Love, Marriage, and Divorce (1853/1889)

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




LMD-1.1 Please allow me the hospitality of your paper to right myself with The New York Observer, and so add to the many obligations I already owe you.
Yours, truly,
H. James.
November 15.

NEW YORK, Saturday, Nov. 13, 1852.

LMD-1.2 An article in your paper of to-day does me so much injustice that I can not afford to let it pass unnoticed.
LMD-1.3 The drift of your assault is to charge me with hostility to the marriage institution. This charge is so far from being true, that I have invariably aimed to advance the honor of marriage by seeking to free it from certain purely arbitrary and conventional obstructions in reference to divorce. For example, I have always argued against Mr. Greeley, that it was not essential to the honor of marriage that two persons should be compelled to live together when they held the reciprocal relation of dog and cat, and that in that state of things divorce might profitably intervene, provided the parties guaranteed the State against the charge of their offspring. I have very earnestly, and, as it appears to me, very unanswerably, contended for a greater freedom of divorce on these grounds, in the columns of The Tribune, some years since; but I had no idea that I was thus weakening the respect of marriage. I seemed to myself to be plainly strengthening it, by removing purely arbitrary and damaging obstructions. The existing difficulty of divorce is one of those obstructions. You will not pretend to say that the legislative sanction of divorce now existing discharges the marriage rite of respect? How then, shall any enlargement of that sanction which I propose avail to do so? Is it possible that a person exposed to the civilizing influences of a large city like this so long as you have been, should see no other security for the faithful union of husband and wife than that which dates from the police office? I can not believe it. You must know many married partners, if you have been even ordinarily fortunate in your company, who, if the marriage institution were formally abolished to-morrow, would instantly annul that legal abolition again by the unswerving constancy of their hearts and lives.
LMD-1.4 No man has a more cordial, nor, as I conceive, a more enlightened respect for marriage than I have, whether it be regarded, 1st, as a beautiful and very perfect symbol of religious or metaphysic truth, or, 2d, as an independent social institution. I have fully shown its claim for respect on both these grounds in a number of The Tribune which you quoted at the time, but which it serves your dishonest instincts now to overlook. You probably are indifferent to the subject in its higher and primary point of view, but your present article proves that you have some regard for it in its social aspects. If you regard marriage, then, as a social institution, you will, of course, allow that its value depends altogether upon the uses it promotes. If these uses are salutary, the institution is honorable. If, on the contrary, they are mischievous, the institution is deplorable. Now, no one charges that the legitimate uses of the marriage institution are otherwise than good. But a social institution, whose uses are intrinsically good, may be very badly administered, and so produce mischief. This, I allege, is the case with the marriage institution. It is not administered livingly, or with reference to the present need of society, but only traditionally, or with reference to some wholly past state of society. In a disorderly condition of society, like that from which we have for the last two centuries been slowly emerging, men of wealth and power, men of violence and intrigue, would have laughed at the sacredest affections, and rendered the family security nugatory, had not society fortified marriage by the most stringent safeguards. The still glaring inequality of the sexes, moreover, would have led kings and nobles into the most unrebuked licentiousness, and consequently into the most brutal contempt for woman, had not the politico-ecclesiastical regime almost utterly inhibited divorce. The elevation of woman in Christendom has thus been owing exclusively to a very rigid administration of the marriage institution in the earlier periods of our social history. But what man of wealth and power, what man of violence and intrigue, is there now to take a man’s wife from him? No doubt there is a very enormous clandestine violation of the marriage bond at the present time; careful observers do not hesitate to say an almost unequaled violation of it; but that is an evil which no positive legislation can prevent, because it is manifestly based upon a popular contempt for the present indolent an vicious administration of the law. The only possible chance for correcting it depends, as I have uniformly insisted, upon a change in that administration – that is to say, upon freely legitimating divorce, within the limits of a complete guarantee to society against the support of offspring; because in that case you place the inducement to mutual fidelity no longer in the base legal bondage of the parties merely, but in their reciprocal inward sweetness or humanity. And this is a appeal which, when frankly and generously made, no man or woman will ever prove recreant to.
