“Arm Yourself Against My Dawn”: Revisiting Jean Strouse’s groundbreaking biography of Alice James

In a colorful, chatty, and ironically self-aggrandizing letter to her Aunt Kate, Alice James concludes with a quip: “Forgive me all this egotism but I have to be my own Boswell.” Alice James had to wait nearly a century, but she eventually found her Boswell in Jean Strouse. First published in 1980, Strouse’s dazzling, bold, and formidable Alice James: A Biography has recently been reissued as part of the New York Review of Books Classics series and justly so. Strouse’s study, composed in radiant prose, is easily a classic of biography, deftly and elegantly incorporating social history, family history, the history of the science of psychology, and literary criticism. Above all, the book is a paragon of feminist literature in which a marginalized life is brought into focus and examined from multiple perspectives, validating a previously neglected experience and suggesting alternative ways of approaching the past. Like Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson , Jean Strouse’s biography of Alice James represents a major advance in the development of the genre, and is as relevant and powerful a piece of writing today as when it was first published.

Alice James was born in 1848, the fifth child and only daughter of Henry and Mary James, and sister of William James, the psychologist and philosopher, and Henry James, the novelist. Her father, who had lost his leg as a young man, was an eccentric writer and philosopher who devoted himself to his children’s moral instruction. He thought travel the best education and much of Alice’s early childhood was spent traipsing around Europe. This impermanency made an already insular family even more codependent. The family eventually settled in Newport and then Cambridge, Massachusetts. Alice’s father doted on her and encouraged her learning but was adamant that she adhere to her true nature and duty as a woman. In an article entitled “Woman and the Woman’s Movement” (Putnam’s Monthly, 1853), he wrote “Woman is… inferior to man… She is his inferior in passion, his inferior in intellect, and his inferior in physical strength… Her aim in life is… simply to love and bless man.”

Alice’s mother did her utmost to comply with this ideal of maternal and wifely devotion. With the help of her unmarried sister Katherine, she ran a smooth household, shielding her husband and sons from any domestic worries while pursing their higher intellectual callings.

Alice exhibited superior intelligence, pungent wit, marked ambition, and competitiveness. At first her precociousness fit in with the peculiarities of the James family universe. But, as is typical of so many girls, when Alice hit puberty, her own desires and expectations clashed dangerously with both the family ethos and that of the world at large. Life’s lesson, she later wrote in her diary, was “to clothe oneself in neutral tints, walk by still waters, and possess one’s soul in silence.” Her solution to the problem of her existence took a violent, yet socially acceptable, form. She became chronically ill.

Read the rest of my May column here at Bookslut

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