Agnes and Julius Zancig were a popular stage act in which the wife received the telepathic impress of her husband's thoughts (they wrote Two Minds But with a Single Thought). Henry James dismissed newspaper claims of fraud and Stuart Cumberland's theory of hidden codes, passing on rumours that Stead had "proved" their telepathic powers in private tests, since "their communication by word is almost nil, & in fine, the generation of their code becomes an even greater marvel than the idea of their thought-transference." (Letter, Henry James to Alice Howe Gibbens James. 1 Jan. 1907, in Dear Munificent Friends, 197.)
Such a letter (although obviously addressed to a believer) resituates Henry in subtle ways in relation to psychical research in the 1890’s and beyond, to popular cultures of occult doxai and "the crank Stead" (as sister Alice called him), and in relation to the obsession in his late fiction with "relation" itself. (James, Diary, p.75)
Henry James Senior was a Swedenborgian, believing in spiritual presences after an encounter with "some damned shape squatting invisible to me within the precincts of my room ... raying out from his fetid personality influences fatal to life" in 1844. (Henry James Sr., Vastation and the Uses of Swedenborg, in Henry James Senior: A Selection of his Writings, ed. Giles Gunn, 1974, p.54-5)
He publicly lectured and privately impressed on his children that men were saved by the "higher or more spiritual scope" of women.
The father's idealization of this open, receptive, and passive sensibility was embodied in the peripatetic early life and education of his children, which refused habit or utilitarian employment and left them all. Wilky and Bob, the youngest boys, considered too coarse for full instruction and traumatized by their teenage Civil War service, were effectively exiled to the South to lives of poverty, alcoholism, and despair.
By the late 1860’s, William, Henry, and Alice were all being treated for nervous conditions-and, as many critics observe, the siblings circulated symptoms among them. "I have invented for my comfort," Henry wrote home from the Malvern sanatorium in 1869, "a theory that this degenerescence of mine is the result of Alice and Willy getting better and locating some of their diseases on me-so as to propitiate the fates by not turning the poor, homeless infirmities out of the family." (Letters, Henry and William James, Oct. 1869, in Selected Letters, p. 55-6)
Across the Atlantic, Henry reports that he can read, but cannot sleep, whilst William replies, -I sleep like a top. My "power of reading" however is gone to the dogs. ( Fred Kaplan, Henry James: The Imagination of Genius, 1993, p. 87 and James, Diary p.104)
When William overcame his anxiety at sexual neurasthenia and married, Alice had her severest mental collapse, suffering neurasthenic symptoms and undergoing various treatments for the remainder of her life. Having borne the brunt of this feminine passivity by turning her "victimisation into a kind of career, expressing her anger through untreatable illness," Alice reported that Henry had comforted her by "assuring me that my nerves are his nerves."
This notion Henry later toyed with in his Notebook, sketching a story in which a brother and sister "vibrate with the same nerves": "He has to tell her nothing-she knows: it's identity of sensation, of 'vibration'." The locus of this exchange resides in the woman: "It's for her, the Paul of Sympathy: that would be the subject." (Henry James, The Complete Notebooks of Henry James. ed. Leon Edel p.111 and 112.)
When William James published "The Principles of Psychology" in 1890, Frederic Myers wrote insisting: "I believe that with a view (a) to the good of mankind (b) even to your own ultimate fame, it is essential that a main part of your energy shall henceforth be devoted to these S.P.R. inquiries. William forwarded this imperious command to Hodgson, with the private comment. -What a despot! ( Jacqueline Rose, "Jeffrey Masson and Alice James," Oxford Literary Review, 8/1-2 ,1986, p. 190/191)
He had, of course, already researched Mrs. Leonora Piper formed the American branch of the SPR, and published findings on since 1885, trance mediumship in 1886. Travelling to the Paris Congress of Physiological Psychology in 1889, he dreaded the "terrible psychic responsibility" imposed by Myers and the Sidgwicks, but wrote to Hodgson that the "unseen world" is now the next thing in order to investigate. (Letters, William James to Alice James, 29 July 1889, and to Richard Hodgson , 26 July 1889).
The Principles of Psychology was a limit-text, a textbook of "positivistic and non-metaphysical" psychology published as James abandoned the laboratory model. (William James, The Principle of Psychology, 2 vols. 1950, i.182)
James addresses unbordered, fringe effects of mind. "As for insulation" James says, correcting positivistic psychology, "it would be rash, in view of the phenomena of thought-transference, mesmeric influence and spirit-control ... to be too sure about that point either." (Ibid., 18l, 70, 226, and 350)
James's view that "a serious study of these trance-phenomena is one of the greatest needs of psychology" was prompted by Mrs. Piper and his admiration for Edmund Gurney's writings on hypnosis. Gurney died in 1888, leaving James bereft. A fellow hypersensitive, James felt "that there was a very unusual sort of affinity between my mind and his." (Letter, William James to George Croom Robertson , 22 Aug. 1888, in Correspondence of William James, 429.)
Before the Paris Congress in 1889, James had been in Brighton for experiments with Gurney's telepathist George Smith. In Paris, James met Flournoy, with whom he developed an epistolary "sympathy" exchanging details of their respective subjects Leonora Piper and Helene Smith.
"I often turn mentally and make a remark to you," James wrote. (William James to Theodore Flournoy, 30 Aug. 1896, in Letters of James and Flournoy, p. 54.)
By 1892, William James histrionically confirmed that Mrs. Piper had dismantled the edifice of Principles: "the trances I speak of have broken down for my mind the limits of the admitted order of nature. Science, as far as science denies such exceptional facts, lies prostrate in the dust for me." (William James, "What Psychical Research Has Accomplished," in Works: Essays in Psychical Research, 100-1.)
Eugene Taylor's archival work has recovered William James's "lost" 1890’s, the decade between the publication of Principles and The Varieties of Religious Experience in 1902. The standard line has been to regard James as engaged in ephemeral pursuits after abandoning "cognitive and positivistic psychology and before his philosophical works. Instead, Taylor tracks James's interest in therapeutic psychologies, including American faith healers and mesmerists, English and European psychical research, and trance." In his reconstruction of the Lowell Lectures given by James in 1896, Taylor displays how James pushed at the threshold of introducing the "occult" to his audience, reaching "the portal of Psychical Research" to record "I am myself convinced of supernormal cognition."