Familiar Letters of William James

This collection of letters, edited by his son Henry James Jr., was originally published in three installments.
More

William James corresponded with many people of many sorts. Sometimes he communicated by postcards, or short notes; at others he wrote copious letters. Whether he was compressing his correspondence into the briefest messages, or allowing it to expand into letters of friendly badinage and extended comment, he was incapable of writing a half page that was not characteristic, free, and vivid. But in the short space available here it will be impossible to do more than give a few letters, and accordingly a small number which illustrate different traits of his character and correspondence have been selected.

A brief preliminary reminder of certain biographical facts will help the reader to follow them.

William James was born in 1842, had an irregular education in New York, Newport, and Europe, and entered the Lawrence Scientific School in Cambridge in 1861. His tastes and inclinations defined themselves but slowly, and during the ten years that followed he was frequently compelled to interrupt or abandon his work on account of illness. He studied chemistry for a while, and then comparative anatomy under Jeffries Wyman; entered the Harvard Medical School; broke off to go to Brazil with Louis Agassiz's expedition; went to Germany for a year and a half in pursuit of physiology and health without making much progress in either pursuit; returned to Cambridge and, after taking his medical degree at Harvard, spent three years under his father's roof without any definite occupation. He passed through distressing periods of mental depression during these years of frustration. This first phase of his manhood may be considered to have lasted until his appointment to teach physiology at Harvard in 1872.

During the next seven years he had regular and stimulating responsibilities. His health improved, his powers of work developed; he 'found himself.' He turned definitely to psychology as his immediate chief interest, and started the first psychological laboratory in America.

His life, during the thirteen years between 1878 and 1891, was laborious and productive. It was during these years that he prepared the chapters of the Principles of Psychology and published them in Mind and other journals. Toward the end of the 'eighties (which is also the end of the time covered by the letters selected for this number of the Atlantic) he had not only attained to a position of influence in the Harvard world, but was known on both sides of the Atlantic as a brilliant and original contributor to psychological science.

The student days and the following period of uncertainty and enforced idleness in which there was more time for sociability than there ever was later, may first be illustrated by four letters.]

To His Mother

CAMBRIDGE [circa September, 1863.]

MY DEAREST MOTHER,--

To answer the weighty questions which you propound: I am glad to leave Newport because I am tired of the place itself, and because of the reason which you have very well expressed in your letter, the necessity of the whole family being near the arena of the future activity of us young men. I recommend Cambridge on account of its own pleasantness (though I don't wish to be invidious towards Brookline, Longwood, and other places), and because of its economy if I or Harry continue to study here much longer....I feel very much the importance of making soon a final choice of my business in life. I stand now at the place where the road forks. One branch leads to material comfort, the flesh-pots, but it seems a kind of selling of one's soul. The other to mental dignity and independence, combined, however, with physical penury.

If I myself were the only one concerned, I should not hesitate an instant in my choice. But it seems hard on Mrs. W. J., 'that not impossible she,' to ask her to share an empty purse and a cold hearth. On one side is SCIENCE, upon the other BUSINESS (the honorable, honored and productive business of printing seems most attractive), with medicine, which partakes of [the] advantages of both between them, but which has drawbacks of its own.

I confess I hesitate. I fancy there is a fond maternal cowardice which would make you and every other mother contemplate with complacency the worldly fatness of a son, even if obtained by some sacrifice of his 'higher nature.' But I fear there might be some anguish at looking back from the pinnacle of prosperity (NECESSARILY reached, if not by eating dirt, at least by renouncing some divine ambrosia) over the life you might have led in the pure pursuit of truth. It seems as if one COULD not afford to give that up for any bribe, however great. Still, I am undecided. The medical term opens to-morrow, and between this and the end of the term here, I shall have an opportunity of seeing a little into medical business. I shall confer with Wyman about the prospects of a naturalist and finally decide.

I want you to become familiar with the notion that I MAY stick to science, however, and drain away at your property for a few years more. If I can get into Agassiz's museum I think it not improbable I may receive a salary of $400 to $500 in a couple of years. I know some stupider than I who have done so. You see in that case how desirable it would be to have a home in Cambridge. Anyhow I am convinced that SOMEWHERE in this neighborhood is the place for us to rest. These matters have been a good deal on my mind lately, and I am very glad to get this chance of pouring them into yours. As for the other boys, I don't know. And that idle and useless young female, Alice, too, whom we shall have to feed and clothe! Cambridge is all right for business in Boston. Living in Boston or Brookline, etc., would be as expensive as Newport, if Harry or I stayed here, for we could not easily go home every day.

Give my warmest love to Aunt Kate, Father, who I hope will not tumble again, and all of them over the way. Recess in three weeks, till then, my dearest and best of old mothers, good-bye.

Your loving son,

W. J.

Give my best love to Kitty and give cette petite humbug of a Minny* a hint about writing to me. I hope you liked your shawl.

[*His cousin Katherine Temple, later Mrs. Richard Emmet, and her younger sister].

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon About the Toys in Your Cereal Box

The story of an action figure and his reluctant sidekick, who trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Juice Cleanses: The Worst Diet

A doctor tries the ever-popular Master Cleanse. Sort of.

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Video

What If Emoji Lived Among Us?

A whimsical ad imagines what life would be like if emoji were real.

Video

Living Alone on a Sailboat

"If you think I'm a dirtbag, then you don't understand the lifestyle."

Feature

The Future of Iced Coffee

Are artisan businesses like Blue Bottle doomed to fail when they go mainstream?

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In