Stephen Dewhurst's Autobiography

[Among the papers left by Mr. Henry James, Sr., was one entitled “Immortal Life : illustrated in a brief autobiographic sketch of the late Stephen Dewhurst. Edited, with an introduction by Henry James.” Under the slight disguise of a fictitious autobiography, Mr. James began a sketch of the growth of his mind upon a back-ground of personal history. The paper was left in a fragmentary form, and is here published, with two omissions and with the exception of the explanatory introduction.]



I WILL not attempt to state the year in which I was born, because it is not a fact embraced in my own knowledge, but content myself with saying instead, that the earliest event of my biographic consciousness is that of my having been carried out into the streets one night, in the arms of my negro nurse, to witness a grand illumination in honor of the treaty of peace then just signed with Great Britain. From this circumstance I infer, of course, that I was born before the year 1815, but it gives me no warrant to say just how long before. The net fact is that my historic consciousness, or my earliest self-recognition, dates from this municipal illumination in honor of peace. So far, however, as my share in that spectacle is concerned, I am free to say it was a failure. That is, the only impression left by the illumination upon my imagination was the contrast of the awful dark of the sky with the feeble glitter of the streets; as if the animus of the display had been, not to eclipse the darkness, but to make it visible. You, of course, may put what interpretation you choose upon the incident, but it seems to me rather emblematic of the intellect, that its earliest sensible foundations should thus be laid in “ a horror of great darkness.”

My father was a successful merchant, who early in life had forsaken Ins native Somerset County,1 with its watery horizons, to settle in Baltimore ;2 where on the strength of a good primary education, in which I was glad to observe some knowledge of Latin had mingled, he got employment as a clerk in a considerable mercantile house, and by his general intelligence and business sagacity erelong laid the foundations of a prosperous career. When I was very young I do not remember to have had much intellectual contact with my father save at family prayers and at meals, for he was always occupied during the day with business ; and even in the frank domestic intercourse of the evening, when he was fond of hearing his chil dren read to him, and would frequently exercise them in their studies, I cannot recollect that he ever questioned me about my out-of-door occupations, or about my companions, or showed any extreme solicitude about my standing in school. He was certainly a very easy parent, and I might have been left to regard him perhaps as a rather indifferent one, if it had not been for a severe illness which befell me from a gun-shot wound in my arm, and which confined me for a long time to the house, when his tenderness to me showed itself so assiduous and indeed extreme as to give me an exalted sense of his affection.3 My wound had been very severe, being followed by a morbid process in the bone which ever and anon called for some sharp surgery ; and on these occasions I remember — for the use of anæsthetics was still wholly undreamt of — his sympathy with my sufferings was so excessive that my mother had the greatest possible difficulty in imposing due prudence upon his expression of it.

My mother was a good wife and mother, nothing else, — save, to be sure, a kindly friend and neighbor. The tradition of the house, indeed, was a very charitable one. I remember that my father was in the habit of having a great quantity of beef and pork and potatoes laid by in the beginning of winter for the needy poor, the distribution of which my mother regulated ; and no sooner was the original stock exhausted than the supply was renewed with ungrudging hand. My mother, I repeat, was maternity itself in form ; and I remember, as a touching evidence of this, that I have frequently seen her during my protracted illness, when I had been greatly reduced and required the most watchful nursing, come to my bedside fast asleep, with her candle in her hand, and go through the forms of covering my shoulders, adjusting my pillows, and so forth, just as carefully as if she were awake. The only other thing I have to remark about her is, that she was the most democratic person by temperament I ever knew. Her father.4 who spent the evening of his days in our family, was a farmer of great respectability and considerable substance. He had borne arms in the Revolutionary War, was very fond of historic reading, had a tenacious memory, and used to exercise it upon his grandchildren at times to their sufficient ennui. I never felt any affectionate leaning to him. Two of his brothers had served throughout the war in the army, — one of them, Colonel F. B.,5 having been a distinguished and very efficient officer in various engagements, and an intimate friend of Washington ; the other, Major W. B.,6 who, if my memory serve me, was an aid of General Lafayette. These of course are never ungratifying facts to the carnal mind; and when accordingly we children used to ask our mother for tales about her uncles, she gave us to be sure what she had to give with good-will, but I could very well see that for some reason or other she never was able to put herself in our precise point of view in reference to them. She seemed some way ashamed, as well as I could gather, of having had distinguished relations. And then I remember I used to feel surprised to see how much satisfaction she could take in chatting with her respectable sewing-women, and how she gravitated as a general thing into relations of the frankest sympathy with every one conventionally beneath her. I should say, indeed, looking back, that she felt a tacit quarrel with the fortunes of her life in that they had sought to make her a flower or a shrub, when site herself would so willingly have remained mere lowly grass.

