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How to Live to the Full While Dying: The Extraordinary Diary of Alice James, William and Henry James’s Underappreciated Sister

How to Live to the Full While Dying: The Extraordinary Diary of Alice James, William and Henry James’s Underappreciated Sister

“Not every man knows what he shall sing at the end,” wrote the poet Mark Strand in his stunning ode to what Emily Dickinson termed “the drift called ‘the infinite.'”

Hardly any writer has chronicled their own drift toward death with more dignified composure and attentive aliveness than Alice James (August 7, 1848–March 6, 1892) — sister of pioneering psychologist William James and novelist Henry James — in The Diary of Alice James (public library).

Alice was a woman who considered herself “simply born a few years too soon.” She was also an exquisite writer from whose pen seemed to flow the best of her brothers’ aptitudes — William’s insight into human psychology and Henry’s novelistic splendor of style — along with a sublimity of sentiment entirely her own. In a letter to William penned two years after their sister’s death, Henry extolled Alice’s diary as an embodiment of her “extraordinary force of mind and character, her whole way of taking life — and death — in very much the manner in which the book does… It is heroic in its individuality, its independence — its face-to-face with the universe for-and-by herself — and the beauty and eloquence with which she often expresses this, let alone the rich irony and humour.”

Alice James, age 11, in 1857 (Harvard Houghton Library)

An awareness of mortality had haunted Alice since her youth — her body was assailed by a mysterious ailment that kept her bedridden, with only intermittent relief from disability. For years, physicians failed to find an organic cause and diagnose her illness. (This, lest we forget, was the heyday of such “therapies” as blistering, leeches, cold water treatments, and medication with mercury — rudimentary medicine’s blind shots in the dark of the body.)

In Alice’s thirtieth year, her physical pain exploded into a severe mental breakdown. Her father wrote that she was “half the time, indeed much more than half, on the verge of insanity and suicide” — a wish for self-annihilation she had confided in him directly, asking whether he thought it was a sin. Subverting the dogma of his era, he responded that there is nothing sinful in wishing to end one’s extreme suffering, and gave her his fatherly permission to take her own life if the physical and psychological pain became too unbearable, asking her only to do it in a gentle way.

Alice James circa 1873 (Harvard Houghton Library)

But to Alice, there was something liberating about this surprising permission to take charge of her own death, which had the paradoxical effect of giving her a sense of agency in her own life. Half a century before Albert Camus posed the most important question of existence, Alice answered it in the affirmative — she chose to live. Still, the specter of death remained always near and animated her days for decades.

Alice James in 1891 (Harvard Houghton Library)

Just before her forty-third birthday, Alice received a diagnosis that was likely unrelated to the neurological nightmare of the preceding decades but was as devastatingly unambiguous as can be: late-stage breast cancer. Writing on the last day of May in 1891, in an era before the combined influence of Darwin and Freud shaped our relationship to mortality, Alice records the strange relief of her terminal diagnosis — the comforting concretization of death’s amorphous presence, which had haunted her many years of undiagnosed suffering. A century before modern doctors treated Rosanne Cash in much the same way, Alice writes:

Ever since I have been ill, I have longed and longed for some palpable disease, no matter how conventionally dreadful a label it might have, but I was always driven back to stagger alone under the monstrous mass of subjective sensations, which that sympathetic being “the medical man” had no higher inspiration than to assure me I was personally responsible for, washing his hands of me with a graceful complacency under my very nose. Dr. Torry [James’s final physician] was the only man who ever treated me like a rational being, who did not assume, because I was victim to many pains, that I was, of necessity, an arrested mental development too.

The following day, she writes:

To any one who has not been there, it will be hard to understand the enormous relief of [the doctor’s] uncompromising verdict, lifting us out of the formless vague and setting us within the very heart of the sustaining concrete. One would naturally not choose such an ugly and gruesome method of progression down the dark Valley of the Shadow of Death, and of course many of the moral sinews will snap by the way, but we shall gird up our loins and the blessed peace of the end will have no shadow cast upon it.

What allowed Alice to meet her mortality with such serenity was not a physical fact but the single most important psychological and emotional event of her life, which had taken place a decade earlier. When she was thirty-two, Alice had met Katharine Peabody Loring — an energetic young education reformer and activist, whom she described as having “all the mere brute superiority which distinguishes man from woman, combined with all the distinctive feminine virtues.” Alice marveled that “there is nothing [Katharine] cannot do from hewing wood and drawing water to driving runaway horses and educating all the women in North America.” In short, she was in love, and so was Katharine, who proved to be the most loyal and loving partner one could wish for.

Katharine Peabody Loring

The two women shared the remainder of Alice’s life, and her family came to accept Katharine as one of them. Henry James admired her “strength of wind and limbs, to say nothing of her nobler qualities,” recognized that she and his sister were bonded by “a permanency,” and came to love the devotion with which Katharine simply loved Alice. (His novel The Bostonians, published four years after Alice’s death, would popularize the term “Boston marriage” — a domestic partnership between two women, financially independent of any man, likely modeled on his sister’s relationship with his sister-outside-law.) Katharine, for her part, assured Henry of her own desire “quite as strongly as Alice’s, to be with her to the end.”

Alice James and Katharine Peabody Loring in Alice’s sickroom (Harvard Houghton Library)

In an entry from New Year’s Day of 1892, three months before the end, Alice writes:

As the ugliest things go to the making of the fairest, is it not wonderful that this unholy granite substance in my breast should be the soil propitious for the perfect flowering of Katharine’s unexampled genius for friendship and devotion. The story of her watchfulness, patience and untiring resource cannot be told by my feeble pen, but all the pain and discomfort seem a slender price to pay for all the happiness and peace with which she fills my days.