LMD-1.5 Again, in The Tribune article of last summer which you quote (or rather, shamelessly misquote) it seemed to me the while that I was saying as good a word for marriage as had ever been said beneath the stars. I was writing, to be sure, upon a larger topic, and alluded to marriage only by way of illustration. But what I said about it then seems to me still completely true. And, true or untrue, why do you not cite me before your readers honestly? You allow your printer to turn the first quotation you make into sheer nonsense, and you so bedevil the second with ostentatious and minatory italics, that a heedless reader will look upon the imbecile tumefaction as so much solid argument, and infer that any one who can provoke that amount of purely typographical malediction from a pious editor must needs be closely affiliated – you know where.
LMD-1.6 Now, as a matter of speculation merely, why should you desire to prejudice me before the community? I am a humble individual, without any influence to commend my ideas to public acceptance, apart from their intrinsic truth. And if, as you allege, my desire and aim be to destroy the marriage institution, I am at least not so foolish as to attempt that labor by a mere exhibition of will. I must have adduced some tolerable reasons for its destruction. Will you be good enough to tell me where I have exhibited these reasons? Or, failing to do so, will you be good enough to confess yourself a defeated trickster, unworthy the companionship of honest men?
LMD-1.7 Doubtless, Mr. Editor, you address an easy, good-natured audience, who do not care to scan too nicely the stagnant slipslop which you weekly ladle deals out to them. But the large public perfectly appreciates your flimsy zeal for righteousness. Every reasonable man knows that if I assail a cherished institution without the exhibition of valid reasons, I alone must prove the sufferer, and that immediately. Every such person therefore suspects, when a pious editor goes out of his way to insult me for this imputed offense, that his apparent motive is only a mask to some more real and covert one. And this suspicion would be palpably just in the present instance. You are by no means concerned about any hostility, real or imaginary, which I or any other person may exhibit toward the marriage institution. I do you the justice, on the contrary, to believe that you would only be too happy to find me and all your other fancied enemies “bringing up” – to use your own choice expression – “against the seventh commandment.” But my benevolence, at least, I quite too weak to afford you that gratification. Naturalists tell us that the sepia or cuttle-fish, when pursued, is in the habit “of ejecting an inky fluid, which colors the adjacent waters so deeply as to afford it an easy means of escape.” Now science in revealing to us the splendid analogies of nature, teaches us that the sepia, or cuttle-fish of these watery latitudes, is only an oblique or imperfect form of the tricky sectarian editor of higher ones; even as that tricky editor is himself only an oblique or imperfect prophecy of the integral MAN of still higher latitudes. Accordingly, if we take the trouble to explore the inky and deceptive puddle you have trajected in our path, we shall find that the origin of your ill-will lies very much behind that. We shall find that it lies altogether in the criticism which I have occasionally brought to bear upon that fossil and fatiguing Christianity, of which The Observer is so afflictive a type, and its editor so distinguished and disinterested a martyr. Indulge me with a few lines upon this topic.
LMD-1.8 Christianity, in its own real or vital apprehension, seems to me to imply a very perfect life for man, or one which safely disuses all professional knavery, as it is sure to disappoint all merely professional or private ambition. I have expressed, poorly enough I allow, my dawning conception of this majestic life. It is at last the veritable life of God in the soul of man, and one must celebrate it with stammering lips rather than be wholly silent. It runs through one’s veins like new wine, and if one’s speech thereupon grew lyrical and babbling, it should rather be an argument of praise to the late-found and authentic Bacchus, than of blame to his still unfashioned worshiper. I have tried to put this miraculous and divine wine into out old customary bottles, but the bottles pop, whiz, sputter, and crack so on every side, that my wife and children and servants laughingly protest that we shall have no rest short of absolutely new bottles. Now, these bottles admit of no private manufacture. They are so vast in compass, and so costly in material, that they claim all the resources and the wit of society to fashion them. There is no harm, of course, in a patient citizen like me occasionally stirring up the pure mind of his brethren by way of remembrance, or indulging a word now and then upon the pattern the fabric should follow. Accordingly, I do drop an occasional word in the columns of The Tribune, and would be happy to do the same in those of The Observer, on this interesting topic: hinting how, as I conceive, our good old family bottle, conjugal bottle, and social bottle generally – might be destroyed? – no! might be saved from destruction, renewed, regenerated, and reformed, by wise and timely legislation. I am happy to say, too, that my efforts seem to be taken in growing good part. Virtuous and genial Presbyterians even, as well as mere unregimented sinners, are beginning to express an interest in the attractive theme, and a hope of good fruit to come out of its seasonable agitation. For it is evident to every honest mind, that if our conjugal, parental, and social ties generally can be safely discharged of the purely diabolic element of outward force, they must instantly become transfigured by their own inward, divine, and irresistible loveliness.
