On Wednesday Feb. 15, Dr. Peter Kuryla, professor of history, gave an academic lecture titled “A Prosthetic Aesthetic: William and Henry James, The Father Problem and the Case of the Cork Leg.” Part of Belmont’s Homecoming 2012 celebration, the lecture was held in the Massey Board Room.
Dr. Kuryla was selected as the College of Arts and Sciences 2012 Robert E. Simmons Distinguished Lecturer. This lectureship was created by Dean Robert Simmons in 1988 to honor the research and scholarly work of the faculty in the humanities, education, arts, sciences and social sciences and has continued to award esteemed faculty of Belmont University for years.
Kuryla prefaced his lecture by giving insight into the title and content of his topic. He explained that he had attended a series of academic conferences in which he and some of his colleagues presented papers on philosopher William James and his brother, novelist Henry James. Kuryla noted that he was intrigued as to how the family background played roles in William and Henry’s writings, and upon some research he discovered that “William and Henry’s childhood experiences with their father affected their mature writing.”
Henry James, Sr. was a philosopher who published several volumes of theology during the middle 19th century. However, unlike his two sons, none of his works were recognized or experienced much success, though Kuryla theorized that he did influence themes in his sons’ works. A boyhood accident from a game of “fireball” resulted in bad burns which eventually led to the amputation of the elder Henry James’ leg. Dr. Kuryla expressed his belief that their father’s prosthetic limb may have indirectly affected William and Henry James’ writings. Henry Sr. was responsible for the boys having a transatlantic childhood, as he moved them frequently from cities in the United States and then to Europe and back again, which surely presented obstacles for him given his disability.
During his lecture, Dr. Kuryla suggested that the sons recapitulated the father’s trauma over the loss of his leg in their own ways, through experiences of spiritual crisis or in their use of language. Henry James, Sr. and the suffering that accompanied his “leg must have figured prominently in the experiences of the two eldest boys, such that one might read it later in a peculiar type of filial aesthetic language concerned with death, morbidity and suffering, meant to signal the difficulty and potential falsehood of efforts to represent the world or experience.” Upon completing his lecture, Dr. Kuryla took questions from the audience.