|March 1, 2003|
To Henry James, Union was a Hotbed of Corruption
Henry James, Sr. and Henry James, Jr.
On the surface, the afternoon of July 18, 1830, looked like an ordinary commencement day in the early life of the College. A father was seated among parents and friends, watching his son and seventy-four other students graduate.
But he wasn't just any father, and his son was not just any son.
The father was William James of Albany, the wealthiest man in this part of the country, and his son was Henry James, Sr.
At the time, William James virtually owned the Union campus-collateral against a huge loan he had made to President Eliphalet Nott to bail out the economically-troubled college in the late 1820s. And his son was ending a college career so unhappy that he later discouraged his two sons, William and Henry, Jr., from coming to Union.
William James and Nott, both can-do, practical, pragmatic, and public-spirited men, had known one another for many years, ever since Nott had been pastor of the James family's church-First Presbyterian-in Albany.
William didn't start life as a wealthy pillar of the community. In 1793, at the age of eighteen, he came to the United States from his parents' farm in northern Ireland. As was the case with many young men of the time, he was lured by opportunity in the new nation.
William settled in Albany, where the northernmost docks of the Hudson River, and therefore promising markets, were located. On the shores of the Hudson, he established a store-a place with a constant supply of goods-and he made it possible for customers to buy on credit. Both were marketing innovations in those days.
In 1820, he and a business partner formed the North River Steamboat Company, and he became a backer of the Erie Canal, counting DeWitt Clinton among his friends. When the canal opened on Nov. 2, 1825, the chief address of the day, delivered at the Capitol, was by William James.
As the eastern terminus of the Erie Canal, Albany boomed, doubling in size during the 1820s and becoming one of the largest cities in the country. William's real estate investments made him wealthy, and he was able to buy (for $30,000) what was then the entire town of Syracuse. The most lucrative part of the town was the Salina Salt Company. Since salt was used in those days to preserve meat, William's fortune was assured.
Unlike his father, Henry James, Sr. (born in Albany in 1811) was an introvert. Partly crippled in an accident when he was thirteen, Henry had a life of constant struggle-against his father, against higher education, against organized religion, against ideas of the time and inner demons as well.
He entered Union as a junior, with a lot of remedial work to do, and his academic career had its ups and downs. Alfred Habegger, in The Father: A Life of Henry James, Sr. (1994, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux), describes Henry's second year like this:
"During Henry's disgraceful fall 1829 term at Union College, William got one of his powerful associates, Archibald McIntyre, to write a letter begging him to come to his senses. Similarly, in 1821, after Henry's older half brother, Rev. William, had gone abroad for an extended period of rest and study, he received a letter from another of the father's cronies, Eliphalet Nott, president of Union College, advising the young man to sustain the 'honour of your family' and urging numerous moral maxims a la Polonius. It was almost as if the father wanted to guide his children without risking any involvement with them."
The sensitive young man missed prayers regularly, ran up a huge laundry bill, and used his father's credit for "laundry, learning, oysters, cigars-and at the end of June, with examinations looming, he apparently took off for Ballston and its spa." Worse, he was apparently addicted to alcohol from a young age. "No wonder," he wrote, "that when I emerged from my sick-room, & went to college, I was hopelessly addicted to the vice. In college matters became very much worse with me and by the time I left it I was looked upon as an utter victim to intemperance."
William wanted his son to study law, but Henry had other ideas, dropping out of Union and running off to New York City and then to Boston. Perhaps his motivation was his father's insistence that he not leave college. In any case, in Boston, he took a proofreading job, but it didn't take him long to realize that this was hardly independence. He was persuaded to come back to Union for his final semester. He graduated at nineteen, nowhere near the top of the class.
Though he never gained his father's approval, Henry got enough of an inheritance that he was able to live, guiltily, in leisure. He pursued mysticism and philosophy-both foreign to his businessman father-and rejected his father's Presbyterianism, turning instead to the teaching of Swedish Christian mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. A man of impulse, he moved his family, including sons William and Henry and daughter Alice, back and forth between the U.S. and Europe, resulting in a peripatetic life for the family.
As a revolutionary social thinker and philosopher, Henry hobnobbed with figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Bronson Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. He advanced many daring opinions, such as an endorsement of free love. Not surprisingly, he found himself at the center of many controversies and embarrassments. He wrote fourteen books on logic, science, and religion, but since logic wasn't his strong suit, his books were largely unreadable. He was, as one writer said, a "curiously gifted man"-an unrealized artist (a legacy to his son, Henry) and unrealized scientist (a legacy to his son, William).
Some of the traits of the two early patriarchs-father and grandfather-played themselves out in the sons. The senior William's desire to create something from scratch, for example, parallels his grandson William's creation of an entire school of philosophy based on pragmatism. And, of course, the "restless intellectuality" of Henry, Sr., was a legacy to Henry, Jr., who introduced into American fiction the complexities and contradictions of human character in the psychological novel. (Alice, the only daughter, intellectually sharp yet repressed, never seized any opportunities to compete with her brothers. Her grief found outlet in neurotic illness.)
At one time, William and Henry, Jr., assumed that they would follow their father and go to college at Union. In fact, they once visited the campus with their father. But Henry, Sr., was against college in principle. Wrote William in a letter to a Union friend: "When I left Schenectady, it was with the almost certainty of becoming a fellow man with you at Union College. When I spoke to my father about it, I found that he was not in favor of my going to any college whatsoever. He says colleges are hot-beds of corruption where it is impossible to learn anything."