Blog Posts

Business, Religion and the American Fear of Leisure, Post 2: William James of Albany (1771-1832)

Though originally from Western New York (Buffalo to be exact) I spent three and a half years (1969-1972) teaching English at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, located a few miles from Utica in the central portion of the state. At that time I was unaware of the vast influence once exercised over that area by William James of Albany, the grandfather of the novelist Henry James.

William James of Albany was an Irish immigrant who acquired a fortune as an American businessman largely because of his gift for real estate purchases and development. He bought up valuable property in his home city of Albany and once held most of the mortgages in the city of Syracuse and on the campus of Union College in Schenectady. He also operated the Syracuse Salt Company, which produced and supplied salt to the whole of the United States at that time. William was also a backer of the Erie Canal, no doubt because he thought it beneficial to his business opportunities as well as to the state of New York. His home in Albany was a few doors from that of Governor DeWitt Clinton, credited with the building of the Canal.

The village of Clinton, New York where, as mentioned above, I taught at Hamilton College for a while, was named not for DeWitt Clinton but for his uncle, George Clinton New York’s first and longest serving governor. You can understand my attachment to central New York when you consider that my great-great grandfather emigrated from Alsace in 1832, then rode the Erie Canal across the middle of the state from New York City to Buffalo, finally trekking on up to Ontario, Canada where he settled his family. 1832 was the year William of Albany died. My New York roots go deep.

William was a fierce Presbyterian, a believer with the Calvinists that man, though overwhelmingly inclined to sin, could nevertheless be redeemed by faith in Christ and the reading of Scripture. Along with many other successful American Calvinists of his time he also interpreted the money, power and social good he earned from his business as a sign that God had arbitrarily predestined him to be a member of the elect, one of God’s chosen ones. Where in his mind that left those supposedly lacking the practicality, strength and perseverance essential to success, the “lazy ones,” we may well imagine.

This elevated conception of himself and his work helps explain both the cool distance William placed between himself and his family and his certainty about the truth of what he thought. Much like his God, who saved or damned at will, William could be either compassionate or vindictive depending on how he regarded the behavior confronting him. Displeased with the rebellious and money squandering ways of his son Henry (the eventual father of Henry James the novelist), William of Albany punished him with a far from generous will. It took awhile for a court to alter it in fairer terms.

Take together William’s hard driving work ethic, an idea of himself bordering on the narcissistic, and a punitive attitude toward anyone non compliant with his will, and you have the profile of many an American from the founding of our country to our current President, also a Presbyterian but reportedly one who once left cash on the communion plate. Secularize the believing William of Albany, and you have Donald J. Trump, who is not an original but a type. He may do some accidental good during his time as President, but it is hard to accept that his courting of white evangelical Christians is anything but politically self-serving. And their approval of him is nothing short of amazing.

How the Family of Henry James Helps Us Understand The Times We Now Live In: A Series of Posts on Business, Religion and The American Fear of Leisure

Post 1: Henry James (1843-1916) is a challenging fiction writer. His sentences are long and his vision complex. But taken together the James family–his highly successful grandfather (William James of Albany), his father (Henry James, Sr.), and his brother (the philosopher William James)–have profoundly impacted American life.

Henry James the Novelist
The novelist’s grandfather, William James of Albany
Young Henry the novelist with his father, Henry James, Sr.
The novelist’s brother, the philosopher William James

Note: Post 2 will focus on William James of Albany, an impoverished Irish immigrant, a staunch Calvinist, and a businessman who rose in American society to make a fortune nearly equal to that of John Jacob Astor. A man at once generous and cruel, he lived out the American Dream, exemplifying the rags to riches story so popular in our mythology.

The Tale of a Beaver Named Davy

Looking out on the lake from our sun porch the other day I saw the beaver in the two photos below approaching the shore. At least ten years ago I planted a willow tree in the yard that goes down to the lake a few feet above the fire pit you can also see in those photos. I surrounded that tree with a circular fence but after four years I figured my tree was safe from danger and removed the fence.

About a week later I was again looking out from the sun porch, this time early in the morning. My lovingly cared for tree was gone except for a few long branches presumably waiting to be dragged toward the south end of the lake along with the rest of the tree already taken there. But who, I wondered, was the villain who had taken it?

At the base of my lost tree were neatly carved teeth marks, clear evidence of a beaver I had been naive enough until then to consider my friend. I had even named him Davy in honor of a bar on Chautauqua Lake in western New York that my father had frequented when I was a kid.

