Love, Marriage, and Divorce (1853/1889)

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



[Online editor’s note: This chapter appears only in the second edition (1889). – RTL]

My dear sir:
LMD-16.1 I inclose a newspaper slip of a letter published in a late issue of the St. Paul “Press,” in which you will readily recognize the ear-marks of your old antagonist of twenty odd years ago, Henry James, of Newport.
LMD-16.2 I feel assured that Mr. James is laboring under a misconception of the motive which animates the “free-lover” in assailing our present cruel marriage laws, and is thus led to misstate the issue. He is equally earnest in his desire for the emancipation of woman, and his vehement rhetoric has demonstrated on numberless occasions that the legal tyranny of marriage serves only to embitter and defile its otherwise sweet and wholesome waters. But he assumes that the hostility of the technical free-lover is based on a totally different motive from his own; that it is a supremely selfish one, wholly in the interest of his organic appetites and passions. As well might he assume that the effort to relieve the conditions of prison-life was made in the interest of thievery, and insist that anyone advocating such amelioration afforded instant evidence that he was a thief, or at least was calculating the risks involved in some scheme of private plunder. To make good his position, it is incumbent on Mr. James to show that the men and women known as “technical free-lovers: are, practically, libertines, debauchees, and harlots; are lecherous, libidinous persons, who shamelessly “obey the voice of passion in preference to the voice of conscience.” This is a task from which Mr. James would shrink with unfeigned abhorrence, but I see no other means by which he can vindicate his claim to candor and sober truth.
LMD-16.3 I have read the writings of Mrs. Woodhull, and heard her deliver her lectures; have read the current literature of the free-love movement these twenty years or more; and – while meeting with much that was repulsive and reprehensible – I am satisfied that the settlement of the question of social freedom involves issues of immeasurable value to the race, and invites the effort of every courageous and sincere man and woman; and I am also satisfied that, while a large proportion of the individuals who have espoused this unpopular cause exhibit a certain unhandsome egotism, and possess perhaps more vigor than cultivation, they are in all moral regards neither better nor worse than their neighbors.
LMD-16.4 But I fear Mr. James has confounded some of the exuvia of this new truth with the fair promise itself. The new truth in transition is always accompanied with irregular and sporadic manifestation. To be sure, well-bred people do not want to be always talking about their sexual relations; nor will they, after these matters have been readjusted. Once woman is emancipated from the social and household subjection in which she is now (in a great measure unconsciously) held, a cooling, healing influence of modest restraint will descend from woman herself, and these turbulent waves of public discussion concerning a domain of life so private and sacred will subside into equable relations with other departments of human activity.
LMD-16.5 Henry James sits a crowned king in the realm of metaphysics. His penetration is something marvelous. His admirers become enthusiasts and declare that he alone of all men living is entitled to the name of philosopher. Time and space confess themselves mere shams, and the material universe fades out of mind under the matchless power of his analysis; the innermost mysteries of being unfold themselves, fall into order and method, and ultimate in worlds and passionate human hearts as a matter of course; history is illuminated, and the splendid destiny of the race is forecast with overwhelming certainty. But in the midst of all this, or perhaps because of this, one detects in him a certain inability to cope with actual affairs as they arise in the ever-shifting drama of life. His thought turns back upon itself when it comes in contact with the raw edge of things. And I hold that in this letter he has spoken unwisely; he has made his point, but it is at the expense of his own candor and magnanimity. He perceives the stupendous frauds we suffer in our social relations, – none more clearly; and he with us is moved to attack; but, while the common instinct of outraged justice urges the rough onset with whatever bludgeon lies at hand, he is dismayed at the turmoil and confusion, and puts up his keen and highly-tempered blade in disgust, confessing that he has no stomach for the fight. Hinc illæ lacrymæ.

H. Y. R.

Previous section           Next section

Up to table of contents

Back to online library