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August 1920

Familiar Letters
of William James - II

Edited by his son, Henry James

This collection of letters was originally published in The Atlantic Monthly in three installments. See the July, 1920 installment. See the September, 1920 installment.

[Letters which appeared in the July number of the Atlantic were selected from William James's correspondence during the years prior to the publication of the Principles of Psychology. In 1891 he got out the abbreviated edition known to students all over the country as the Briefer Course, and the letter to the publisher which follows celebrates, in a few self-derisive sentences, his release from tasks which had absorbed his time and thought for the better part of twelve years. He felt stale and tired; he had earned a long rest; his mind was turning away from psychology and toward philosophy. So in May, 1892, he went abroad to 'lie fallow' for fifteen months. The second, third, fourth, and fifth letters refer themselves, as will be evident to the reader, to this 'sabbatical' year of absence from Cambridge.]

To Henry Holt

CHOCORUA, N.H., July 24, 1891.


I expect to send you within ten days the MS. of my 'Briefer Course' boiled down to possibly 400 pages. By adding some twaddle about the senses, by leaving out all polemics and history, all bibliography and experimental details, all metaphysical subtleties and digressions, all quotations, all humor and pathos, all INTEREST in short, and by blackening the tops of all the paragraphs, I think I have produced a tome of [a] pedagogic classic which will enrich both you and me, if not the student's mind.

The difficulty is about when to correct the proofs. I've practically had no vacation so far, and won't touch them during August. I can start them September first up here. I can't rush them through in Cambridge as I did last year, but must do them leisurely to suit this northern mail and its hours. I COULD have them done by another man in Cambridge, if there were desperate hurry; but on the whole I should prefer to do them myself.

Write and propose something! The larger book seems to be a decided success--especially from the literary point of view. I begin to look down upon Mark Twain! Yours ever.


To Miss Grace Norton

FLORENCE, Dec. 28, 1892


I hope that my silence has not left you to think that I have forgotten all the ties of friendship. Far from it! but have YOU never felt the rapture of day after day with no letter to write, nor the shrinking from breaking the spell by changing a limitless possibility of future outpouring into a shabby little actual scrawl? Remote unwritten to and unheard from, you seem to me something ideal, off there in your inaccessible Cambridge palazzo, bathed in the angelic American light, occupying your mind with noble literature, pure, solitary, incontaminate--a station from which the touch of this vulgar epistle will instantly bring you down; for you will have been imagining your poor correspondent in the same high and abstract fashion until what he says breaks the charm (as infallibly it must), and with the perception of his finiteness must also come a faint sense of discouragement as if you were finite too--for communications bring the communicants to a common level.--All of which sounds, my dear Grace, as if I were refraining from writing to you out of my well-known habit of 'metaphysical politeness'; or trying to make you think so. But I think I can trust you to see that all these elaborate conceits (which seem imitated from the choice Italian manner, and which I confess have flowed from my pen quite unpremeditated and somewhat to my own surprise) are nothing but a shabby cloak under which I am trying to hide my own palpable laziness--a laziness which even the higher affections can only render a little restless and uncomfortable, but not dispel. However, it is dispelled at last, is n't it? So let me begin.

You will have heard stray tidings of us from time to time, so I need give you no detailed account of our peregrinations or decisions. We had a delicious summer in Switzerland, that noble and medicinal country, and we have now got into first-rate shape at Florence, although there is a menace of 'sociability' commencing, which may take away that wonderful and unexampled sense of peace. I have been enjoying [myself] of late in sitting under the lamp until midnight, secure against any possible interruption, and reading what things I pleased. I believe that last year in Cambridge I counted one single night in which I could sit and read passively till bed-time; and now that the days have begun to lengthen and the small end of winter appears looking through the future, I begin to count them here as something unspeakably precious that may ne'er return.

The boys are at an English school which, though certainly very good gives them rather less French and German than they would have at Browne and Nichols's. Peg is having first-rate 'opportunities' in the way of dancing, gymnastics and other accomplishments of a bodily sort. We have a little shred of a half-starved, but very cheerful ex-ballet dancer, who brings a poor little, humble, peering-eyed fiddler 'Maestro' she calls him--three times a week to our big salon, and makes supple the limbs of Peg and the two infants of Dr. Baldwin by the most wonderful patience and diversity of exercises at five francs a lesson. When one thinks of the sort of lessons the children at Cambridge get, and of the sort of price they pay, it makes one feel that geography is a tremendous frustrater of the so-called laws of demand and supply.