LMD-1.9 Hinc illae lachrymae! [Online editor’s note: “Whence these tears,” i.e., there’s the reason. – RTL] This is the open source of your tribulation, the palpable spring of your ineffectual venom. With the instinct unhappily of self-preservation, you perceive that if our social relations once become orderly, not by constraint but of an inherent and divine necessity, there will be a speedy end to the empire of cant and false pretension. For if a living piety once invade the human mind, a piety attuned to the ministries of science, a piety which celebrates God no longer as the mere traditional source of lapsed and contingent felicities, but as the present and palpable doer of divinest deeds – such as feeding the starving hordes of the earth’s population, clothing the naked, enlightening the ignorant, comforting the dejected, breaking the yoke of every oppression, cleansing the diseased conscience, banishing want, and sickness, and envy, and diffusing universal plenty, peace, and righteousness – what, in Heaven’s name, will become of that vapid piety which now exhales only in the form of selfish and mendicant supplication, or else of impudent interference with the privacies of other people’s souls?
LMD-1.10 I have not yet had the pleasure of reading any of Mrs. Smith’s publications, and can not, therefore, estimate your candor in associating her labors with mine. But inasmuch as I perceive from the newspaper that that well-intentioned lady is engaged in a very arduous crusade against the natural and obvious distinction of the sexes, the which distinction I meanwhile set great store by, I presume your good will in this instance to be as transparent as I have found it in others, and thank you accordingly.
LMD-1.11 As to your attempt to insinuate a community of purpose or tendency between myself and that ramification of your own religious body, known as the Oneida Perfectionists, I may safely leave it to the scorn of those among your readers who can estimate the cowardice which, in wanton disregard of a neighbor’s good name, hints and insinuates the calumny it dares not boldly mouth. These men, as I learn from their own story, are ultra – that is to say, consistent – Calvinists, who have found in the bosom of the doctrines you yourself profess the logical warrant of the practices which you nevertheless condemn. From a conversation or two which I have had with some of their leading men, I judged them to be persons of great sincerity, but of deplorable fanaticism, who were driven to the lengths which you so sternly reprobate strictly because they exemplify what you do not – a logical abandonment to their own religious convictions. I told them candidly, that any man of common sense must give short shrift in his regard to a deity who elected men to the privilege of leading disorderly lives; but at the same time I saw that they were no way amenable to the tribunal of common sense. An unhappy religious fanaticism, the flowering of your own fundamental principles, has lifted them out of that wholesome judicature, and they must henceforth drift whithersoever the benignant powers – who, after all, are paramount in this world, spite of many Observers – will let them. But at the same time I must avow that these strenuous and unhandsome sectarists appeared to me far worthier of tender compassion than of brutal public vituperation. Honest, upright souls they seemed at bottom, though sadly misguided by an insane sense of duty, and delicate women were among them, too, full no doubt of woman’s indestructible truth. They were fathers, and husbands, and brothers, like myself, disfigured, to be sure, by a morbid religious conscience, but no less capable of suffering on that account whatever I suffered. And so I could not help saying to myself, how surely must error like these involve this poor, unprotected people in permanent popular disgrace; or what is worse, perhaps, provoke the fatal violence of a disgusting pharisaic mob; and how gladly, therefore, must good men of every name rather lessen than deepen the inevitable odium in which they stand! Accordingly it appears to me about as unmanly a sight as the sun now shines upon, to see a great prosperous newspaper like The New York Observer gathering together the two wings of its hebdomadal flatulence, “secular” and “religious,” for a doughty descent upon this starveling and harmless field-mouse!
LMD-1.12 And this reminds me, by the way, to adore the beautiful Nemesis – beautiful and dread! – which in every commotion of opinion infallibly drives you, and persons like you, into a significant clamor for the interest of the Seventh Commandment. Whence this special zeal, this supererogatory devotion to the interests of that institution? Have you, then, a fixed conviction that no man, however refined by God’s culture and the elevation of our present social sentiment, could be exempted from police regulation, without instantly rushing into adultery? It would really seem so. But if that be your state of mind, it only furnishes another striking proof of the power, which your friends the Socialists attribute to constraint, in enhancing and inflaming the normal appreciation of sensual delights.
LMD-1.13 And here I drop my pen. I have used it freely, to express the indignation which every true man must feel, at seeing an eminent public station, like that of the editor of a religious newspaper, perverted to the wanton defamation of private character and the profligate obstruction of humane enterprise.

I am yours, etc.,

LMD-1.14 Then followed several communications between The Observer and Mr. James, which are omitted. Any thing in them, pertinent to this discussion, is contained in the excerpts indicated by quotation marks.

Previous section           Next section

Up to table of contents

Back to online library