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Henry James’s Autobiography and Early Psychology

From: a/b: Auto/Biography Studies
Volume 27, Number 2, Winter 2012
pp. 338-353 | 10.1353/abs.2012.0019

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Henry James’s 1913 autobiography, A Small Boy and Others, reflects theories on conscious thought and subjectivity pioneered by William James, E. B. Titchener, and other figures associated with pre-Freudian psychology. Dominated by meditations on the slippery nature of memory, James’s autobiography is a rich, if not readily transparent, analysis of life writing as a negotiation with the “other” who is the past self.

After the death of his brother William in 1910, Henry James dedicated himself to creating a written record of the James family. Henry, the last living sibling from a family of five, set out to produce what he called a “family book” focusing on William in particular (“To Henry” 794). Before Henry’s own death in 1916, he wrote A Small Boy and Others (1913), Notes of a Son and Brother (1914), and the unfinished volume The Middle Years, published posthumously in 1917. James opens A Small Boy and Others by calling it “an attempt to place together some particulars of the early life of William James” (3). Yet it is not William but rather Henry who is the titular “small boy” of A Small Boy and Others. However, William James did more than precipitate his brother’s life writing—he also helped to provide it with an intellectual framework. As I argue through a reading of A Small Boy and Others, Henry James’s autobiographical work reflects theories on memory and consciousness pioneered by William James and other practitioners of what was then called the “New Psychology.”

Henry James’s life writing turned out to be a far cry from the kind of informative memoir his audience might have reasonably expected. While not unprecedented in a literary tradition that includes the ruminations of Rousseau and Montaigne, James’s minimal interest in the hard facts of his life (he fails to mention the date of his birth, for example) was certainly out of the ordinary in the early years of the twentieth century. In a survey of contemporary British reviews of A Small Boy and Notes, Carol Holly finds “widespread recognition” that these works did not fit contemporary conceptions of autobiography or memoir (577). As one early American reviewer of A Small Boy noted, the reader “who goes to the book for history or description of old New York, for anecdotes or characterization, or even for particulars concerning the early life of William James, whose death suggested its writing, is likely to be disappointed” (Furst 111). A Small Boy was, however, popular with contemporary readers, who greeted the aging novelist’s reminiscences with an alacrity that surprised James himself (Millgate 96, Follini 106). Such readers enjoyed a volume more invested in the psychological processes of life writing than in the presentation of a polished “family book.” James’s thoughts on harvesting and rendering memories dominate his text. Paul John Eakin writes of James’s memoirs, “James frequently addresses himself to the nature of the autobiographical process in which he is engaged, but his numerous pronouncements in the text do not add up to any coherent view” (214). James’s autobiographical musings and methods become far more coherent, however, if we consider them in light of the ideas of pre-Freudian psychology.

Near the end of A Small Boy, James recalls the thrill he felt as a child upon viewing Paul Delaroche’s 1830 painting Les Enfants d’Edouard: “I had never heard of psychology in art or anywhere else—scarcely anyone then had; but I truly felt the nameless force at play” (194). As many critics have pointed out, James was a major thinker in his own right concerning that “nameless force.” Michael Millgate writes that James possessed an understanding of “autobiographical memory that subsequent psychological research has not notably advanced. He knew that recall was never total, that it was always affected by subsequent experience . . . and that it was almost inevitably constructive, impelling conscious or unconscious supplementation of its own necessarily incomplete data” (73). Yet if James now appears ahead of the psychological times, it is only because literary studies has long neglected the work of his contemporaries in the field of psychology, focusing instead on the psychoanalytic theory that started to blossom...

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