Familiar Letters of William James

This collection of letters, edited by his son Henry James Jr., was originally published in three installments.
To W. D. Howells

CAMBRIDGE, June 12, 1891.


You are a sublime and immortal genius! I have just read Silas Lapham and Lemuel Barker,--strange that I should not have read them before, after hearing my wife rave about them so,--and of all the perfect works of fiction they are the perfectest. The truth, in gross and in detail; the concreteness and solidity; the geniality, humanity, and unflagging humor; the steady way in which it keeps up without a dead paragraph; and especially the fidelity with which you stick to the ways of human nature, with the ideal and the unideal inseparably beaten up together so that you never give them 'clear'--all make them a feast of delight, which, if I mistake not, will last for all future time, or as long as novels can last. Silas is the bigger total success because it deals with a more important story. I think you ought to have made young Corey angrier about Irene's mistake and its consequences, but the work on the much obstructed Lemuel surely was never surpassed. I hope his later life was happy!

Altogether you ought to be happy--you can fold your arms and write no more if you like. I've just got your Criticism and Fiction, which shall speedily be read. And whilst in the midst of this note have received from the postman your clipping from Kate Field's Washington, the author of which I can't divine, but she's a blessed creature whoever she is. Yours ever,


[No picture of James's life would be fair which ignored its domestic side. He married in 1878, and his marriage was happy in the fullest sense. By 1891, the date which these letters have reached, four children were growing up; he had built himself a house in Cambridge, and had also acquired a little place at Chocorua, where he spent most of each summer with his family. This bundle of letters may fittingly close with three which were addressed to his sister and his two little boys. It need only be explained that the sister was living in England and had consequently never seen the Chocorua place, 'Mrs. Gibbens' and 'Margaret' were his mother-in-law and sister-in-law.

To his sister, Alice James

CAMBRIDGE, Feb. 1887.

We are getting along very well, on the whole, I keeping very continuously occupied, but not seeming to get ahead much, for the days GROW SO SHORT with each advancing year. A day is now about a minute--hardly time to turn round in. Mrs. Gibbens arrived from Chicago last night; and in ten days she and Margaret will start, with our little Billy, for Aiken, S.C., to be gone till May. B. is asthmatic, she is glad to go south for her own sake, and the open-air life all day long will be much better for him than our arduous winter and spring. He is the most utterly charming little piece of human nature you ever saw, so packed with life, impatience, and feeling, that I think father must have been just like him at his age....

I have been paying ten or eleven visits to a mind-cure doctress, a sterling creature, resembling the Venus of Medicine, Mrs Lydia E. Pinkham, made solid and veracious-looking. I sit down beside her and presently drop asleep, whilst she disentangles the snarls out of my mind. She says she never saw a mind with so many, so agitated, so restless, etc. She said my EYES, mentally speaking, kept revolving like wheels in front of each other and in front of my face, and it was four or five sittings ere she could get them FIXED. I am now, UNCONSCIOUSLY TO MYSELF, much better than when I first went, etc. I thought it might please you to hear an opinion of my mind so similar to your own. Meanwhile what boots it to be made unconsciously better, yet all the while consciously to lie awake o' nights as I still do?--

Lectures are temporarily stopped and examinations begun. I seized the opportunity to go to my Chocorua place and see just what was needed to make it habitable for the summer. It is a goodly little spot, but we may not, after all, fit up the buildings till we have spent a summer in the place and 'studied' the problem a little more closely. The snow was between two and three feet deep on a level, in spite of the recent thaws. The day after I arrived was one of the most crystalline purity, and the mountain simply exquisite in gradations of tint. I have a tenant in the house, one Sanborn, who owes me a dollar and a half a month, but can't pay it, being of a poetic and contemplative rather than of an active nature, and consequently excessively poor. He has a sign out, 'Attorney and Pension Agent,' and writes and talks like one of the greatest of men. He was working the sewing-machine when I was there, and talking of his share in the war, and why he did n't go to live in Boston, etc., --namely that he was n't known,--and my heart was heavy in my breast that so rich a nature, fitted to inhabit a tropical dreamland, should have nothing but that furnitureless cabin within and snow and sky without to live upon. For, however spotlessly pure and dazzlingly lustrous snow may be, pure snow, always snow, and naught but snow, for four months on end, is, it must be confessed, a rather lean diet for the human soul--deficient in variety, chiaroscuro, and oleaginous and mediaeval elements. I felt as I was returning home that some intellectual inferiority ought to accrue to all populations whose environment for many months in the year consisted of pure snow. You are better off,--better off than you know,--in that great, black-earthed dunghill of an England. I say naught of politics, wars, strikes, railroad accidents or public events, unless the departure of C. W. Eliot and his wife for a year in Europe, be a public event.....

