The circumstances of Alice James’ life would have made almost anyone want to stay in bed. Born of a patriarchal father who believed women were saintly creatures incapable of real work, sister to two bona fide geniuses—the philosopher William James and the novelist Henry James—she could not possibly compete with, and of a post-war era when the women far outnumbered the men guaranteeing a surplus of spinsters...the odds seemed stacked against Alice James.
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And so she did. Stay in bed, I mean. She used illness as an escape and as a performance. She used it to guarantee love and affection and to fetch her dearest Katherine Loring from far away. She turned illness into an art, and she documented the whole thing in her diary. Seventy years after her premature death, the publication of her diary turned this young lady overshadowed by her big brothers into a star in her own right. Her diary revealed not simply a patient and a pain—although she was genuinely that—but a sharp thinker and a bright wit.
Part of the draw of Alice James is that great store of potential. But Jean Strouse in her biography manages to capture who Alice actually was, not simply what she could have been. I spoke to Strouse about the remarkable James family and why Alice remains simultaneously so captivating and so infuriating.
The James family has attracted a great many biographers through the years. Besides the obvious draw of so many great achievers in one small generation, why do you think so many writers feel compelled to dig around in their family history?
I think families are inherently interesting, and families with more than one gifted individual immensely amplify our interest. Think of the Wittgensteins, the Brontes, the Shelleys, the Mitfords, the Redgraves, Steve Jobs and Mona Simpson.
The Jameses are extraordinary not only because two of them had real genius, but also because of what each specifically achieved and who they all were. William's philosophy and psychology, and Henry's novels, broke significant new cultural ground in the exploration of human experience—and the very different works of these two men generously expanded the boundaries of American intellectual life.
Moreover, someone in the family was always on the other side of the Atlantic, and most of them wrote to and about each other with high fluency and wit. They left voluminous records of their lives, which is a tremendous gift for biographers, even though it can also be a burden—and even though you can't always take their words at face value.
Alice James has played a great many roles for a great many writers. She has been a symbol of the lost woman of the pre-feminist age, the hysteric, the spinster, the woman oppressed by the patriarchal era. In your biography, you simply treat her as a person. Do you think many biographers approach their subjects with hidden agendas? And how did you avoid such a fate—or do you think you did have an agenda?
I specifically did not want to make Alice into a symbol or symptom of female oppression, victimhood, hysteria, etc. At times, during the process of “living with” and writing about her, I grew frustrated by the radical limitations of her life—even though of course I knew all along how the story was going to turn out. I couldn't help, in the day-to-day evolution of her story, wanting it somehow to come out better, for her to have been happier, to have found more real pleasures and satisfactions.
What kept me honest was the admonition she sent to William as she was dying: "Pray, don't think of me as a creature who might have been something else, had neurotic science been born."
By "neurotic" she meant the science of nervous disorders—and she was right: Freud published his Studies on Hysteria in 1895, three years after Alice died. She knew her family and posterity would want to imagine who she "might have been." Yet her prescient plea—“don't make excuses for me; take me for what I am”—expressed her fierce sense of integrity, her hard-won philosophical acceptance and brave acknowledgment of her failures. Who she was turned out to be much more interesting than who she might have been.
I was maybe in my mid-20s when I first came across Alice's letters. The mid-20s is a time to fall in love with the stories of the hysterics and what a writer friend of mine calls the Tired Girls. Alice is someone I am fascinated by, but someone I would probably hate if I met in real life. What was your initial response to Alice when you first started to read about her, and how did it change as you did your research?
When I first “discovered” Alice I thought her story would be too depressing to live with and write about for what I thought would be two years [it turned out to be five]. I hesitated for months—then convinced myself that when she got to be too much I could change channels to Henry's novels or William's psychology or 19th-century medical thinking about neurasthenia and hysteria. Alice did get to be too much, and I did spend lots of time in those other channels—which of course helped provide deep context for her story.
I did not idealize or even like her very much at the outset. And as I said above, I got frustrated/angry with her as I watched her close all doors, one by one, to the possibilities of becoming "something else." Yet I admired her Jamesian gift for language, her wit, though it was often bitter, her struggle to find the authentic core of her own experience to deal with what it meant to be a James and a girl. And it was a tremendous privilege for me imaginatively to “live” in the brilliant, deeply troubled, competitive, fraught, highly articulate James family for five years.
How did your biography come to be reprinted by NYRB? A newly revived interest in Alice, or perhaps someone at the publishing company realized there was not a great bio of her in print?
The book [it's actually the only bio of A.J.] had been in print for nearly 30 years. The most recent edition was published by Harvard University Press in 1999, when my second biography (Morgan, American Financier) appeared. Harvard UP thought there would be fresh interest in Alice because of Morgan, and I'm glad to say they were right. When that license ended, my agent and I thought the book might fit in with the wonderful NYRB Classics, and we suggested it to the editor of the series, Edwin Frank.
Needless to say, I am a huge fan of the NYRB Classics—not only of the books Edwin chooses but of their physical design and feel as well. They are simply beautiful objects that you want to hold in your hands. Edwin found an obscure, partially destroyed painting of the Manets by Degas for the cover of the new Alice James. I could not be more pleased.
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.