William James and the Case of the Epileptic Patient 5

I wrote to the archivist at McLean asking whether James might simply have been at the hospital in his capacity as a medical stu¬dent, and met with this boilerplate rebuff. But when I approached the administration of the hospital, I got a different response, which is that requests for information about William James had been forwarded to the James family, which has refused to permit the in¬formation to be released. Robertson James, in later life an alco¬holic, was a patient at McLean; so was William’s cousin Kitty James Prince (he used to visit her there). And William James, Jr., James’s son, may, as Linda Simon notes in her biography, also have been hospitalized at McLean for depression. So that the fam¬ily’s reluctance to send researchers into the archives looking for folders labeled “James”—or even “James, William”—might only be an effort to protect the privacy of some of its less celebrated mem¬bers. On the other hand, if the celebrated one was never an inmate, a statement to that effect would have sufficed to shield the rest. In the absence of such a statement, we can probably assume that he was.
The next question is, When? What makes incomplete biograph¬ical information generally worse than no information at all is that speculation fills the gaps and eventually becomes indistinguishable from “the facts”—as has happened with the dating of the episode of the epileptic patient. In the case of James’s hospitalization, the in¬clination is to insert the information into the period of his physical and mental distress—that is, sometime between 1867, when he be¬gan to complain regularly about his various symptoms, and late 1872, when, at the age of thirty, he finally got a job, as a part-time teacher at Harvard—and then to try to rewrite the crisis-and- recovery narrative around it.
The boldest venture in this direction so far is by Kim Townsend, in an original book called Manhood at Harvard, which is about the construction of a weirdly brittle culture of masculinity in late- nineteenth-century Cambridge. James is, quite appropriately, a leading character in the book, and Townsend has a long analysis of his breakdown. Townsend thinks that James’s hospitalization occurred before 1870, and he offers a letter (until now unnoticed) that appears in the second volume of Henry James the novelist’s autobiography, Notes of a Son and Brother (1914), as a possible smoking gun.
The letter is from Henry Sr. to Henry the novelist, written, ac¬cording to the autobiography, in “the spring of ’70.” “Horatio Alger is writing a Life of Edwin Forrest,” the father reports in this letter, and has recently paid a visit to the James home in Cambridge. (Forrest was a popular actor whom Henry Sr. had known when the family was living in New York City.) “Alger talks freely about his own late insanity,” the letter continues, “—which he in fact appears to enjoy as a subject of conversation and in which he has somewhat inter¬ested William, who has talked with him a good deal of his expe¬rience at the Somerville Asylum.” “The Somerville Asylum” is McLean, which was originally located in Somerville. The “his” in that last clause is ambiguous: it can refer either to William’s or to Alger’s “experience at the Somerville Asylum.” But Horatio Alger was never a patient in an asylum.
Townsend (following Feinstein) believes that the episode of the epileptic patient happened later, in 1872, but he also thinks that the passage recalling it contains a screen memory: he thinks that the pa¬tient (“a black-haired youth with greenish skin, entirely idiotic, who used to sit all day . . . with his knees drawn up against his chin, and the coarse gray undershirt, which was his only garment, drawn over them”) is a man who has been driven insane by masturbation. Thus the shock of identification, and thus the “panic fear.”
The notion that James had a “problem” with what one biographer rather quaintly calls “self-abuse” predates the rumor about McLean. It seems to have been introduced to the world by the histo¬rian Cushing Strout, in an article published in 1968. Strout’s idea is that the episode of the epileptic occurred sometime between 1866, when James returned from a scientific expedition to Brazil led by Louis Agassiz, and decided that he didn’t want to become a natural¬ist, and 1869, when he received his medical degree, and decided that he didn’t want to become a doctor. Strout thinks that James became convinced, after reading a work called The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs, by William Acton, that there is a linkage be¬tween introspection (“speculation and contemplative Grublei”) and masturbation, and between masturbation and insanity. So that, Strout concludes: “That hideous figure [of the epileptic] . . . objecti¬fied not only the self-punishing guilt in his own symptoms, but also his fear of being trapped in a medical career which seemed to be his only option after his disillusionment with natural history.”

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