The Civil War:
Reflections on a Crisis of Conscience
Henry James (1843-1916)
By John D. Anderson
On April 12, 1861, three days before Henry James's eighteenth birthday, the South fired on Fort Sumter. Four years later, on the night before James's twenty-second birthday, John Wilkes Booth shot President Lincoln. The years a young man today would likely spend in college were framed for the budding novelist by Fort Sumter and Ford's Theater. That he did not experience the Civil War first-hand--as did many of his contemporaries, including his two younger brothers--was a source of intense regret to James. His passive role during the war removed him forever from the center of active American life; it effectively placed him in the marginal position of an observant stranger to his homeland, to society, even to the traditional male role.
From his observer's vantage point on the war, though, James endured pangs of sympathy. In his autobiography, he connected the national agony of the war to "a horrid even if an obscure hurt" he suffered while fighting a fire in Newport, Rhode Island, in the fall of 1861, six months after the war began. James's vagueness about this injury, coupled with his lifelong celibacy and reticence about sex, led critics in the 1920s such as Ernest Hemingway to conclude that James had been castrated. This, "the most famous injury in American literary history," as James family biographer R. W. B. Lewis calls it, continues to obsess James scholars. Leon Edel, the most thorough of these scholars, has concluded that the obscure hurt was some sort of back injury: "a slipped disc, a sacroiliac or muscular strain--obscure but painful as such injuries can be. That the hurt was exacerbated by the tensions of the Civil War seems quite clear. . . . Henry found himself a prey to anxieties over the fact that he might be called a malingerer, and had a feeling that he was deficient in the masculinity being displayed by others of his generation on the battlefield" (61).
Confined by his back injury to the home front during the Civil War, James became a chronicler of society and sensibility, and eventually famous for his portrayals of Americans abroad in such works as "Daisy Miller" (1878), The Portrait of a Lady (1881), The American (1877), and The Ambassadors (1903). His international themes reflected his own life, most of which was spent on foreign soil. He had a chaotic childhood in a famously intellectual family headed by a father (Henry Senior) and older brother (William), who were both philosophers.
Born in New York City, Henry spent his earliest years in England and France, and then commuting between New York and Albany, before his family settled near Union Square for his fifth to twelfth years. Then the James's were off to Europe again so that Henry and his three brothers could get "a better sensuous education than they are likely to get here," his father wrote, not mentioning his only daughter Alice, the youngest James. From 1855 to 1860, they lived in Switzerland, England, and France, returning to America to settle in Newport on the eve of the Civil War.
The James Family and the War Between the States. "I must have felt," James recalled in his autobiography, "in presence of a crisis--the smoke of [Fort Sumter] still so acrid in the air--at which the likely young . . . , all round, were mostly starting to their feet, and to have trumped up a lameness at such a juncture could be made to pass in no light for graceful" (415). Embarrassed by his unfitness for military duty, James experienced his obscure injury as fused--or confused-- with the firing on Fort Sumter that produced an immediate call for volunteers. He felt a huge ache so comprehensive that "one could scarce have told whether it came from one's own poor organism . . . or from the enclosing social body, a body rent with a thousand wounds and that thus treated one to the honor of a sort of tragic fellowship" (415).
James's "first and all but sole" direct view of the war consisted of a visit in August of 1861 to a military convalescent camp at Portsmouth Grove, near Newport, where he listened to the stories of the wounded soldiers and gave them what money he had. In his memoirs, James rejoiced at having "to such an extent coincided with, not to say perhaps positively anticipated, dear old Walt Whitman" (424).
Although this visit was the closest Henry James came to the war, the war came to him in August of 1863 when his brother Wilky was brought on a stretcher to the James's house in Newport. Not quite a year before, seventeen-year-old Garth Wilkinson James (called Wilky) had enlisted in the Union army, at the same time that Henry had joined his brother William at Harvard University, undertaking to study law, but dropping out after a year. Wilky was staunchly committed to the abolitionist cause--he and his brother Robertson (Bob) had been students of an associate of John Brown shortly after the attack on Harper's Ferry, and Wilky and Bob were classmates of Brown's daughters. Wilky became an adjutant in Colonel Robert Gould Shaw's 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the first black regiment in the state. On July 18, the regiment was decimated leading a fateful attack on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, and Wilky was wounded in the side and foot.
Brought home by a friend's father, Wilky lay on a stretcher in the entrance of the house, too ill to be moved. His father wrote to a friend that "Poor Wilky cries aloud for his friends gone and missing, and I could hardly have supposed he might be educated so suddenly up to serious manhood altogether as he appears to have been." His brother William sketched him, mouth gaping, cheeks sunken, looking more dead than alive.
Wilky did recover, though. He returned to his regiment and was present at Fort Sumter, when on February 20, 1865, the Stars and Stripes were raised again. "It was without exception the proudest moment of my life," he wrote his sister. The youngest James son, Bob, also was an officer in a black regiment, the 55th Massachusetts. After the war, Wilky and Bob tried to further the cause of civil rights by running a plantation in Florida for free blacks. Unfortunately, the venture failed. The war turned out to be their only hour of glory, the only time when they outshown their brilliant older brothers.
From the crucible of the war, Henry emerged, not with laurels, but with a vocation. In the last year of the war, Henry became a published, if anonymous, author. His story "A Tragedy of Error" appeared in the February 1864 issue of the Continental Monthly, and he followed it with three signed stories about the home front during the Civil War: "The Story of a Year" (1865), "Poor Richard" (1867), and "A Most Extraordinary Case" (1868). Each of these romantic stories portrayed wounded or doomed soldiers whose adoration for the heroines was unrequited. His own injury, obscure as it was, produced a tragic fellowship not only with wounded soldiers, but also with wounded life in general, inducing him eventually to create such memorable doomed characters as Ralph Touchett in The Portrait of a Lady (1881), Morgan Moreen in "The Pupil" (1891), and Milly Theale in The Wings of the Dove (1902).