I have no idea of the life span of a beaver. My nephew thinks my current beaver, the one in the photo, has got to be “the son of Davy” or even “the son of the son of Davy.” But whatever generation of lake beavers he belongs to, when I saw him menacingly return to our shore the other day I knew in my heart he was the same beaver, now an aging old geyser, who had once made off with my still ungrown willow tree. I was certain the villain was Davy.

Say hello to Davy

Sicily 13th and Last: Syracuse–A Pastry Shop, The Church of Santa Lucia (Caravaggio), and our slightly mad Tour Guide

     Sicily has excellent pastry shops, and below is one in Syracuse, the last Sicilian city we visited. That same day we visited The Church of Saint Lucy in Syracuse’s Piazza Duomo, where I remember viewing a painting that was clearly NOT100_0734100_0732 the famous baroque one we hoped to find there, Caravaggio’s The Burial of Saint Lucy. We knew it was not Caravaggio’s because it lacked the exciting, unconventionally humanized style of his religious paintings. Our tour ended with a goodbye yellow flower from our fun loving tour guide that was meant as a Sicilian symbol of that special day. Sadly, I forget what it was!100_0726100_0706


Sicily 12: A Fish Story That’s True

The last Sicilian city we stayed in was Catania. Mary went off in the tour bus to visit Taormina, a little north of Catania, but the weather was iffy so I decided to stay in Catania, where I visited a fish market and then walked in the pouring rain to, of all places, a spacious and comfortable Sicilian MacDonald’s, where I finished reading the well regarded 1958 Sicilian novel, The Leopard. All but one of the photos below are of the market, but one is of a pastry that is a Sicilian specialty on the feast of Saint Agatha in February. The pastry “depicts” a breast of Saint Agatha, who was martyred by having her breasts ripped off. Agatha is the patron saint of women who suffer rape and is also invoked (appropriately in a city near Mount Etna) for protection against volcanic eruptions. Along with Saint Lucy, Agatha is still venerated all over Sicily with special foods and even parades on her feast day.

The Catania Fish Market
This gentleman was not pleased with my picture taking
Saint Agatha Pastry

Sicily 11: In the Snow at Mount Etna

Mount Etna is located on the east coast of Sicily between the cities of Messina and Catania (our next, and probably last stop on this blog tour).  The bus climb up to near the top of Etna was on a road ending at a ski area.  As you can see, the temperature had fallen considerably by the time we arrived there, the area being covered in snow whereas we had no snow anywhere else in Sicily at the time. Etna remains an active volcano, the latest eruption occurring in 2017 shortly after our tour of Sicily. (Etna is a good deal higher than Mount Vesuvius on the Gulf of Naples). We didn’t get much farther up than the ski area except for a short walk we took with others on our tour, as you can see, up through the snow.

My favorite story about Etna came as we returned back down the road, passing a convent of nuns.  During the last major eruption of Etna a large number of buildings were destroyed, but this convent survived with little or no damage.  Makes me wonder.



Europe versus America: A Review of The Ambassadors (1903) by Henry James

WP_20170926_15_06_45_ProAt the center of this novel is a problem James began his literary career writing about. He also lived it out by eventually choosing England (and nearby Europe) over Puritan New England as his place of residence. But the conflict in James between residing in America and residing in Europe was part of a larger one between living under a severe code of moral conduct (the American determination to please God by pursuing success in the secular world, especially by winning in business and commerce) and the more relaxed European desire to open oneself to the vagaries of experience.

The ferocious American will to win is represented in The Ambassadors by Mrs. Newsome, a character who never directly appears in the book.  Lambert Strether, who appears on almost every page, has lived his life so far as a pleasant but experientially underdeveloped American, a fact represented by his engagement to the morally obstinate Mrs. Newsome. Fortunately for him, however, Mrs. Newsome sends him to Europe as her ambassador to her son Chad, charged with bringing him back to America to run the family business. But the more Strether opens himself to his experiences in Europe, especially those of Paris, the more inclined he is to let people develop as they will and to have Chad himself decide his future.

This thwarting of the will of the indomitable Mrs. Newsome is so unforgiveable from her point of view that she sends her daughter on yet another ambassadorial mission, this one to rescue her brother Chad from the supposed corruptions of European life.  My readers must wait to discover what James has to say toward the end of his story about the futures of both Chad and Strether. My own feeling about Strether, at least, is that the ambassador who failed Mrs. Newsome did not fail himself.