Alice and I lunched this noon with young Loeser, whose name you may remember some years ago in Cambridge. He is devoted to the scientific study of pictures, and I hope to gain some truth from him ere we leave. He is a dear good fellow. Baron Ostensacken is also here--I forget whether you used to know him. The same quaint, cheerful nervous, intelligent, rather egotistic old bachelor that he used to be, who also runs to pictures in his old age, after the strictly entomological method, I fancy, this time; for I doubt whether he cares near as much for the pictures themselves as for the science of them. But you can't keep science out of anything in these bad times. Love is dead, or at any rate seems weak and shallow wherever science has taken possession. I am glad that, being incapable of anything like scholarship in any line, I still can take some pleasure from these pictures in the way of love; particularly glad since some years ago I thought that my care for pictures had faded away with youth. But with better opportunities it has revived. Loeser describes Bocher as BASKING in the presence of pictures, as if it were an amusing way of taking them, whereas it is the true way. Is Mr. Bocher giving his lectures, or talks, again at your house?

Duveneck is here, but I have seen very little of him. The professor is an oppressor to the artist, I fear; and metaphysical politeness has kept me from pressing him too much. What an awful trade that of professor is--paid to talk, talk, talk! I have seen artists growing pale and sick whilst I talked to them without being able to stop. And I loved them for not being able to love me any better. It would be an awful universe if everything could be converted into words, words, words.

I have been so sorry to hear of the miserable condition of so many of your family circle this summer....Give my love to your brother Charles, to Sally, Lilly, Dick, Margaret and all the dear creatures. Also to the other dears on both sides of the Kirkland driveway. I hope and trust that your winter is passing cheerfully and healthily away. With warm good wishes for a happy New Year, and affectionate greetings from both of us, believe me always yours,


To Shadworth H. Hodgson

LONDON, June 29, 1893


I am more different kinds of an ass, or rather I am (without ceasing to be different kinds) the same kind more often, than any other living man. This morning I knocked at your door, inwardly exultant with the certainty that I should find you, and learned that you had left for Saltburn just one hour ago! A week ago yesterday the same thing happened to me at Pillon's in Paris, and because of the same reason--my having announced my presence a day too late.

My wife and I have been here six days. As it was her first visit to England and she had a lot of clothes to get, having worn out her American supply in the past year, we thought we had better remain incog. for a week, drinking in London irresponsibly, and letting the dressmakers have their will with her time. I early asked at your door whether you were in town and visible and received a reassuring reply, so I felt quite safe and devoted myself to showing my wife the sights, and enjoying her naif wonder as she drank in Britain's greatness. Four nights ago at 9.30 P.M. I pointed out to her (as possibly the climax of greatness) your library

windows, with one of them open and bright with the inner light. She said, 'Let's ring and see him.' My heart palpitated to do so, but it was late and a hot night, and I was afraid you might be in tropical costume, safe for the night, and my hesitation lost us. We came home. It is too, too bad! I wanted much to see you, for though, my dear Hodgson, our correspondence has languished of late (the effect of encroaching eld). my sentiments to you-ward (as the apostle would say) are as lively as ever, and I recognize in you always the friend as well as the master. Are you likely to come back to London at all? Our plans did n't exactly lie through Yorkshire, but they are vague and may possibly be changed. But what I wanted my wife to see was S.H.H. in his own golden-hued library, with the rumor of the cab-stand filling the air....

But write, you noble old philosopher and dear young man, to yours always,


To Dickinson S. Miller

LONDON, July 8, 1893.


I must still for a while call you darling, in spite of your Toryism, ecclesiasticism, determinism, and general diabolism, which will probably result in your ruthlessly destroying me both as a man and as a philosopher some day. But sufficient unto that day will be its evil, so let me take advantage of the hours before 'black man-hood comes'

and still fondle you for a while upon my knee. And both you and Angell, being now colleagues and not students, had better stop Mistering or Professoring me, or I shall retaliate by beginning to 'Mr.' and 'Prof.' you. Your letter comes in the nick of time, for I had mislaid the Halle address and wanted to write to you both....

What you say of Erdmann, Uphues, and the atmosphere of German academic life generally, is exceedingly interesting. If we can only keep our own humaner tone in spite of the growing

complication of interests! I think we shall, in great measure, for there is nothing here in English academic circles that corresponds to the German savagery. I do hope we may meet in Switzerland shortly, and you can then tell me what Erdmann's greatness consists in. Our plans for return are not quite settled yet....

