Literature: Keeping up with the Jameses
Alice Gibbens » Scholar touts the woman behind the famous literary brothers.
Salt Lake Tribune
By Ben Fulton
Westminster English professor Susan Gunter's book, "Alice in Jamesland: The Story of Alice Howe Gibbens James." was published this year by University of Nebraska Press to resounding acclaim. (Paul Fraughton/ The Salt Lake Tribune)
Sitting in her attic-level office at Westminster College's Foster Hall, Susan E. Gunter is proof positive academic life isn't all library hours and grading. Working on her latest book during the past seven years, Gunter lived a life part detective, part academic, and with a generous allowance for travel.
She peered through the windows of her subject's childhood home in Weymouth, Mass. She flew to Florence, Italy, where her subject vacationed with her husband and his family. Ditto for Rye, England. Gunter spent three weeks in Cambridge, Mass., sorting and copying old, yellowed letters at the local Kinkos amid Harvard students. She also supped wild asparagus soup and red wine by a New Hampshire lake shore with living relatives of her book's subject.
"I had so much fun," Gunter said. "I just had a great time."
That her resulting book, Alice in Jamesland: The Story of Alice Howe Gibbens James, published this year by University of Nebraska Press in Lincoln, has received resounding acclaim seems almost an injustice. But then Gunter, a scholar of eminent early 20th-century novelist Henry James, loves her subject too much to let it down.
What Gunter discovered in the course of researching and writing her 422-page book was the crucial role of James' sister-in-law Alice Gibbens, wife to his brother William, the father of American pragmatist thought and the first and most important behavioral psychologist of his time. While Gunter said Gibbens often contributed advice and insight to William's work--most noticeably in his book Varieties of Relgious Experience -- her most important role was acting as anchor for and bridge between members of the "highly gifted but eccentric" family.
Together, the brothers' literary and intellectual legacies form what virtually every scholar recognizes as America's most significant sibling rivalry. Through novels sublime, haunting and later thick with knotty prose, fellow novelist Joseph Conrad called Henry "the historian of fine consciences." William, meanwhile, produced books crucial not only to current psychology, but religion and the evolution of ideas.
But William, who lived at home with his father Henry Sr. well into his 30s, suffered from depression that kept his talent at bay. He also maintained an intermittent relationship with his younger brother, Henry. Raised in privilege that allowed them frequent travel to Europe from their New England home, the brothers enjoyed broad experiences that stimulated their intellects.
Were it not for Henry Sr.'s meeting Alice Gibbens, and later endorsing her marriage to William, however, the world of American letters might well be significantly poorer.
Reading over some 340 letters written by Gibbens to her children between 1877 and 1922, Gunter said she learned just how vital she was to the James family. Not only did the remarkable 18th-century woman encourage her husband's career, she dictated his works, prodded many of his ideas onto the page, and even promoted his works after his death in 1910. "Let the eternal tides bear you where they will. In the end, they'll bear you round to where I wait for you," he once wrote to her.
"I'm not sure [William] could have achieved what he did had he not met her," Gunter said. "He conquered a significant amount of depression thanks to her, and it's fair to say she collaborated in his work."
As for Henry, Gibbens became the most significant female relationship in his life, after his mother. She also formed the backbone for several of his fictional characters, directly and indirectly. An adherent of Emanual Swedenborg's religious teachings, Gibbens was a fervent abolitionist when young. She visited the notorious anarchists Sacco and Venzetti in prison and took William to frequent séances.
"You could make a good argument that [Henry James'] Turn of the Screw is an inside joke of sorts on brother William," Gunter said.
While many English professors spend the majority of their research on literary theory instead of biography, and few academic books cross over into general readership, Gunter's book has bubbled through to a wider audience. Powell's City of Books in Portland, Ore., posted the New York Review of Books ' enthusiastic review of her book on its Web site. A future review by the journal Choice should push it further into view.
Peter Walker, co-general editor of The Complete Henry James Letters and professor of English at Salem State College in Salem, Mass., said there's no doubt Gunter's book makes significant contributions to Jamesian scholarship, both Henry and William.
"She did a lot of amazing research, finding material no one had seen before. What she argues convincingly is that the two-way relationship between Henry and William became a three-way relationship," Walker said by telephone from Salem. "Anyone interested in their lives has to be interested in the whole family. There's no getting around that."
As much fun as Gunter had flying to Europe and the East Coast for research, funded by Westminster College and Harvard University, the work began to inhabit her mind in alarming ways, she said. At night Gunter felt herself dreaming what Gibbens might have dreamt. After a while, it was almost as if she were inhabiting another person's life.
During the course of research, Gunter found she shared a jarring coincidence with Gibbens. After the U.S. Civil War, Gibbens' father committed suicide following a business scandal when she was 16 years old. Gunter's mother committed suicide when she was 33. Gibbens' steeled reaction to her loss informed her fortitude and drive in later life. Gunter resolved to enter graduate school after her mother's death.
"I don't think you can work on a book of this kind unless you self-identify with your subject to a degree," Gunter said. "It can be a very healthy thing."