Tuesday, November 29, 2022

'The Incorrigibly Quaint'

A reader has objected to my description last week of Henry James Sr. (1811-82) as a “noted crackpot.” I intended no disparagement. Some crackpots are perfectly harmless and even charming, and by all accounts the elder James was a benign father, husband and aspiring philosopher. He literally meant no harm. 

The father of Henry Jr., William and three other children was a follower of Emanuel Swedenborg, the noted Swedish crackpot who spawned an enormous worldwide following in the nineteenth century. The OED defines crackpot as “a crack-brain, a crazy creature, a crank.” The earliest recorded usage is 1883, so you’ll find only crack-brained in Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary: “crazy; without right reason.” That seems too strong. I understand crackpot to be a close synonym of eccentric. A crackpot is an obsessive when it comes to his pet ideas but is unlikely to be a fanatic eager to impose those ideas on others. Hitler may have started out as just another crackpot but evolved into something else. Gail White in “Crackpots” (Easy Marks, 2008) neatly illustrates the type:


“I have a friend who wants to restore the Czar.

Seriously. As if this burst of love

would turn the empty streets of Petersburg

into a set for Boris Godunov.


“He thinks a royalist Russia would delight

in festivals, would never drop the bomb.

And you can find him on the internet

at getaczar dot com.


“How to protect my friend, who might have been

a national treasure once, almost a saint?

I only wish there were an NEA

with grants for the incorrigibly quaint,


“or Shelters for the Harmlessly Obsessed

(unworldly, therefore not completely sane).

Without its nest, the Great or Common Crackpot

may never breed again.”

1 comment:

Faze said...

You find Swedenborg under a lot of rocks in 19th century American literary culture. He seems an obvious crank to us, and his religious tenets, including his self-deification, would seem to exclude him from serious consideration by intelligent people. But he had many gifted followers. Warren Austin's biography "The Elder Henry James" shows how, despite the Swedenborgian "vastation", Henry James, Sr., was a complex and endearing figure - and when we consider the children he produced, you have to wonder if there was some special quality, peculiar to the Swedenborg cult, that evades our 21st Century eye.