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How Wisconsin played a role in 19th-century literature, psychology, philosophy

February 12, 2014

MEDIA CONTACT: Hilary Dickinson at or 608-363-2849

In the latest installment of the “Lunchbox Series,” English Professor Shawn Gillen argued that a bitter family drama in Wisconsin influenced the work of literary figure Henry James (1843-1916) and “father of American psychology” William James (1842-1910).

Though Henry and William spent most of their lives in Europe, Boston and New York City, Gillen explained during his lecture titled “Why Henry and William James Visited Wisconsin” that they did indeed have a connection to the Badger State.

Their brother Robertson worked various jobs throughout the state, including Prairie du Chien, Watertown, Milwaukee and Wauwatosa, and he and his wife briefly lived at a farm near Whitewater. Another brother, Wilky, later joined him in Milwaukee.

A sibling quarrel ensued after the death of Henry James, Sr. in 1882 because he left Wilky out of the will and pared Robertson’s share down. Much of the feud took place in Wisconsin and, according to Gillen, played a role in Henry and William’s work.

Henry wrote about family quarrels, wills, dying young people and inheritances in novels such as The Spoils of Poynton (1896), What Maisie Knew (1897), Wings of the Dove (1902) and The Golden Bowl (1904). William analyzed restless personalities and assessed life’s value in essays like Is Life Worth Living (1904)?

In addition to Henry and William James’ connections to Wisconsin, other 19th-century literary visitors to the area included Margaret Fuller (1810-1850) who wrote Ganymede’s Spring beside the Rock River in Oregon, Ill., and Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) who lectured in Beloit in 1856 and 1863.

To watch Gillen’s lecture in its entirety, click here.

Shawn Gillen is a professor of English who teaches courses in creative writing, American Literature, critical theory and journalism. The chair of Beloit’s journalism minor, he has worked for several literary journals and newspapers, such as City Pages in Minneapolis-St. Paul and the Isthmus, a newspaper in Madison. He has written a collection of personal essays and autobiographical fiction, excerpts of which appeared in the Colorado Review and the North Atlantic Review, and he has recently published scholarly essays on Captain America, J. M. Synge, Henry James and Edith Wharton. His fiction, music criticism and journalism have appeared in a variety of publications. His other interests include popular music and its relation to literature, travel writing and cyberculture.