HOME ABOUT ONLINE LIBRARY NEWS ANTI-COPYRIGHT GET INVOLVED INDUSTRIAL RADICAL DONATE/SHOP DISCUSSION GROUP


Love, Marriage, and Divorce (1853/1889)


by Henry James, Sr. (1811-1882), Horace Greeley (1811-1872)
and Stephen Pearl Andrews (1812-1886)


XV.

A LETTER FROM MR. JAMES TO H. Y. R.

[That portion of the discussion which begins here was a revival of the original controversy after an interval of about twenty years, occasioned by the famous Woodhull-Claflin exposure of Henry Ward Beecher. That exposure led Mr. James to write a letter to his friend, H. Y. R., on the matters involved, which was printed in the St. Paul “Press” two years later. H. Y. R. then sent Mr. James’s letter, accompanied by a letter of his own, to Mr. Andrews, both of which appeared in “Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly” of April 18, 1874, followed by Mr. Andrews’s own comments. This again called out Mr. James, whose letter in the “Weekly’s” issues of May 9 and May 16, 1874, together with Mr. Andrews’s reply thereto, closed the controversy. These documents conclude the present compilation. – Publisher’s Note.]

[Online editor’s note: This chapter appears only in the second edition (1889), three years after Andrews’ death. The preceding note is by Benjamin R. Tucker, publisher of that edition. Woodhull & Claflinís Weekly was the organ of feminist activists Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin, and was edited by Andrews; the journal had in 1872 exposed Rev. Henry Ward Beecher (of limerick fame, and brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe) as a hypocrite for denouncing the free-love movement publicly whilst carrying on a private affair with Elizabeth Tilton, wife of Theodore Tilton. The story earned Woodhull arrest and imprisonment on “obscenity” charges. “H. Y. R.” has been identified by Andrews’ biographer as Harvey Y. Russell, printer of the St. Paul Daily Press; see Madeleine B. Stern, The Pantarch: A Biography of Stephen Pearl Andrews (Austin TX: University of Texas Press, 1968), p. 132. – RTL.]