[The next year the children were taken to Aiken for the worst months of the winter and spring by Mrs. James. A pet dog remained in Cambridge and will be recognized under the name 'Jap.']

To his son Henry (aetat 8)

CAMBRIDGE, Mar. 1, 1888.


You lazy old scoundrel, why don't you write a letter to your old Dad? Tell me how you enjoy your riding on horseback, what Billy does for a living, and which things you like best of all the new kinds of things you have to do with in Aiken. How do you like the darkeys being so numerous? Everything goes on quietly here. The house so still that you can hear a pin drop, and so clean that everything makes a mark on it. All because there are no brats and kids around. Jap is my only companion, and he sneezes all over me whenever I pick him up. Mrs. Hildreth and the children are gone to Florida. The Emmets seem very happy. I will close with a fable. A donkey felt badly because he was not so great a favorite as a lapdog. He said, I must act like the lap-dog, and then my mistress will like me. So he came into the house and began to lick his mistress, and put his paws on her, and tried to get into her lap. Instead of kissing him for this, she screamed for the servants, who beat him and put him out of the house. Moral: It's no use to try to be anything but a donkey if you are one. But neither you nor Billy are one. Good-night! you blessed boy. Stick to your three R's and your riding, so as to get on FAST.

The ancient Persians only taught their boys to ride, to shoot the bow and to tell the truth. Good-night!

Kiss your dear old Mammy and that bellyache of a Billy, and little Margaret Mary for her Dad. Good-night.


To his son William (aetat 5)

18 Garden Street,

Apr. 29, 1888, 9:30 A.M.


This is Sunday, the sabbath of the Lord, and it has been very hot for two days. I think of you and Harry with such longing, and of that infant whom I know so little, that I cannot help writing you some words. Your Mammy writes me that she can't get YOU to WORK much; though Harry works. You MUST work a little this summer in our own place. How nice it will be! I have wished that both you and Harry were by my side in some amusements which I have had lately. First, the learned seals in a big tank of water in Boston. The loveliest beasts, with big black eyes, poking their heads up and down in the water, and then scrambling out on their bellies like boys tied up in bags. They play the guitar and banjo and organ; and one of them saves the life of a child who tumbles in the water, catching him by the collar with its teeth, and swimming him ashore. They are both, child and seal, trained to do it. When they have done well, their master gives them a lot of fish. They eat an awful lot;--scales, and fins, and bones and all, without chewing. That is the worst thing about them. He says he never beats them. They are full of curiosity--more so than a dog for far-off things; for when a man went round the room with a pole pulling down the windows at the top, all their heads bobbed out of the water and followed him about with their eyes aus lauter curiosity. Dogs would hardly have noticed him, I think.

Now, speaking of dogs, Jap was NAUSEATED two days ago. I thought, from his licking his nose, that he was going to be sick, and got him out of doors just in time. He vomited most awfully on the grass. He then acted as if he thought I was going to punish him, poor thing. He can't discriminate between sickness and sin. He leads a dull life, without you and Margaret Mary. I tell him if it lasts much longer, he'll grow into a common beast; he hates to be a beast, but unless he has human companionship, he will sink to the level of one. So you must hasten back and make much of him.

I also went to the panorama of the battle of Bunker Hill, which is as good as that of Gettysburg. I wished Harry had been there because he knows the, story of it. You and he shall go soon after your return. It makes you feel just as if you lived there.

Well, I will now stop. On Monday Morning the 14th, or Sunday night the 15th of May, I will take you into my arms; that is, I will meet you with a carriage on the wharf, when the boat comes in. And I tell you I shall be glad to see the whole lot of you come roaring home. Give my love to your Mammy, to Aunt Margaret, to Fraulein, to Harry, to Margaret Mary, and to yourself.

Your loving Dad,


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