But I must say one word of my mother’s mother, whose memory I cherish much more than that of my grandfather. She came to us at times in winter, and as long as she lived we spent a month of every summer with her in the country, where I delighted to drive the empty ox-cart far afield to bring in a load of fragrant hay, or gather apples for the cider-press, refreshing myself the while with a well - selected apricot or two. She was of a grave, thoughtful aspect, but she had a most vivacious love of children, and a very exceptional gift of interesting them in conversation, which greatly endeared her society to me. It was not till I had grown up, and she herself was among the blessed, that I discovered she had undergone a great deal of mental suffering, and dimly associated this fact somehow with the great conscience she had always made of us children. She had been from youth a very religious person, without a shadow of skepticism or indifference in her mental temperament; but as life matured and her heart became mellowed under its discipline, she fell to doubting whether the dogmatic traditions in which she had been bred effectively represented divine truth. And the conflict grew so active erelong between this quickened allegiance of her heart to God and the merely habitual deference her intellect was under to men’s opinions, as to allow her afterwards no fixed rest this side of the grave. In her most depressed condition, however, she maintained an equable front before the world, fulfilled all her duties to her family and her neighborhood, and yielded at last to death, as I afterwards learned, in smiling confidence of a speedy resolution of all her doubts. I never failed to contrast the soft flexibility and sweetness of her demeanor with the stoicism of my grandfather’s character, and early noted the signal difference between the rich spontaneous favor we children enjoyed at her hands and the purely voluntary or polite attentions we received from him. Nor could I doubt when in after years my own hour of tribulation sounded, and I too felt my first immortal longing “ to bathe myself in innocency,” that this dear old lady had found in the ignorance and innocence of the grandchildren whom she loved to hug to her bosom a truer gospel balm, a far more soothing and satisfactory echo of divine knowledge, than she had ever caught from the logic of John Calvin.

I have nothing to say of my brothers and sisters, who were seven in number, except that our relations proved always cordially affectionate; so much so, indeed, that I cannot now recall any instance of serious envy or jealousy between us. The law of the house, within the limits of religious decency, was freedom itself, and the parental will or wisdom had very seldom to be appealed to to settle our trivial discords. I should think, indeed, that our domestic intercourse had been on the whole most innocent as well as happy, were it not for a certain lack of oxygen which is indeed incidental to the family atmosphere, and which I may characterize as the lack of any ideal of action but that of self-preservation. It is the curse of the worldly mind, as of the civic or political state of man to which it affords a material basis; it is the curse of the religious mind, as of the ecclesiastical forms to which it furnishes a spiritual base, — that they both alike constitute their own ideal, or practically ignore any ulterior Divine end. I say it is their curse, because they thus conflict with the principles of universal justice, or God’s providential order in the earth, which rigidly enjoins that each particular thing exist for all, and that all things in general exist for each. Our family at all events perfectly illustrated this common vice of contented isolation. Like all the other families of the land it gave no sign of a spontaneous religious culture, or of affections touched to the dimensions of universal man. In fact, religious truth at that day, as it seems to me, was at the very lowest ebb of formal remorseless dogmatism it has ever reached, and offered nothing whatever to conciliate the enmity of unwilling hearts. When I remember the clergy who used to frequent my father’s house, which offered the freest hospitality to any number of the cloth, and recall the tone of the religious world generally with which I was familiar, I find my memory is charged with absolutely no incident, either of manners or conversation, which would ever lead me to suppose that religion was anything more in its votaries than a higher prudence, or that there was anything whatever in the Divine character as revealed in the gospel of Christ to inflame in common minds an enthusiasm of devotion, or beget anything like a passionate ardor of self-abasement.

Thus the entire strain of the Orthodox faith of the period was at fault, and restricted the motions of the Divine life in us to the working out at most of a conventionally virtuous and pious repute. It was eminently respectable to belong to the church, and there were few insatiate worldlings, I suspect, who did not count upon giving in a prudent adhesion to it at the last. We children of the church had been traditionally taught to contemplate God as a strictly supernatural being, bigger personally than all the world; and not only therefore out of all sympathy with our pigmy infirmities, but exceedingly jealous of the hypocritical homage we paid to his contemptuous forbearance. This dramatic homage, however, being of an altogether negative complexion, was exceedingly trying to us. Notoriously our Orthodox Protestant faith, however denominated, is not intellectually a cheerful one, though it is not so inwardly demoralizing, doubtless, as the Catholic teaching; but it makes absolutely no ecclesiastical provision in the way of spectacle for engaging the affections of childhood. The innocent carnal delights of children are ignored by the church save at Christmas; and as Christmas comes but once a year, we poor little ones were practically shut up for all our spiritual limbering, or training in the divine life, to the influence of our ordinary paralytic Sunday routine. That is, we were taught not to play, not to dance, not to sing, not to read storybooks, not to con over our school lessons for Monday even ; not to whistle, not to ride the pony, nor to take a walk in the country, nor a swim in the river ; nor, in short, to do anything which nature specially craved. How my particular heels ached for exercise, and all my senses pined to be free, it is not worth while to recount; suffice it to say that, although I know my parents were not so Sabbatarian as many, I cannot flatter myself that our household sanctity ever presented a pleasant aspect to the angels. Nothing is so hard for a child as not-to-do ; that is, to keep his hands and feet and tongue in enforced inactivity. It is a cruel wrong to put such an obligation upon him, while his reflective faculties are still undeveloped, and his senses urge him to unrestricted action. I am persuaded, for my part at all events, that the number of things I was conventionally bound not-to-do at that tender age has made Sunday to my imagination ever since the most oppressive or least gracious and hallowed day of the week ; and I should not wonder if the repression it riveted upon my youthful freedom had had much to do with the habitual unamiableness and irritability I discover in myself.