My dear friend:
LMD-15.1 Mrs. Woodhull has labored very hard to make Mr. Beecher out a free-lover in a practical way; and certainly (from the silence of Mr Tilton and the rest as I judge) with some show of success. But as to that I feel indifferent. He at all events is not a technical free-lover, and his infirmity will be condoned by society therefore as a weakness of the will under great temptation, etc., etc., and as not indicating any hostility to marriage or the social sentiment. This is what makes the public hate technical or professional free-love, Ė that it is the enemy of all society or fellowship among men, inasmuch as it makes organic instinct supreme in human action, as it is in the animal nature, and gives an eternal lie to marriage as the sovereign dignity of our race. Speculative free-love has actually no case against our existing civic régime even, which a judicious enlargement of the law of divorce would not at once refute. I should have no quarrel with it, but on the contrary would bid it godspeed, if it sought only to hallow marriage in menís esteem by securing such a law of divorce as might permit every one to whom marriage was hateful or intolerant to leave its ranks as soon as possible, and so close them up to its undefiled lovers alone. Of course I am not so stupid as to suppose that there is anything essentially evil, or incompatible with innocence, in the indulgence of natural appetite and passion. But I hold just as clearly that it is fatal to all manhood – much more, then, to all womanhood – to make such indulgence an end of action.
LMD-15.2 No man and woman can do that deliberately without converting themselves – into brutes? No! for the brute is heavenly sweet compared with such men and women – but into devils. The distinctive glory of man is personality or character, the power of transcending his organization and realizing divinity; and he attains to this personality or character, not by foolish doing, but by wise and patient suffering; that is, by subjecting his self-will, or will of the flesh, to the welfare of his neighbors whenever itself prompts injustice to them.
LMD-15.3 How infinitely remote all this marriage doctrine is from the thought of the free-lover you can easily ascertain by recurring to Mrs. W’s indictment of poor Beecher. The free-lover aims at no mere negative legislation. He is a doctrinaire, and what he wants is, not the reformation of men’s manners, but a revolution, whereby what has hitherto been subservient in human nature (the flesh) shall be supreme, and what has hitherto been supreme (the spirit) shall be subservient. He will allow no compromise with society in any form, for he doesn’t believe in the social destiny of man, and disposes himself to reconstruct the world simply by overturning it, or substituting universal discord in place of partial order. He holds that every man is absolutely free, – free not only in respect to outward compulsion, but free also in respect to inward constraint; thus that he is essentially devoid of obligation either to his fellow-man or to himself; in a word, his own sole law, and hence is never so unmanly as when he obeys the voice of conscience in preference to that of appetite and passion.
LMD-15.4 This gospel would go down with me if only I were a Chimpanzee. For in that case, knowing absolutely no other law than that of my organization, I should know nothing of the social sentiment, nor consequently of the marriage sentiment in which it originates. But you will please observe that I am not a chimpanzee, either in origin as Mr. Darwin would argue, nor in destiny as the free-lover would have it; and the gospel of free-love consequently turns my intellectual stomach. I have an animal organization, to be sure, but it is never my master from infancy to old age, unless I have perverted my human force by vice, but always my servant. That is because I, unlike the animal, am born into a miniature society, called the family, and undergo its law, which is that of reverence or obedience on my part toward my parents, protection, nourishment, and education on their part toward me. Such is the difference in origin and destiny between man and the animals. The latter are born to obey their organization, the former are born to obey a higher law. In a word, every man, by virtue of his birth in a well-organized family, is more or less subject, inwardly, to conscience or the social sentiment. And this sentiment early awakes in his bosom a sense of personality or selfhood utterly distinct from his organization; and if it be judiciously nurtured and cultivated by outside influences, it gradually leads him to abhor nothing so much as identification with his appetites and passions. He claims an infinitely higher, purer, and freer law of action. Of course, so long as he remains a child, or falls short, from any cause, of normal manhood, he feels the insurgence of his organic wants very often, and does in consequence many harmful and unhandsome things, which invite stern rebuke and discipline. But, if he be arrested in time, he is sure to disavow his base tendencies, and submit himself zealously to the higher law he has found within.
LMD-15.5 Especially is this the case in respect of the sexual sentiment and its promptings. Love has now ceased to be purely animal with him and is becoming human. He now no longer loves at the impulse of his organization merely, and without regard to the personality of the object, as the animal does, but is overpoweringly constrained by something in the object exclusively, a something divine to his imagination, which he recognizes as the consummation of his being, and in the possession of which he would sacrifice his existence. In other words, love now proclaims its transfiguration into the marriage sentiment, and if it ever falls away from that sentiment, it does so no longer as love, but only as lasciviousness, in which case of course the man reverts from man to monkey.
LMD-15.6 Here, perhaps, you will ask me what I mean by marriage.
LMD-15.7 Marriage has two aspects: one literal, as a civic institution; the other spiritual, as a divine education or discipline.
LMD-15.8 1. I marry my wife under the impression that she is literally perfect, and is going to exhaust my capacity of desire ever after. Ere long I discover my mistake. The world, the flesh, or the devil (or possibly all these combined) suggest a pungent sense of bondage in the marriage tie. My good habits, my good breeding, my hearty respect for my wife, my sense of what is due to her amiable devotion, prevent my ever letting her suspect the conflict going on in my bosom; but there it is, nevertheless, a ceaseless conflict between law and liberty, between conscience and inclination. I know that it would be possible to make a compromise or enforce a truce between the two interests by clandestinely pursuing pleasure and openly following duty. But my heart revolts from this. I feel that the burden of my race is upon me, and I will perish under it if need be, but I will not shirk it like a sneak, and let sincere men bear it unhelped by me.
LMD-15.9 So much is clear to me. The law I have sworn to obey is beyond my strength. It crushes me to the earth. It humiliates me in my self-esteem. I see in its light that I am no better than the overt adulterer; but I dare not resent its terrible castigation. The law is holy, just, and even good, though it slay me. [Online editor’s note: Job 13:15. – RTL] Yes, death at its hands were better than life at the risk of dishonor at my hands; so I abide by my marriage bond. I see very well that the bond ought to be loosened in the case of other people; that divorce should be allowed more freely than it is now, so that multitudes of people to whom marriage as a divine education or discipline is mere derision or mockery, might become free from its bondage as a civic institution, and so no longer profane it and their souls by clandestinely violating it. But as for me, I will abide in my chains.
LMD-15.10 2. I don’t find that there is any particular manhood, if by manhood merit is meant, in this decision of mine; for I have been becoming aware all along of a much deeper divinity in my wife than I discerned in her before marriage. The divinity she revealed to me then addressed itself to my senses, and fed me fat with the hope of being selfishly aggrandized by it. The divinity she now reveals is the very opposite of everything I find in myself. It is gentle where I am turbulent, modest where I am exacting, yielding where I am obstinate, full of patience where I am full of self-will, active where I am slothful, cheerful where I am moody, unconscious where I am morbidly conscious; in short, it is a divinity infinitely remote from my own petty self, and yet a divinity in my very nature, so that I canít help becoming aroused to the meaning at last of living worship, worship consecrated by death to self. I see that there was no other way for the Divine to get hold of me, at all events, but by first binding me in sensuous love to this noble woman, and then letting into my interiors from the camera obscura of her person the accommodated blaze of his eternal purity and beauty, that I might see myself at last as I truly am, and know Him, therefore, evermore, past all misapprehension, as my sole light and life. Thus marriage is to me my truest divine revelation. I should simply have gone to hell long ago if my wife had not saved me, not by any conscious or voluntary doing on her part (for if she had attempted anything of that sort she would have damned me past all chance of redemption); no, far from it; but by unconsciously being the pure, good, modest woman she is. She was mine by legal right, and yet she was by nature totally opposite to all I call me. What then? Shall I renounce marriage, call it a snare and a cheat, and abandon myself to concubinage instead? Or shall I accept it as a divine boon, – the divinest boon imaginable to our race, – and so find myself no longer debasing women to my level, – the level of my selfish lusts, – but elevated gradually and surely to the height of her natural truth and purity. ... The end of marriage as a civic institution is the family. But the family is now blocking the way of society, which is Godís family, and marriage consequently, being no longer necessary to be rigorously administered as of old in the service of the family, must consent to be administered in the interest of society, – that is, must be relieved by greater freedom of divorce.

H. J.




Previous section           Next section


Up to table of contents

Back to online library