Familiar Letters of William James

This collection of letters, edited by his son Henry James Jr., was originally published in three installments.
To His Sister Alice

CAMBRIDGE, Nov. 14, 1866.

Cherie de Jeune Balle,--

I am just in from town in the keen, cold and eke beauteous moonlight, which by the above qualities makes me think of thee, to whom, nor to whose aunt, have I (not) yet written. (I don't understand the grammar of the not.) Your first question is, 'where have I been?' To C. S. Peirce's lecture, which I could not understand a word of but rather enjoyed the sensation of listening to for an hour. I then turned to O. W. Holmes's*, and wrangled with him for another hour. You may thank your stars that you are not in a place where you have to ride in such full horse-cars as these. I rode half way out with my 'form' entirely out of the car overhanging the road, my feet alone being on the same vertical line as any part of the car, there being just room for them on the step. Aunt Kate may and probably WILL have shoot through her prolific mind the supposish: 'How wrong in him to do sich! for if, while in that posish, he should have a sudden stroke of paralysis, or faint, his nerveless fingers relaxing their grasp of the rail, he would fall prostrate to the ground and bust.' To which I reply that when I go so far as to have a stroke of paralysis, I shall not mind going a step farther and getting bruised.

Your next question probably is how are and where are father and mother?...I think father seems more lively for a few days past and cracks jokes with Harry, etc. Mother is recovering from one of her indispositions, which she bears like an angel, doing any amount of work at the same time, putting up cornices and raking out the garret room like a little buffalo.

Your next question is, wherever is Harry? I answer: 'He is to Ashburner's, to a tea-squall in favor of Miss Haggerty.' I declined. He is well; we have had nothing but invitations--six in three or four days. One, a painted one, from 'Mrs. L---,' whoever she may be. I replied that domestic affliction prevented me from going, but I would take a pecuniary equivalent instead, viz., To 1 oyster stew--30 cts.; 1 chicken salad--0.50; 1 roll--0.02; 8 ice creams at 20 cts.--0.60; 6 small cakes at 0.05--0.80; 1 pear--$1.50;

1 lb. confectionery--------------------------------$0.50
6 glasses hock at 0.50----------------------------3 .00
8 glasses sherry at .30---------------------------- 0.90
Salad spilt on floor --------------------------------5.00
Dish of do., broken -------------------------------3.00
Damage to carpet & Miss L's dress frm. do. 75.00
3 glasses broken -----------------------------------1.20
Curtains set fire to in dressing room ---------40. 00
Other injury frm. fire in room ----------------250.00
Injury to house frm. water pumped upon it by steam
fire engine come to put out
fire ------------------------------------------------5000.00
Miscellaneous ---------------------------------------0.35


I expect momentarily her reply with a check, and when it comes will take you and Aunt Kate on a tour in Europe and have you examined by the leading physicians and surgeons of that country.

M---- L---- came out here and dined with us yesterday of her own accord. I no longer doubt what I always suspected, her penchant for me, and I don't blame her for it. Elly Temple stayed here two days, too. She scratched, smote, beat, and kicked me so that I shall dread to meet her again. What an awful time Bob & Co. must have had at sea! and how anxious you must have been about them! With best love to Aunt Kate and yourself, believe me

Your af. bro.


[*O.W. Holmes, Jr., now Mr. Justice Holmes.]

To O. W. Holmes, Jr.

[BERLIN] Jany. 3, 1868.


Ich weiss nicht was soll es bedeuten, dass ich so traurig bin, to-night. The ghosts of the past all start from their unquiet graves and keep dancing a senseless whirligig around me, so that, after trying in vain to read three books, to sleep or to think, I clutch the pen and ink and resolve to work off the fit by a few lines to one of the most obtrusive ghosts of all--namely the tall and lank one of Charles Street. Good golly! how I would prefer to have about twenty-four hours talk with you up in that whitely lit-up room--without the sun rising or the firmament revolving so as to put the gas out, without sleep, food, clothing or shelter except your whiskey bottle--of which or the like of which I have not partaken since I have been in these longitudes! I should like to have you opposite me in any mood, whether the facetiously discursive, the metaphysically discursive, the personally confidential, or the jadedly CURSIVE and argumentative--so that the oyster-shells which enclose my being might slowly turn open on their rigid hinges under the radiation, and the critter within loll out his dried-up gills into the circumfused ichor of life, till they grow so fat as not to know themselves again. I feel as if a talk with you of any kind could not fail to set me on my legs again for three weeks at least. I have been chewing on two or three dried-up old cuds of ideas I brought from America with me, till they have disappeared, and the nudity of the cosmos has got beyond anything I have as yet experienced. I have not succeeded in finding any companion yet and I feel the want of some outward stimulus in my Soul. There is a man named Grimm* here, whom my soul loves, but in the way Emerson speaks of, i.e., like those people we meet on staircases, etc., and who always ignore our feelings towards them. I don't think we shall ever be able to establish a straight line of communication between us.

I don't know how it is I am able to take so little interest in reading this winter. I marked out a number of books when I first came here, to finish. What with their heaviness, and the damnable slowness with which the Dutch still goes, they weigh on me like a haystack. I loathe the thought of them; and yet they have poisoned my slave of a conscience so that I can't enjoy anything else. I have reached an age when practical work of some kind clamors to be done--and I must still wait!

There! Having worked off that pent up gall of six weeks' accumulation I feel more genial. I wish I could have some news of you--now that the postage is lowered to such a ridiculous figure (and no letter is double) there remains no SHADOW of an excuse for not writing--but still I don't expect anything from you. I suppose you are sinking ever deeper into the sloughs of the law--yet I ween the Eternal Mystery still from time to time gives her goad another turn in the raw she once established between your ribs. Don't let it heal over yet. When I get home let's establish a philosophical society to have regular meetings and discuss none but the very tallest and broadest questions--to be composed of none but the very topmost cream of Boston manhood. It will give each one a chance to air his own opinion in a grammatical form, and to sneer and chuckle when he goes home at what damned fools all the other members are--and may grow into something very important after a sufficient number of years.

The German character is without mountains or valleys; its favorite food is roast veal; and in other lines it prefers whatever may be the analogue thereof--all which gives life here a certain flatness to the high-tuned American taste. I don't think any one need care much about coming here unless he wants to dig very deeply into some exclusive specialty. I have been reading nothing of any interest but some chapters of physiology. There has a good deal been doing here of late on the physiology of the senses, overlapping perception, and consequently, in a measure, the psychological field. I am wading my way towards it, and if in course of time I strike on anything exhilarating, I'll let you know.

I'll now pull up. I don't know whether you take it as a compliment that I should only write to you when in the dismalest of dumps--perhaps you ought to--you, the one emergent peak to which I cling when all the rest of the world has sunk beneath the wave. Believe me, my Wendly boy, what poor possibility of friendship abides in the crazy frame of W. J. meanders about thy neighborhood. Good-bye! Keep the same bold front as ever to the Common Enemy--and don't forget your ally.


That is, after all, all I wanted to write you and it may float the rest of the letter. Pray give my warm regards to your father, mother and sister; and my love to the honest Gray and to Jim Higginson.

[Written on the outside of the envelope]

Jan. 4. By a strange coincidence, after writing this last night, I received yours this morning. Not to sacrifice the postage-stamps which are already on the envelope (Economical W.!) I don't reopen it. But I will write you again soon. Meanwhile, bless your heart! thank you! Vide Shakespeare: sonnet XXLX

[*Hermann Grimm, a son of the younger of the universally beloved brothers of the Fairy Tales, a philologist and Professor of the History of Art in Berlin.]

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