slightly modified rendering of the first paragraph of Henry Senior's letter to the Christian Inquirer of 5 April 1851.

The dramatic quality of "A Very Long Letter" foreshadows Henry Senior's much later reference to drama in order to characterize anything phenom-

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