My boyish Sundays, however, had one slight alleviation. The church to which I was born occupied one extremity of a block, and sided upon a public street. Our family pew was a large, square one, and embraced in part a window which gave upon the street, and whose movable blinds with their cords and tassels gave much quiet entertainment to my restless fingers. It was my delight to get to church early, in order to secure a certain corner of the pew which commanded the sidewalk on both sides of the street, and so furnished me many pregnant topics of speculation. Two huge chains, indeed, extended across the street at either extremity of the church, debarring vehicles from passing. But pedestrians enjoyed their liberty unimpeded, and took on a certain halo to my imagination from the independent air with which they used it. Sometimes a person would saunter past in modish costume, puffing a cigar, and gayly switching ever and anon the legs of his resonant, well-starched trousers; and though I secretly envied him his power to convert the sacred day into a festivity, I could not but indulge some doubts as to where that comfortable state of mind tended. Most of my dramatis personæ in fact wore an air of careless ease or idleness, as if they had risen from a good night’s sleep to a late breakfast, and were now disposing themselves for a genuine holiday of delights. I was doubtless not untouched inwardly by the gospel flavor and relish of the spectacle, but of course it presented to my legal or carnal apprehension of spiritual things a far more perilous method of sanctifying the day, than that offered by men’s voluntary denial of all their spontaneous instincts, of all their esthetic culture.

I may say, however, that one vision was pretty constant, and left no pharisaic pang behind it. Opposite the sacred edifice stood the dwelling-house and office of Mr. O——r, a justice of the peace ; and every Sunday morning, just as the sermon was getting well under way, Mr. O——r’s housemaid would appear upon the threshold with her crumb-cloth in hand, and proceed very leisurely to shake it over the side of the steps, glancing the while, as well as I could observe, with critical appreciation at the well-dressed people who passed by. She would do her work, as I have said, in a very leisurely way, leaving the cloth, for example, hanging upon the balustrade of the steps while she would go into the house, and then return again and again to shake it, as if she loved the task, and could not help lingering over it. Perhaps her mistress might have estimated the performance differently, but fortunately she was in church ; and I at all events was uufeignedly obliged to the shapely maid for giving my senses so much innocent occupation when their need was sorest. Her pleasant image has always remained a fixture of my memory ; and if I shall ever be able to identify her in the populous world to which we are hastening, be assured I will not let the opportunity slip of telling her how much I owe her for the fresh, breezy, natural life she imparted to those otherwise lifeless, stagnant, most unnatural Sunday mornings.



I have always, in looking back, been struck with the fact, and used at first to be somewhat disconcerted by it, that my conscience, even in my earliest years, never charged itself with merely literal or ritual defilement; that is to say, with offenses which did not contain an element of active or spiritual malignity to somebody else. For example, there was a shoemaker’s shop in our neighborhood, at which the family were supplied with shoes. The business was conducted by two brothers who had recently inherited it of their father, and who were themselves uncommonly bright, intelligent, and personable young men. From the circumstance that all the principal families of the neighborhood were customers of the shop, the boys of these families in going there to be fitted, or to give orders, frequently encountered each other, and at last got to making it an habitual rendezvous. There were two apartments belonging to the shop, — one small, giving upon the street, which contained all the stock of the concern, and where customers were received; the other, in which the young men worked at their trade and where we boys were wont to congregate, much larger, in the rear, and descending towards a garden. I was in the habit of taking with me a pocket full of apples or other fruit from home, on my visits to the shop, for the delectation of its occupants, several of the other lads doing the same ; and I frequently carried them books, especially novels, which they were fond of reading, and their judgments of which seemed to me very intelligent. The truth is, that we chits were rather proud to crony with these young men, who were so much older than ourselves, and had so much more knowledge of the world; and if their influence over us had been really educative, almost any beneficial results might have been anticipated. I do not know exactly how it came about, but one step probably led to another, until at last we found ourselves providing them an actual feast, some of us supplying edibles and other portables from our own larders and cellars. I used, I recollect, to take eggs in any number from the ample, uncounted, and unguarded stores at home, cakes, fruits, and whatever else it was handy to carry ; and I do not know to what lengths our mutual emulation in these hospitable offices might not have pushed us, when it was brought to a sudden stop. Among the urchins engaged in these foraging exploits were two sons of the governor of the State, who was a widower, and whose household affairs were consequently not so well looked after as they might have been. By the connivance of their father’s butler, these young gentlemen were in the habit of storing certain dainties in their own room at the top of the house, whence they could be conveniently transported to the shop at their leisure without attracting observation. But the governor unfortunately saw fit to re-marry soon after our drama opened, and his new wife took such good order in the house, that my young friends were forced thereafter to accomplish their ends by profounder strategy. And so it happened that their stepmother, sitting one warm summer evening at her open but unilluminated chamber-window to enjoy the breeze, suddenly became aware of a dark object defining itself upon the void between her face and the stars, but in much too close proximity to the former to be agreeable, and naturally put forth her hand to determine the law of its projection. It proved to be a bottle of madeira, whose age was duly authenticated by cobwebs and weather-stains; and from the apparatus of stout twine connected with it there seemed to be no reasonable doubt that some able engineering was at the bottom of the phenomenon. Search was made, and the engineers discovered. And to make a long story short, this discovery did not fail of course to propagate a salutary rumor of itself, and eke a tremor, to the wonted scene of our festivities, begetting on the part of the habitués of the place a much more discreet conduct for the future.

