Daughter of Henry and Mary Walsh James
The fifth and last child and only daughter of the elder Henry James, the theologian and Swedenborgian, Alice James' education was desultory. She spent some childhood years living in Europe with her family. Prior to the Civil War, the family settled in Newport, Rhode Island, and at the war's end moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where James' neurasthenia became apparent. She did some charitable work in Boston; then, in 1882, after her mother's death, she cared for her ill father, who died within the year. In 1884 James joined her friend Katharine Loring on a trip to Europe. James spent her remaining years abroad, living for the most part with Loring, in various places in England. Her diary (The Diary of Alice James, reprinted on many occasions, most recently in 1999) on which her literary reputation rests, was kept from May 1889 until she died from a breast tumor.
Limited as she was by ill health and the confines of her room, her reading, and her visitors, James' chief subject, inevitably, is herself. Her dying was long and, at the end, painful. Still, a spirited and outward-looking woman comes through the self-absorption: "The difficulty about all this dying is that you can't tell a fellow anything about it, so where does the fun come in?" But James explicitly offers the accomplishment of her death as the hardest family task of all in the year her brother William published Principles of Psychology and her brother Henry published The Tragic Muse and saw his adaptation of The Americans onto the stage.
Although she is often ironic, James obviously relishes her strength of mind and will. Perhaps since her twenties, when she first knew that she, too, "sensitive" in that masculine family of strong sensibilities, James continued to be grateful for her power truly to " see …the quarter of an inch" that came under her eye. She speculates that a formal education would probably have deprived her of her sense of power and promise by substituting for the "reality of dreams" mere "relative knowledge." She was also aware, however, that humor, common sense, and her refusal to live "on the cry" sustained her against the "deep sea" of depression, which she had experienced terribly when she was thirty.
As a diarist, James adopts several guises: a frail, reclusive woman seeking to find her intellectual place in a distinguished family; a student of the "minute events…illustrative of the broadest facts of human nature"; a comic ironist building a hedge against loneliness and apparent failure; a rebel against tyranny—social, political, and psychological.
James quotes Henry's loyal response to some critics of William's "mental pirouettes and…daring to go lightly amid the solemnities" in Principles of Psychology: "They can't understand intellectual larking," James could. Lacking her brothers' trained discipline and knowledge, she nevertheless offers in the Diary an intellectual lark. Though closely acquainted with the night, she could laugh at herself and at us, asking "which of us has not a red nose at the core of her being which defies all her philosophy?" Much of her correspondence and William James' copy of Alice's Diary, were privately printed by Katharine Loring, around 1894, and are at the Houghton Library of Harvard University.
Alice James, Her Brothers—Her Journal (edited by A. R. Burr, 1934). Alice James: Her Life in Letters (1996).
Bewley, M., Masks & Mirrors: Essays in Criticism (1970). Cargill, O., Toward a Pluralistic Criticism (1965). Edel, L., Henry James (1962). Grant, S., "Rewriting the Body Politic: The Art of Illness and the Production of Desire in the Diaries and Journals of Alice James and Achsa Sprague" (thesis, 1993). James, H., Autobiography (1956). Edel, L., ed., Henry James Letters (1974, 1975). Lewis, R. W. B., The Jameses: A Family Narrative (1993). Matthiessen, F. O., The James Family (1947). Misra, K., "A Look at the Patriarchal Background of the Diary of Alice James" (thesis, 1993). Perry, R. B., The Thought and Character of William James (1935). Strouse, J., Alice James: A Biography (1980, 1992). The Sweetest Impression of Life: The James Family and Italy (1990). Wylie, B. J., A Native of the James
Family (1990). Yeazell, R. B., The Death and Letters of Alice James (1981, 1999).
NAW (1971). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).
Virginia Quarterly Review (Winter 1976).
—BARBARA A. WELCH