I have done hardly any reading since the beginning of March. My genius for being frustrated and interrupted, and our unsettled mode of life, have played too well into each other's hands. The consequence is that I rather long for settlement, and the resumption of the harness. If I only had working strength not to require these abominably costly vacations! Make the most of these days, my dear Miller. They will never exactly return, and will be looked back to by you hereafter as quite ideal. I am glad you have assimilated the German opportunities so well. Both Hodder and Angell have spoken with admiration of the methodical way in which you have forged ahead. It is a pity you have not had a chance at England, with which land you seem to have so many inward affinities. If you are to come here, let me know, and I can give you introductions. Hodgson is in Yorkshire and I've missed him. Myers sails for the Chicago Psychic Congress, Aug. 2nd, Sidgwick may still be had, perhaps, and Bryce, who will give you an order to the Strangers' Gallery. The House of Commons, cradle of all free institutions, is really a wonderful and moving sight and at bottom here the people are more good-natured on the Irish question than one would think, to listen to their strong words. The cheery, active English temperament beats the world, I believe, the Deutschers included. But so cartilaginous and unsentimental as to the Gemuth! The girls like boys and the men like horses!

I shall be greatly interested in your article. As for Uphues, I am duly up lifted that such a man should read me, and am ashamed to say that amongst my pile of sins is that of having carried about two of his books with me for three or four years past, always meaning to read, and never actually reading them. I laid them out again only yesterday to take back to Switzerland with me. Such things make me despair. Paulsen's Einleitung is the greatest treat I have enjoyed of late. His synthesis is to my mind almost lamentably insatisfactory, but the book makes a station, an etape, in the expression of things. Good-bye--my wife comes in, ready to go out to lunch, and thereafter to Haslemere for the night. She sends love, and so do I. Address us when you get to Switzerland to M. Ceresole, as above, 'la Chiesaz sur Vevey (Vaud),' and believe me ever yours,


To Henry James


[near CHOCORUA] Sept. 22, 1893.

. . . I am up here for a few days with Billy, to close our house for the winter, and get a sniff of the place. The Salters have a noble hill with such an outlook! and a very decent little house and barn. But oh! the difference from Switzerland, the thin grass and ragged waysides, the poverty stricken land, and sad American sunlight over all--sad because so empty. There is a strange thinness and femininity hovering over all America, so different from the stoutness and masculinity of land and air and everything in Switzerland and England, that the coming back makes one feel strangely sad and hardens one in the resolution never to go away again unless one can go to end one's days. Such a divided soul is very bad. To you, who now have real practical relations and a place in the Old World, I should think there was no necessity of ever coming back again. But Europe has been made what it is by men staying in their homes and fighting stubbornly generation after generation for all the beauty, comfort and order that they have got--we must abide and do the same.* As England struck me newly and differently last, time, so America now--force and directness in the people, but a terrible grimness, more ugliness than I ever realized in things, and a greater weakness in nature's beauty, such as it is. One must pitch one's whole sensibility first in a different key--then gradually the quantum of personal happiness of which one is susceptible fills the cup--but the moment of change of key is lonesome.

We had the great Helmholtz and his wife with us one afternoon, gave them tea, and invited some people to meet them; she, a charming woman of the world, brought up by her aunt, Madame Mohl, in Paris; he the most monumental example of benign calm and speechlessness that I ever saw. He is growing old, and somewhat weary, I think, and makes no effort beyond that of smiling and inclining his head to remarks that are made. At least he made no response to remarks of mine; but Royce, Charles Norton, John Fiske, and Dr. Walcott, who surrounded him at a little table where he sat with tea and beer, said that he spoke. Such power of calm is a great possession. I have been twice to Mrs. Whitman's, once to a lunch and reception to the Bourgets a fortnight ago. Mrs. G., it would seem, has kept them like caged birds (probably because they wanted it so); Mrs. B. was charming and easy, he ill at ease, refusing to try English unless compelled, and turning to me at the table as a drowning man to a 'hencoop,' as if there were safety in the presence of anyone connected with you. I could do nothing towards inviting them, in the existent state of our menage, but when, later, they come back for a month in Boston, I shall be glad to bring them into the house for a few days. I feel quite a fellow feeling for him, he seems a very human creature, and it was a real pleasure to me to see a Frenchman of B.'s celebrity LOOK as ill at ease as I myself have often felt in fashionable society. They are, I believe, in Canada, and have only too much society. I shan't go to Chicago, for economy's sake--besides I must get to work. But EVERYONE says one ought to sell all one has and mortgage one's soul to go there; it is esteemed such a revelation of beauty. People cast away all sin and baseness, burst into tears and grow religious, etc., under the influence!! SOME people evidently. . . .

The people about home are very pleasant to meet....Yours ever affectionately,


* January 24, '94. To Carl Stumpf: 'One should not be a cosmopolitan; one's soul becomes "disintegrated," as Janet would say. Parts of it remain in different places, and the whole of it is nowhere. One's native land seems foreign. It is not wholly a good thing, and I think I suffer for it.'