But this is not by any means the only or the chief immorality that distinguished my boyish days. My father, for example, habitually kept a quantity of loose silver in a drawer of his dressing-table, with a view, I suppose, to his own and my mother’s convenience in paying house-bills. It more than covered the bottom of the drawer, and though I never essayed to count it, I should judge it usually amounted to a sum of eight or ten dollars, perhaps double that sum, in Spanish sixpences, shillings, and quarters. The drawer was seldom locked, and even when locked usually had the key remaining in the lock, so that it offered no practical obstacle to the curiosity of servants and children. Our servants, I suppose, were very honest, as I do not recollect to have ever heard any of them suspected of interfering with the glittering treasure, nor indeed do I know that they were at all aware of its exposed existence. From my earliest days I remember that I myself cherished the greatest practical reverence for the sacred deposit, and seldom went near it except at the bidding of my mother occasionally, to replenish her purse against the frequent domestic demands made upon it, or the exaction of my own weekly stipend. My youthful imagination, to be sure, was often impressed on these occasions with the apparently inexhaustible resources provided by this small drawer against human want, but my necessities at that early day were not so pronounced as to suggest any thought of actual cupidity. But as I grew in years, and approached the very mundane age of seven or eight, the nascent pleasures of the palate began to alternate to my consciousness with those of my muscular activity, — such as marbles, kite-flying, and ball-playing ; and I was gradually led in concert with my companions to frequent a very tempting confectioner’s shop in my neighborhood, kept by a colored woman, with whom my credit was very good, and to whom, accordingly, whenever my slender store of pocket money was exhausted, I did not hesitate to run in debt to the amount of five, ten, or twenty cents. This trivial debt, growing at length somewhat embarrassing in amount, furnished the beginning of my moral, self-conscious, or distinctively human experience.

It did this all simply in making me for the first time think, with an immense though still timorous sigh of relief, of my father’s magical drawer. Thus my country’s proverbial taste for confectionery furnished my particular introduction to the tree of knowledge of good and evil. This tragical tree, which man is forbidden to eat of under pain of finding his pleasant paradisiacal existence shadowed by death, symbolizes his dawning spiritual life, which always to his own perception begins in literal or subjective darkness and evil. For what after all is spiritual life in sum ? It is the heartfelt discovery by man that God his creator is alone good, and that he himself, the creature, is by necessary contrast evil. But this life in man, being divine and immortal, is bound to avouch its proper grandeur, by thoroughly subjugating evil or death to itself; that is, absorbing it in its own infinitude. Hence it is that man, constitutionally requiring the most intimate handling of evil, or the intensest spiritual familiarity with it, actually finds himself provisionally identified with that principle, and so far furthered consequently on his way to immortal life.

The sentiment of relief which I felt at the remembrance of this well-stocked drawer remained a sentiment for a considerable time, however, before it precipitated itself in actual form. I enjoyed in thought the possibility of relief a long time before I dared to convert it into an actuality. The temptation to do this was absolutely my first experience of spiritual daybreak, my first glimpse of its distinctively moral or death-giving principle. Until then, spiritual existence had been unknown to me save by the hearing of the ear. That is to say, it was mere intellectual gibberish to me. Our experience of the spiritual world dates in truth only from our first unaffected shiver of guilt. Our youthful innocence, like every other divine-natural endowment of humanity, dwells in us in altogether latent or unconscious form, and we never truly recognize it until we have forever forfeited it to the exigencies of a more spiritual and living innocence. It is sure, for example, never to come to direct consciousness in us until we are seriously tempted to do some conventionally opprobrious thing, and have incontinently yielded to the temptation; after that, looking back at ourselves to see what change has befallen us, we become aware of our loss, and immediately, like the inapprehensive spiritual noodles we are, we bend all our energies to recover this fugacious innocence, and become henceforth its conscious guardians ! — as if man were ever capable by consciousness of embracing anything good ! As if the human conscience were ever open to anything else but evil in some of its myriad-fold modulations !

