Psychoanalyzing the James family--and having a field day: a solidly documented, steadily perceptive, and long overdue...



Psychoanalyzing the James family--and having a field day: a solidly documented, steadily perceptive, and long overdue biography. We knew from the work of Ralph Barton Perry and Gay Wilson Allen that the first half of William James' life was haunted by neurasthenia, recurrent back troubles, depression, and thoughts of suicide, but Feinstein (a psychiatrist and Prof. of Psychology at Cornell) now shows how all those symptoms arose out of a life-and-death conflict with his father, Henry James, Sr. It may be that previous students were distracted by the Swedenborgian father's softheartedness or by the brilliance and happiness of his psychologist son's later career. In any ease they failed to notice what Feinstein vividly demonstrates: the ferocity of William's Oedipal feelings (especially evident in some of his sketches); the deep ambivalence of Henry James, Sr. toward his father, ""William of Albany""; the almost diabolical (though unconscious) way Henry pushed his son toward painting and then cut him off from it; William's adoption and careful cultivation of invalidism as a form of liberation. Then: his crises of rebellion, his capitulation (becoming a scientist), and final saving compromise. William joined the Harvard faculty as a physiological psychologist and then moved towards the philosophical side, where his truncated artistic instincts could find fuller expression. Though Feinstein concentrates on William, he also points out how the other James children, especially Alice, ""Wilky,"" and ""Bob,"" were affected, not to say devastated, by their meek but dominating papa. Feinstein's thesis is strong in its outline, rich in its detail: the identity of Henry's double ""ideological assault on his father and his father's God,"" the similarities between Henry's and William's nervous breakdown, the sexual implications of Henry James, Jr.'s ""struggle to individuate from William,"" etc. With the 1,300 letters William James wrote to his wife Alice locked up in the archives till the year 2022, the whole story may not yet be told. But Feinstein's account of ""the tragedy of a murdered self"" sheds penetrating light into the darker regions of one of America's great families.

Pub Date: May 1, 1984


Page Count: -

Publisher: Cornell Univ. Press

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 1984

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