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

Conclusion
William James, Henry Jr., and the
Life of the Soul Under Socialism

Writing to William James in 1901, G. H. Howison pondered the contribution of his own work, Limits of Evolution and Other Essays. "The question," said Howison, "is not whether I have answered every possible dark question, but whether I have not gone some distance in advance, upon a new and significant path, in answering such questions, or making their answer possible" (TWJ, 2:220–21). The same might be asked about the foregoing revelations of the persistence of Edwardsian theology in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century high culture, as reflected in the writings of the James family. New possibilities for scholarly dialogue and conjecture emerge from the elder Henry's channeling of true virtue toward socialism, from Henry Jr.'s literary use of his father's beliefs about phenomenalism and disinterested benevolence, and from William's "interest" in the Edwardsianism of the elder James. Underlying these issues is the father's socialistic enterprise, which has further significance for the empiricism of William and the artistry of Henry Jr.

In the year of his death, the senior James ratified his socialistic convictions through an Edwardsian disclaimer of natural affection. He excused his reluctance to write to immediate family members by evoking a "public" consciousness and "larger sympathy," which left him at liberty to ignore "private ties," including "the demand of my children and friends."1 That exaltation of disinterestedness was consistent with the senior Henry's secular view of heaven as a "state of culture in man in which charity or regard for others claims the first place, and prudence or regard for self takes the second place." To the degree that the elder Henry sometimes advanced this theoretical socialism with Darwinian rhetoric, he could define "the evolution of man's true destiny" as a need to "revolutionize" the "existing relations of creature to creator, or convert them from a polemic to a pacific character, and so bring about the complete eventual redemption of the race" (SS, 97, 134).2 Henry James Sr. never speculated, as did two of his sons, that a utopian dream could become a totalitarian nightmare.

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