Despite the interminable rapidity with which death approached, Alice didn’t slip into the ideology of eternal life — her era’s greatest coping mechanism against the prevalence of untimely deaths. Like Emily Dickinson, who renounced the escapist rhetoric of immortality, Alice made her own spiritual path. (She was, in fact, a fan of Dickinson. In the final weeks of her life, she found enough good humor to record this wry observation: “It is reassuring to hear the English pronouncement that Emily Dickinson is fifth-rate, they have such a capacity for missing quality; the robust evades them equally with the subtle.”) In a journal entry from August of 1890, she writes:

There has come such a change in me. A congenital faith flows thro’ me like a limpid stream, making the arid places green, a spontaneous irrigator of which the snags of doubt have never interrupted [n]or made turbid the easily flowing current. A faith which is my mental and moral respiration which needs no revelation but experience and whose only ritual is daily conduct. Thro’ my childhood and youth and until within the last few years, the thought of the end as an entrance into spiritual existence, where aspirations are a fulfillment, was a perpetual and necessary inspiration, but now, altho’ intellectually nonexistence is more ungraspable and inconceivable than ever, all longing for fulfillment, all passion to achieve has died down within me and whether the great Mystery resolves itself into eternal Death or glorious Life, I contemplate either with equal serenity.

In December of 1891, several months after her terminal diagnosis, she revisits the absurdity of immortality and considers the far greater redemption to be found in life and death:

How little all assurances of one’s own immortality seem to concern one, now, and how little to have gained from the experience of life, if one’s thoughts are lingering still upon personal fulfillments and not rooted in the knowledge that the great Immortalities, Love, Goodness and Truth include all others… References to those whom we shall meet again make me shiver, as such an invasion of their sanctity, gone so far beyond, for ever since the night that Mother died, and the depth of filial tenderness was revealed to me, all personal claim upon her vanished, and she was dwelt in my mind a beautiful illuminated memory, the essence of divine maternity from which I was to learn great things, give all, but ask nothing.

Sketch of Alice James by Henry James, 1872

Writing four weeks before her death, Alice arrives at the perennial question of the nature of the self — or what Walt Whitman considered the paradox of identity — and where it resides. With unsentimental and almost buoyant poignancy, she observes that even as the body fails part by part, we adapt by folding the losses into our consent to reality, the integrity of our deepest sense of self remaining all the while intact:

This long slow dying is no doubt instructive, it is disappointingly free from excitements: “naturalness” being carried to its supreme expression. One sloughs off the activities one by one, and never knows that they’re gone, until one suddenly finds that the months have slipped away and the sofa will never more be laid upon, the morning paper read, or the loss of the new book regretted; one revolves with equal content within the narrowing circle until the vanishing point is reached, I suppose.

Vanity, however, maintains its undisputed sway, and I take satisfaction in feeling as much myself as ever, perhaps simply a more concentrated essence in this curtailment.

A week before her death, sensing the proximity of the end, she considers the futility of regret:

How wearing to the substance and exasperating to the nerves is the perpetual bewailing, wondering at and wishing to alter things happened, as if all personal concern didn’t vanish as the “happened” crystallizes into history. Of what matter can it be whether pain or pleasure has shaped and stamped the pulp within, as one is absorbed in the supreme interest of watching the outline and the tracery as the lines broaden for eternity.

Art from Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch, an uncommonly tender illustrated meditation on life and death

In her final journal entry, dictated to Katharine the day before her death, Alice writes with gratitude for her partner’s loving care and caress:

I am being ground slowly on the grim grindstone of physical pain, and on two nights I had almost asked K.’s lethal dose, but one steps hesitantly along such unaccustomed ways and endures from second to second; and I feel sure that it can’t be possible but what the bewildered little hammer that keep some going will very shortly see the decency of ending his distracted career; however this may be, physical pain however great ends in itself and falls away like dry husks from the mind, whilst moral discords and nervous sorrows sear the soul. These last, Katharine has completely under the control of her rhythmic hand, so I go no longer in dread. Oh the wonderful moment when I felt myself floated for the first time into the deep sea of divine cessation, and saw all the dear old mysteries and miracles vanish into vapour!

But Alice’s most profound meditation on life and death was penned in a letter to her brother William a year earlier, after her terminal diagnosis had relieved the decades of uncertainty. Echoing Rilke’s assertion that “death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love,” she writes:

It is the most supremely interesting moment in life, the only one in fact when living seems life, and I count in the greatest good fortune to have these few months so full of interest and instruction in the knowledge of my approaching death. It is as simple in one’s own person as any fact of nature, the fall of a leaf or the blooming of a rose, and I have a delicious consciousness, ever present, of wide spaces close at hand, and whisperings of release in the air.

Compare this with Oliver Sacks’s stirring farewell to life, written more than a century later after his own terminal diagnosis:

I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life… .

Alice James in 1870 (Harvard Houghton Library)

In a spectacular counterpoint to the disadvantages life had conferred upon her with her particular lifelong infirmity and the general case of her gender in the nineteenth century, Alice adds a proud note of assurance to William:

Don’t think of me simply as a creature who might have been something else… Notwithstanding the poverty of my outside experience, I have always had a significance for myself, and every chance to stumble along my straight and narrow little path, and to worship at the feet of my Deity, and what more can a human soul ask for?

Compare again with Sacks:

I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

The Diary of Alice James is a magnificent read in its entirety. Complement it with an uncommonly tender German illustrated meditation on mortality and a subtle Japanese pop-up masterpiece about the cycle of life, then revisit its contemporary counterpart in a young neurosurgeon’s beautiful meditation on the meaning of life as he faces his death.

Published August 7, 2017




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