From the Archives: james family trunk

Devin with Trunk

With the anniversaries of the births of Henry James Sr. (June 3), and his son Henry James the Younger (April 15), the late spring is the perfect time to turn attention to some of the rich materials in our CSS archive related to this remarkable family—the so-called “first family” of American ideas. The father, Henry James Sr. (1811–1882), was among the most important readers and interpreters of Swedenborg in the nineteenth century, a somewhat cantankerous independent thinker who was friends with the Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson and the British philosopher Thomas Carlyle.

James’s idiosyncratic interpretation of Swedenborg led to him eschew affiliating with any organized Swedenborgian churches—he (strongly!) felt that Swedenborg’s vision of a new era of Christian spirituality was emphatically not ecclesiastical—and he is mostly remembered today due to the prodigious accomplishments of three of his children: William, the Pragmatist philosopher, father of American psychology, and formative researcher of psychic phenomena and religious experience; Henry (the Younger), regarded as one of the greatest novelists to ever write in the English language, and Alice, a diarist and feminist who influenced later modern critics such as Susan Sontag.

In 1964, William James’s son John donated a large steamer trunk to our library and archive, back when CSS was known as the Swedenborg School of Religion, housed then in stone buildings in Cambridge, Massachusetts, right across the street from the Harvard University campus. The steamer trunk originally had been purchased by Henry James, Sr. as a kind of portable traveling library to hold his substantial collection of Swedenborg volumes as he crisscrossed the Atlantic with his family, living in various fancy hotels around Europe. At some point in the later nineteenth century, after Henry Sr. had died, William packed the trunk up with all the Swedenborg-related books his father had owned and annotated, affixed a neat label to the trunk declaring its contents, and stowed it in the attic of his house in Cambridge, where it sat for many years under the eaves.

Henry the Younger (the novelist) later remembered how his father’s trunk and its theological contents were “inveterately part of our very luggage, requiring proportionate receptacles” and “improvised perches” for the books in their different rented lodgings. For scholars of literary (and religious) history today, the annotations in James’s many Swedenborg volumes offer fascinating windows into how Swedenborg was being read and adapted by an important thinker in the American Transcendentalist orbit. We are grateful this collection is no longer under the eaves of a roof facing New England harsh winters and hot summers, but safely catalogued and accessible in our climate-controlled archive.