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Just ‘Alice’: The Portrait Of A James Sister

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
November 10, 2011

The James family tree had one magnificent branch. First there was William, a philosopher who in the late 19th century created psychology as a new field of study. Next came his brother Henry, who became one of America’s greatest novelists and created such classic works as Washington Square, The Wings of the Dove and The Portrait of a Lady. Then there was Alice. The mopey, sickly, completely forgettable Alice.

And yet Alice proved herself to be quite unforgettable, as Jean Strouse’s 1980 biography Alice James: A Biography, now reprinted by the New York Review of Books Classics, illustrates. It seemed an unlikely fate. Alice never entered marriage, the most proper “occupation,” as she called it, for a woman of her time. She had the unfortunate fate of coming of age in post-Civil War Massachusetts, after the mass casualties of the war and the call of the West took away most of the men. She never held down a job, despite women of her generation moving into the workforce. She spent most of her life in bed, either ill or pretending to be until even she couldn’t tell the difference; being waited on by her parents, then her brother Henry, and then the woman who became her lifelong companion, Katherine Loring.

She never published anything during her lifetime, except one small anonymous Letter To the Editor, which she pasted clippings of into her diary. In fact, it was that diary, published posthumously, that saved her from being just another victim of neurasthenia (a less convulsive sister-disease to Europe’s hysteria), or just another underachieving sibling overshadowed by the greats who came before.

Her diary, published in its complete form in 1964, more than 70 years after her death, revealed Alice to be not only the lost James sister, but also equal parts artist and intellectual, with a writing style equal parts elegant and salty. While many of her writings focus wittily on the state of her body and her illness — she describes one attack as “an increase of feebleness in my upper story which though lofty never was you know particularly distinguished for its solidity” — she reached for subjects beyond her sick room. Her reflections on Irish politics, her brothers’ work, literature, art and history were the work of a nimble mind, one that could possibly have accomplished great things, had she only gotten out of bed.

Because she didn’t, she has been a person of interest for what she represented as much as for who she was. Many scholars have wondered: How much of Alice’s suffering was self-inflicted and how much a genuine medical condition? Was she a victim of her father’s misogyny and patriarchal rule, or did she use that as an excuse to be a lay-about? Is she a feminist hero or a pitiable creature?

Many books have been written about Alice James since her death, particularly since that gossipy and marvelous diary made it into print. Strouse’s biography remains the high point of this mini-publishing industry, as she cuts through the roles many have wanted Alice to play throughout the years and offers a clear-eyed view of just Alice — the person, the diarist, the sister, the eternal patient.

“In our family group, girls seem scarcely to have had a chance,” Henry James once wrote. Alice James may not have had a grand life like her brothers, but she had a grand mind and a life worth remembering. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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