I doubtless relieved myself of debt, then, by two or three times borrowing freely from my father’s drawer, without any thought of ever making restitution. But it is idle to pretend that my action in any of these cases was spiritually criminal. It was clandestine, of course, as it could hardly help being if it were destined ever to take place at all, and was indeed every way reprehensible when judged from the established family routine or order. I had no idea at the time, of course, that the act was not sinful, for no one existed within my knowledge capable of giving me that idea. But though I should have felt excessively ashamed of myself, doubtless, if my parents had ever discovered or even suspected my clandestine operations, yet when my religious conscience became quickened and I had learned to charge myself with sin against God, I practically never found that acts of this sort very heavily burdened my penitential memory. I did not fail, I presume, to ventilate them occasionally in my daily litany, but I am sure they never any of them gave me a sense of spiritual defilement, nor ever cost me consequently a pang of godly sorrow. The reason why they did not spiritually degrade me in my own esteem was, I suppose, that they were at worst offenses committed against my parents ; and no child, as it seems to me, with the heart of a child, or who has not been utterly moralized out of his natural innocency and turned into a precocious prig, can help secretly feeling a property in his parents so absolute or unconditional as to make him a priori sure, do what he will, of preserving their affection. It would not have seemed so in ancient days, I grant. The parental bond was then predominantly paternal, whereas of late years it is becoming predominantly maternal. At that period it was very nearly altogether authoritative and even tyrannous with respect to the child ; while in our own day it is fast growing to be one of the utmost relaxation, indulgence, and even servility. My father was weakly, nay painfully, sensitive to his children’s claims upon his sympathy ; and I myself, when I became a father in my turn, felt that I could freely sacrifice property and life to save my children from unhappiness. In fact, the family sentiment has become within the last hundred years so refined of its original gross literality, so shorn of its absolute consequence, by being practically considered as a rudiment to the larger social sentiment, that no intelligent conscientious parent now thinks of himself as primary in that relation, but cheerfully subordinates himself to the welfare of his children. What sensible parent now thinks it a good thing to repress the natural instincts of childhood, and not rather diligently to utilize them as so many divinely endowed educational forces ? No doubt much honest misgiving is felt and much honest alarm expressed as to the effect of these new ideas upon the future of our existing civilization. But these alarms and misgivings beset those only who are intellectually indifferent to the truth of man’s social destiny. For my own part, I delight to witness this outward demoralization of the parental bond, because I see in it the pregnant evidence of a growing spiritualization of human life, or an expanding social consciousness among men, which will erelong exalt them out of the mire and slime of their frivolous and obscene private personality, into a chaste and dignified natural manhood. This social conscience of manhood is becoming so pronounced and irresistible that almost no one who deserves the name of parent but feels the tie that binds him to his child outgrowing its old moral or obligatory limitations, and putting on free, spiritual, or spontaneous lineaments. Indeed, the multitude of devout minds in either sex is perpetually enlarging who sincerely feel themselves unfit to bear, to rear, and above all to educate and discipline children without the enlightened aid and furtherance of all mankind. And it is only the silliest, most selfish and arrogant of men that can afford to make light of this very significant fact.

But to resume. What I want particularly to impress upon your understanding is that my religious conscience in its early beginnings practically disowned a moral or outward genesis, and took on a free, inward, or spiritual evolution. Not any literal thing I did, so much as the temper of mind with which it was done, had power to humble me before God or degrade me in my own conceit. What filled my breast with acute contrition, amounting at times to anguish, was never any technical offense which I had committed against established decorum, but always some wanton, ungenerous word or deed by which I had wounded the vital self-respect of another, or imposed upon him gratuitous personal suffering. Things of this sort arrayed me to my own consciousness in flagrant hostility to God, and I never could contemplate them without feeling the deepest sense of sin. I sometimes wantonly mocked the sister who was nearest me in age, and now and then violently repelled the overtures of a younger brother who aspired to associate himself with me in my sports and pastimes. But when I remembered these things upon my bed, the terrors of hell encompassed me, and I was fairly heart-broken with a dread of being estranged from God and all good men. Even now I cannot recur to these instances of youthful depravity in me without a pungent feeling of self-abasement, without a meltingly tender recognition of the Divine magnanimity. I was very susceptible of gratitude, moreover, and this furnished another spur to my religious conscience. For although I abounded in youthful cupidity of every sort, I never got the satisfaction of my wishes without a sensible religious thankfulness. Especially rife was this sentiment whenever I had had a marked escape from fatal calamity. For I was an ardent angler and gunner from my earliest remembrance, and in my eagerness for sport used to expose myself to accidents so grave as to keep my parents in perpetual dread of my being brought home some day disabled or dead. I distinctly remember how frequently on these occasions, feeling what a narrow escape I had had from rock or river, I was wont to be visited by the most remorseful sense of my own headlong folly, and the most adoring grateful sentiment of the Divine long-suffering.

