William James and the Case of the Epileptic Patient 6

This interpretation was amplified a little by Sander Gilman, in a book on Disease and Representation, who suggested that the source for James’s vision of the epileptic patient might have been a work called Des maladies mentales, by Jean Etienne Dominique Esqui- rol, published in 1838 (and written, as Gilman points out, in the supposed language of James’s “sufferer”). Esquirol’s book contains full-length illustrations (drawings, obviously, not photographs) of mentally ill persons, one of which depicts a patient who looks un¬cannily like the epileptic described by James, and whom Esquirol identifies as an idiot and a masturbator. “James’s fear of madness,” Gilman concludes, “. . . was a direct fear of receding into madness as a result of his own behavior.” And he quotes a passage from James’s diary, dated February 1, 1870, which, he says, refers to James’s masturbatory habit “in a direct manner”: “Hitherto I have tried to fire myself with the moral interest, as an aid in the accom¬plishing of certain utilitarian ends of attaining certain salutary but difficult habits. I tried to associate the feeling of Moral degradation with failure. . . . But in all this I was cultivating the moral. . . only as a means and more or less humbugging myself.” We have moved some distance from the philosophy of Charles Renouvier.
The notion of William James as a compulsive masturbator (but are they, as the protagonist of the episode in the Varieties says of himself, afraid of the dark?) has a certain sensational appeal, so it is slightly disappointing to discover that every one of the leaves comes off this biographical onion. Townsend has, to begin with, made a mistake all students of the Jameses eventually learn to,avoid, which is to rely on anything Henry James says in his autobiography. Henry freely changed dates, suppressed facts, and rewrote passages from other people’s letters, and then often added injury to insult by destroying the originals. Horatio Alger didn’t write a biography of Edwin Forrest. His cousin William Alger did. William Alger was a Unitarian clergyman who lived in Boston and was a friend of Emer¬son, which is how he would have known Henry James, Sr. Henry James, Jr., though, had probably never heard of him, or by 1914 had forgotten him if he had, so in transcribing this letter, he very likely either added the first name or changed it to Horatio on the assump¬tion that his ditsy father had got it wrong.
Horatio Alger, too, had been a Unitarian minister, in Brewster, on Cape Cod, but he had been obliged to resign his ministry in 1866 following accusations (which he did not contest) of pederasty with members of his congregation. He fled to New York City, and soon after began his career as the author of the famous books for boys. He continued to cultivate friendships with eligible boys, but he is supposed to have forsworn further sexual indulgence. Alger evi¬dently felt a good deal of anguish about his “sin,” but he is not likely to have volunteered to chat about it four years later with people he barely knew, and “insanity” (Henry Sr.’s term) seems, in any case, a couple of shades too strong.
William Alger, on the other hand, really had been insane. During a trip to Europe in 1871, he collapsed in Paris and was pronounced “hopelessly insane” by Charles Brown-Sequard, a renowned physi¬ologist. (The diagnosis was reported in the Boston newspapers: so much for nineteenth-century notions of medical confidentiality.) Al¬ger was brought back to Boston and immediately admitted into the McLean Asylum. He was released in the spring of 1872, and was able to return to his work. His Life of Edwin Forrest: The American Tragedian was published in 1877.
Then when did William Alger have his conversation at the James family home about his (not William James’s) experiences at McLean? In his autobiography, Henry says his father’s letter report¬ing that conversation was written in “the spring of ’70”—a year be¬fore William Alger’s breakdown. But he is, as usual, making it up. Henry Sr.’s letter, changing topics, continues: “Everyone hopes that J. G. hasn’t caught a Rosamund Vincy in Miss M.” J. G. is John Chipman Gray, an intimate friend of Henry and of William’s fa¬vorite cousin, Minny Temple (who died, of tuberculosis, in 1870, and who was the inspiration thirty years later for the character of Milly Theale in The Wings of the Dove). Miss M. is Nina Mason; she and John Gray were married on June 4, 1873. Rosamund Vincy, of course, is the woman who marries and then ruins the ambitious physician Tertius Lydgate in George Eliot’s Middle-march. That novel was published in December 1872. Henry’s date was therefore three years off. His father’s letter was written not in 1870, the year of the Renouvier diary entry, but in 1873. (The life of the Grays, by the way, did not imitate art. John Gray cofounded Ropes 8c Gray, the fa¬mous Boston law firm, and was a professor for forty years at the Harvard Law School. Nina Gray became, in later years, a confidant of her husband’s old friend Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.) The “Horatio Alger letter,” in short, is a red herring.
Which leaves the self-abuse. There is no evidence that James ever read Acton on The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs or Esquirol on Des maladies mentales. But (as Townsend notes) he did read, and with some admiration, Henry Maudsley’s Body and Mind (1870), a respected psychology text, which warns that “the development of puberty may lead indirectly to insanity by becoming the occasion of a vicious habit of self-abuse in men.” But the connection between masturbation and mental disorder was a commonplace of nineteenth-century neurology. James was a med¬ical student with a special interest in nervous disorders; he would not have needed any particular book to pick up the idea.

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