The American Girl in the Battle of the Sexes. James also emerged from the war years with haunting memories of his young cousin, Minny Temple, the orphaned "heroine of our common scene," as she seemed to him the summer after the war ended. She was twenty years old--"a young and shining apparition"--and she would die before her twenty-fifth birthday, inspiring James to create several beautiful and high-spirited, but tragic heroines. With Minny Temple as his model, James fixed in the literary imagination the image of a new type of American girl, restless and independent. Her incarnations include Daisy Miller and Portrait of a Lady's Isabel Archer.
James has long been praised for his insightful portraits of female characters, but recently critic Alfred Habegger has pointed out the ambivalence in these portraits. Habegger argues that James inherited his father's conservative views of women, views that Minnie had forthrightly challenged--"and Henry loved her for it. Everything came together for him in her. She was not only the sort of person--restless, intellectual, female--his father's doctrines could not tolerate, but she was the free orphan the good and loyal son had always dreamed of being" (142). The conflict James felt between his loyalty to his father and his admiration for Minnie expressed itself, according to Habegger, by rewriting Minnie's life in such a way as to neutralize her threat to women's conventional roles. In his fiction and autobiographies (in which he "doctored" quotations from her letters), he transformed the restless, independent, outspoken Minnie into a proper "lady." In a letter to his friend Grace Norton, James wrote: "Poor Minny was essentially incomplete . . . & it is the mark of art that in reproducing [her] one feels the desire to fill [her] out" (28 December 1880).
James's ambivalence toward Minnie and his female characters reflects uneasy feelings about his masculinity, as well. Habegger claims that "James was divided between a warm attachment to Minnie and the necessity (extremely pressing during the Civil War) of proving himself to be a man. . . . James 'completed' Minnie in order to make her--and himself--acceptable to the patriarchy" (170).
James's ambivalence about gender roles as he entered middle-age is also expressed in The Bostonians (1886), his most American novel, set in the 1870s. In The Bostonians, James presents the battle between a Southern male chauvinist and a New England feminist for possession of an attractive young trance-speaker. The novel encompasses a critical look at the popular interest in spiritualism, as well as feminism and related reform movements that swept the country around the time of the Civil War. James began to write the novel soon after the death of his parents and Wilky in 1882 and 1883, losses which brought back memories of the war years. The novel's hero Basil Ransome reflects James's father's conservative views about women, as well as being somewhat modeled on Mississippi Senator Lucius Q. C. Lamar, whose charm and political suavity were instrumental in ending Reconstruction, thus undoing many of the civil rights advances accomplished by the war.
In The Bostonians, Basil Ransome wants to marry the gifted orator Verena Tarrant and put an end to her public speaking career. At the novel's climax, he succeeds in whisking her away, in tears, from the Boston Music Hall just as she is about to make an important speech. James's ambiguous last words in the novel are: "It is to be feared that with the union, so far from brilliant, into which she was about to enter, these were not the last she was destined to shed." Although the novel seems to endorse James's father's view that women should willingly enslave themselves in marriage for the sake of their husbands' moral redemption, James himself opted for celibacy, as he indicated in a letter to Grace Norton: "Singleness consorts much better with my whole view of existence (of my own and of that of the human race), my habits, occupations, prospects, tastes, means, situation 'in Europe,' and absence of desire to have children" (3 November 1884).
James declined to participate in love or war; he stayed on the sidelines in the battle of the sexes as well as the war between the states, a casualty of the obscure hurt that was both personal and national in his mind. His wound caused him to identify with doomed women and passive men, but it allowed him to transmute his anxieties about his masculinity into insightful, if ambivalent, studies of the American girl yearning to be free of confining conventions. His choices not to marry nor to fight were linked to his desire to be "just literary," to dedicate himself to recording the impressions society made on his finely tuned sensibilities.
He embraced the role of observant stranger to the extent of living most of his adult life as an expatriate, settling eventually at his beloved Lamb House in Sussex. When World War I broke out, he expressed solidarity with his adopted country by becoming a naturalized citizen of England on July 28, 1915. He died on February 28, 1916.
James, Henry. The American Essays. Ed. with an Introduction and New Foreword by Leon Edel. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1989.
----------. Autobiography. Ed. with an introduction by Frederick W. Dupee, 1956.
----------. The Bostonians. Introduction by Irving Howe. New York: Modern Library, 1886, 1956.
----------. Letters. Ed. Leon Edel. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1974-84. 4 vols.
----------. "A Most Extraordinary Case," "Poor Richard," and "The Story of a Year." The Complete Tales of Henry James. Ed. with an introduction by Leon Edel. New York: Lippincott, 1961.
----------. The Portrait of a Lady. New York: Penguin, 1881, 1983.
Edel, Leon. Henry James: A Life. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.
Habegger, Alfred. Henry James and the "Woman Business." Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989.
Kaplan, Fred. Henry James: The Imagination of Genius, A Biography. New York: William Morrow, 1992.
Le Clair, Robert C. Young Henry James 1843-1870. New York: Bookman Associates, 1971.
Lewis, R. W. B. The Jameses: A Family Narrative. New York: Anchor Doubleday, 1991.
Moore, Harry T. Henry James. New York: Viking, 1974.