To sum up all in a word : my religious conscience, as well as I can recall it, was from infancy an intensely living one, acknowledging no ritual bonds, and admitting only quasi spiritual, that is natural, satisfactions. There was of course a certain established order in the house as to coming and going, as to sleeping and waking, as to meal-times and morning prayers, as to study hours and play hours, and so forth. I certainly never exhibited any willful disrespect for this order, but doubtless I felt no absolute respect for it, and even violated it egregiously whenever my occasions demanded. But at the same time nothing could be more painful to me than to find that I had wounded my father’s or mother’s feelings, or disappointed any specific confidence they had reposed in me. And I acutely bemoaned my evil lot whenever I came into chance personal collision with my brothers or sisters. In short, I am satisfied that if there had been the least spiritual Divine leaven discernible within the compass of the family bond; if there had been the least recognizable subordination in it to any objective or public and universal ends, — I should have been very sensitive to the fact, and responsive to the influences it exerted. But there was nothing of the sort. Our family righteousness had as little felt relation to the public life of the world, as little connection with the common hopes and fears of mankind, as the number and form of the rooms we inhabited ; and we contentedly lived the same life of stagnant isolation from the race which the great mass of our modern families live, its surface never dimpled by anything but the duties and courtesies we owed to our private friends and acquaintances.

The truth is that the family tie— the tie of reciprocal ownership which binds together parent and child, brother and sister — was when it existed in its integrity a purely legal, formal, typical tie, intended merely to represent or symbolize to men’s imagination the universal family, or household of faith, eventually to appear upon the earth. But it never had the least suspicion of its own spiritual mission. It was bound in fact, in the interest of self-preservation, to ignore this its vital representative function, to regard itself as its own end, and coerce its children consequently into an allegiance often very detrimental to their future spiritual manhood. For any refining or humanizing influence, accordingly, which the family is to exert upon its members, we must look exclusively to the future of the institution, when it will be glorified for the first time into a natural or universal bond. It is a denial of order to demand of the subterranean germ what we expect of the full corn in the ear. If, for example, the family as it once existed had ever been conscious of its strictly representative virtue; if it had for a moment recognized that spiritual Divine end of blessing to universal man which alone inwardly consecrated it,— it would have incontinently shriveled up in its own esteem, and ceased thereupon to propagate itself ; so defeating its own end. For the only spiritual Divine end which has ever sanctified the family institution and shaped its issues is the evolution of a free society or fellowship among men ; inasmuch as the family is literally the seminary of the race, or constitutes the sole Divine seed out of which the social consciousness of man ultimately flowers. Thus the only true Divine life or order practicable within the family precinct, the only sentiment truly spiritual, appropriate to the isolated as such, would have been fatal to its existence, as it would have taken from it its proper pride of life ; for it would have consisted in each of its members freely disowning all the rest in the faith of a strictly unitary spiritual paternity or being to all men, and a strictly universal natural maternity or existence.

We seem in fact only now becoming qualified to realize the spiritual worth of the family considered as a representative economy. For unquestionably we do as a people constitutionally reject — in the symbols of priest and king — the only two hitherto sacred pillars upon which the ark of man’s salvation has rested, or which have based his public and private righteousness; and it is very clear that we could not have rejected the symbol unless the substance had first come empowering us so to do. That is to say, we as a people are without any proper political and religious life or consciousness which is not exclusively generated by the social spirit in humanity, or the truth of an approaching marriage between the public and private, the universal and the particular interests of the race; so that our future welfare, spiritual and material, stands frankly committed to the energies of that untried spirit. Happy they who, in this twilight of ever-deepening spiritual unbelief within the compass of the old symbolic Church, and hence of everwidening moral earthquake, confusion, and desolation within the compass of the old symbolic State, intelligently recognize the serene, immaculate divinity of the social spirit, feel their souls stayed upon the sheer impregnable truth of human society, human fellowship, human equality, on earth and in heaven! For they cannot fail to discern in the gathering “ clouds of heaven,” or the thickening obscuration which to so many despairing eyes is befalling the once bright earth of human hope, the radiant chariot-wheels of the long-looked-for Son of Man, bringing freedom, peace, and unity to all the realm of God’s dominion. But these persons will be the promptest to perceive, and the most eager to confess, that the family bond with us, as it has always been restricted to rigidly literal dimensions, and never been allowed the faintest spiritual significance, so it must henceforth depend for its consideration wholly and solely upon the measure in which it freely lends itself to reproduce and embody the distinctively social instincts and aspirations of the race.



Considering the state of things I have been depicting as incident to my boyish experience of the family, the church, and the world, you will hardly be surprised to hear me express my conviction that the influences—domestic, ecclesiastical, and secular — to which I was subjected exerted a most unhappy bearing upon my intellectual development. They could not fail to do so in stimulating in me, as they did, a morbid doctrinal conscience.

