Henry James Sr., Alcoholic at the Age of Ten

June 25th, 2008 Posted in Meet the Jameses

“Young Henry took full advantage, developing a knack for swigging from all the wrong bottles.  As he later recalled, he plunged into ‘the habit of taking a drink of raw gin or brandy on my way to school morning and afternoon.’  Significantly, Henry later described even his early drinking as a ‘habit.’  Even at the age of ten, three years before his accident at the fire, the boy was veering, rather scarily, toward chronic alcoholism.  In his walks to school, he weaved down the bypaths of Albany–just as later, for decades, he’d lurch and zigzag his way through life.

“That Henry’s parents evidently didn’t notice or intervene shows something about their distance or distraction.  A problem like Henry’s, though, may not have attracted much attention during an era when, as one historian has observed, even babies and toddlers were fed strong spirits.  Drinking small amounts early on, the theory went, would ‘protect them from becoming drunkards.’  Such preventatives, however, weren’t working.  The 1820s saw the highest per capita consumption of alcohol in American history.  Estimates range from between for and seven gallons of pure alcohol, per person, per year.  In any case, it was more than twice the amount consumed in the United States.  In an era when water was often polluted and coffee and tea cost dearly, stiff drinking had become a daily ritual for most Americans.  Beer and hard cider were staples of households, drunk at every meal including breakfast.  Especially among men, whiskey, brandy, rum, and gin flowed freely both in homes and taverns.  Liquor dominated most public social occasions, including weddings, funerals, militia musters, barbecues, balls, horse races, barn raisings, and even elections.”

(c) Paul Fisher 2008 – All Rights Reserved

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