The great worth of one’s childhood to his future manhood consists in its being a storehouse of innocent natural emotions and affections, based upon ignorance, which offer themselves as an admirable Divine mould or anchorage to the subsequent development of his spiritual life or freedom. Accordingly, in so far as you inconsiderately shorten this period of infantile innocence and ignorance in the child, you weaken his chances of a future manly character. I am sure that my own experience proves this truth. I am sure that the early development of my moral sense was every way fatal to my natural innocence, the innocence essential to a free evolution of one’s spiritual character, and put me in an attitude of incessant exaction — in fact, of the most unhandsome mendicancy and higgling — towards my creative source. The thought of God in every childish mind is one of the utmost awe and reverence, arising from the tradition or rumor of his incomparable perfection ; and the only legitimate effect of the thought, accordingly, when it is left unsophisticate, is to lower his tone of self-sufficiency, and implant in his bosom the germs of a social consciousness, — that is, of a tender, equal regard for other people. But when the child has been assiduously taught, as I was, that an essential conflict of interests exists between man and his Maker, then his natural awe of the Divine name practically comes in only to aggravate his acquired sense of danger in that direction, and thus preternaturally to inflame all his most selfish and sinister cupidities. Our native appreciation of ourselves or what belongs to us is sufficiently high at its lowest estate ; but you have only to dispute or put in peril any recognized interest of man, and you instantly enhance his appreciation of it a hundred-fold.

Our selfhood, or proprium, is all we have got to dike out the inflowing tides of the spiritual world, or serve as a barricade against the otherwise overwhelming influence of heaven and hell. My body isolates me from the world, or separates between me and the outward or finite ; but I should be literally stifled in my own inward genesis, actually suffocated in my creative substance, were it not for this sentiment of selfhood, — the sentiment of a life within so much nearer and dearer to me than that of the world, so much more intimately and exquisitely my own than the life of the world is, as spiritually to guarantee me even against God or the infinite. The world gives me sensible constitution or existence, and if consequently you put yourself between me and the world, you doubtless inflict a sensible but not necessarily a vital injury upon me. But my selfhood, or proprium, is all I know of spiritual life or inward immortal being, is all I am able consciously to realize of God himself, in short; and whenever, therefore, you impinge upon that, — as when you assail my vital self-respect, when you expose me to gratuitous contumely or contempt, when you in any manner suppress or coerce my personal freedom to your own profit, — you put yourself, as it were, between me and God, at all events between me and all I thus far spiritually or livingly know of God ; you darken my life’s sun at its very centre, and reduce me to the torpor of death. You fill my interiors in short with an unspeakable anguish, and a resentment that knows no bounds ; that will stickle at absolutely nothing to give me relief from your intolerable invasion.

The thought of God as a power foreign to my nature, and with interests therefore hostile to my own, would have wilted my manhood in its cradle, would have made a thoughtful, anxious, and weary little slave of me before I had entered upon my teens, if it had not been for nature’s indomitable uprightness. It aroused a reflective self-consciousness in me when I ought by natural right to have been wholly immersed in my senses, and known nothing but the innocent pleasures and salutary pains they impart. I doubt whether any lad had ever just so thorough and pervading a belief in God’s existence, as an outside and contrarious force to humanity, as I had. The conviction of his supernatural being and attributes was burnt into me as with a red-hot iron, and I am sure no childish sinews were ever more strained than mine were in wrestling with the subtle terror of his name. This insane terror pervaded my consciousness more or less. It turned every hour of unallowed pleasure I enjoyed into an actual boon wrung from his forbearance ; made me loath at night to lose myself in sleep, lest his dread hand should clip my thread of life without time for a parting sob of penitence, and grovel at morning dawn with an abject slavish gratitude that the sweet sights and sounds of nature and of man were still around me. The terror was all but overpowering; yet not quite that, because it called out a juvenile strategy in me which gave me, as it were, a new proprium, or at all events enabled me bel et bien to hold my own. That is to say, nature itself came to my aid when all outward resources proved treacherous, and enabled me to find in conventionally illicit relations with my kind a gospel succor aud refreshment which my lawful ties were all too poor to allow.

There was nothing very dreadful, to be sure, in these relations, and I only bring myself to allude to them by way of illustrating the gradual fading out or loss of stamina which the isolated family tie is undergoing in this country, and indeed everywhere, in obedience to the growing access of the social sentiment. Man is destined to experience the broadest conceivable unity with his kind, — a unity regulated by the principle of spontaneous taste or attraction exclusively, — and it is only our puerile civic régime, with its divisions of rich and poor, high and low, wise and ignorant, free and bond, which keeps him from freely realizing this destiny. Or rather let us say that it is the debasing influence which this civic régime exerts upon the heart and mind of men, that keeps them as yet strangers even in thought to their divine destiny. Now the isolated family bond is the nucleus or citadel of this provisional civic economy ; and practically, therefore, the interest of the isolated family is the chief obstacle still presented to the full evolution of human nature. Accordingly, even in infancy the family subject feels an instinct of opposition to domestic rule. Even as a child he feels the family bond irksome, and finds his most precious enjoyments and friendships outside the home precinct. I do not say that the family in this country consciously antagonizes the social spirit in humanity, or is at all aware, indeed, of that deeper instinct of race-unity which is beginning to assert itself. For the family with us is not an institution, as it is and always has been in Europe, but only a transmitted prejudice, having no public prestige in any case but what it derives from the private worth of its members. Still it is a very rancorous and deep-rooted prejudice, and speculatively operates every sort of vexatious hindrance to the spread of the social spirit. The “ rich ” family looks down upon the “ poor ” family, the cultivated family upon the uncultivated one, the consequence being that this old convention which we have inherited from our European ancestry still profoundly colors our practical ethics, and blights every effort and aspiration towards race-harmony.

I have no desire, either, to intimate that I myself suffered from any particularly stringent administration of the family bond. My intercourse with my parents was almost wholly destitute of a moral or voluntary hue. Whether it was that the children of the family were exceptionally void in their personal relations of malignity or not, I do not know ; but strive as I may I cannot remember anything but a most infrequent exhibition of authority towards us on my father’s part. And as to my mother, who was all anxiety and painstaking over our material interests, she made her own personal welfare or dignity of so little account in her habitual dealings with us, as to constitute herself for the most part a law only to our affections. I presume, however, that our childish intercourse with one another was unusually affectionate, since it incessantly gave birth to relations of the most frankly humoristic quality, which would have been repugnant to any tie of a mere dutiful regard.

Nevertheless, I was never so happy at home as away from it. And even within the walls of home my happiest moments were those spent in the stable talking horse talk with Asher Foot, the family coachman; in the wood-house talking pigeons, chickens, and rabbits with Francis Piles, the out-door servant; in the kitchen in the evenings hearing Dinah Foot, the cook, and Peter Woods, the waiter, discourse of rheumatism, Methodism, and miracle with a picturesque good faith, superstition, and suavity that made the parlor converse seem insipid, or, finally, in the bedrooms teasing the good-natured chambermaids till their rage died out in convulsions of impotent laughter, and they threatened the next time they caught me to kiss me till ray cheeks burnt crimson. These were my purest household delights, because they were free or imprescriptible ; that is, did not appeal to my living heart through the medium of my prudential understanding. But sweet as these “ stolen waters ” were, they were not near so refreshing as those I enjoyed outside the house. For obviously my relation to the household servants, however democratic my youthful tendencies might be, could not be one of true fellowship, because the inequality of our positions prevented its ever being perfectly spontaneous.

I was indebted for my earliest practical initiation into a freer sentiment to the friendly intimacy I chanced to contract with my neighbors, the shoemakers, whom I have described in a former chapter. Unfortunately, these plausible young men had really no more moral elevation than if they openly cultivated some form of dubious industry; and they were willing, I think, to take advantage of our boyish frankness and generosity to an extent which, on the whole, rendered their acquaintance very harmful to us. I cannot in the least justify them, but, on the contrary, hand their memory over to the unfaltering Nemesis which waits upon wronged innocence. But at the same time I must say that their friendship for a while most beneficially housed my expanding consciousness, or served to give it an outward and objective direction. They had, to begin with, such an immense force of animal spirits as magnetized one out of all self-distrust or timidity, barely to be with them. And then they were so utterly void of all religious sensibility or perturbation that my mental sinews relaxed at once into comparative ease and freedom, so that the force of nature within me then felt, I may say, its first authentication. They gave me, for example, my earliest relish of living art and art criticism. There was no theatre at that time in the city, but its place was held by an amateur Thespian company, whose exhibitions they assiduously attended; and the delight they manifested in the drama, and the impassioned criticism they indulged in upon its acting, made me long for the day when I, too, should enter upon the romance of life. They were also great admirers of the triumphs of eloquence, and I used to bring collections of speeches from our own library to read to them by the hour. It was a huge pleasure to be able to compel their rapt attention to some eloquent defense of liberty, or appeal to patriotism, which I had become familiar with in my school or home readings. There was an old workman in the shop, an uncle of the principals, who sacrificed occasionally to Bacchus, and whose eyes used to drip very freely when I read Robert Emmet’s famous speech, or the plea of the prisoner’s counsel at the trial scene in the Heart of Midlothian. He even went so far in his enthusiasm as to predict for the reader a distinguished career at the bar ; but apparently prophecy was not my friend’s strong point. [End of the manuscript.]

Henry James.

  1. County Cavan, Ireland.
  2. Albany, N. Y.
  3. At the age of thirteen, Mr. James had his right leg so severely burned while playing the then not usual game of fire-ball that he was confined to his bed for two years, and two thigh amputations had to be performed.
  4. John Barber, of (then) Montgomery, Orange Co., N. Y. (near Newburgh).
  5. Francis Barber.
  6. William Barber.