[After the return from Europe in 1893 James plunged again into teaching and writing. His cares and responsibilities were numerous. He gave himself little rest, except an occasional brief escape into some such seclusion as that of the Adirondack woods. Chiefly for practical reasons, he did a great deal of lecturing not required by his college duties, and gave courses at summer schools and teacher's conventions as far I west as Colorado and the Pacific Coast during his summer vacations. These lecture engagements furnished the occasions for several addresses that were published in The Will to Believe and Other Essays, and others that were finally embodied in the Talks to Teachers. Incidentally they afforded him an eagerly welcomed opportunity to become acquainted with the Western States.]

To Mrs. Henry Whitman


June 16, 1895.


About the 22nd! I will come if you command it; but reflect on my situation ere you do so. Just reviving from the addled and corrupted condition in which the Cambridge year has left me, just at the portals of that Adirondack wilderness for the breath of which I have sighed for years, unable to escape the cares of domesticity and get there; just about to get a little health into me, a little simplification and solidification and purification and sanification--things which will never come again if this one chance be lost; just filled to satiety with all the simpering conventions and vacuous excitements of so-called civilization; hungering for their opposite, the smell of the spruce, the feel of the moss, the sound of the cataract, the bath in its waters, the divine outlook from the cliff or hilltop over the unbroken forest--oh, Madam, Madame do you know what medicinal things you ask me to give up? Alas!

I aspire downwards, and really AM nothing, not becoming a savage as I would be, and failing to be the civilizee that I really ought to be content with being! But I wish that YOU also aspired to the wilderness. There are some nooks and summits in that Adirondack region where one can really 'recline on one's divine composure,' and as long as one stays up there, seem for a while to enjoy one's birthright of freedom and relief from every fever and falsity. Stretched out on such a shelf,--with thee beside me singing in the wilderness,--what babblings might go on, what judgment-day discourse!

Command me to give it up and return, if you will, by telegram addressed 'Adirondack Lodge, North Elba, N.Y.' In any case I shall return before the end of the month, and later shall be hanging about Cambridge some time in July, giving lectures (for my sins) in the summer school. I am staying now with a cousin on Otsego Lake, a dear old country-place that has been in their family for a century, and is rich and ample and reposeful. The Kipling visit went off splendidly--he's a regular little brick of a man; but it's strange that with so much sympathy with the insides of every living thing, brute or human, rank or sober, he should have so little sympathy with those of a Yankee--who also is, in the last analysis, one of God's creatures. I have stopped at Williamstown, at Albany, at Amsterdam, at Utica, at Syracuse, and finally here, each time to visit human-beings with whom I had business of some sort or other. The best was Benj. Paul Blood at Amsterdam, a son of the soil, but a man with extraordinary power over the English tongue, of whom I will tell you more some day. I will, by the way, enclose some clippings from his latest 'effort.' 'Yes, Paul is quite a CORRESPONDENT!' as a citizen remarked to me from whom I inquired the way to his dwelling. Don't you think 'corespondent' rather a good generic term for 'man of letters,' from the point of view of the country-town newspaper reader? . . .

Now, dear, noble, incredibly perfect Madam, you won't take ill my reluctance about going to Beverly, even to your abode, so soon. I am a badly mixed critter, and I experience a certain organic need for simplification and solitude that is quite imperious, and so vital as actually to be respectable even by others. So be indulgent to your ever faithful and worshipful,

W. J.

To his daughter Margaret (aetat 8)

EL PASO, COLO., Aug. 8, 1895.


Your letter made glad my heart the day before yesterday, and I marveled to see what an improvement had come over your handwriting in the short space of six weeks. 'Orphly' and 'ofly' are good ways to spell 'awfully,' too. I went up a high mountain yesterday and saw all the kingdoms of the world spread out before me, on the illimitable prairie which looked like a map. The sky glowed and made the earth look like a stained-glass window. The mountains are bright red. All the flowers and plants are different from those at home. There is an immense mastiff in my house here. I think that even you would like him he is so tender and gentle and mild although fully as big as a calf; His ears and face are black, his eyes are yellow, his paws are magnificent, his tail keeps wagging all the time, and he makes on me the impression of an angel hid in a cloud. He longs to do good.

I must now go and hear two other men lecture. Many kisses, also to Tweedy, from your ever loving,


To his class at Radcliffe College, which

had sent a potted azalea to him at Easter

CAMBRIDGE Apr. 6, 1896.


I am deeply touched by your remembrance. It is the first time anyone ever treated me so kindly, so you may well believe that the impression on the heart of the lonely sufferer will be even more durable than the impression on your minds of all the teachings of Philosophy 2a. I now perceive one immense omission in my Psychology--the deepest principle of Human Nature is the CRAVING TO BE APPRECIATED, and I left it out altogether from the book, because I had never had it gratified until now. I fear you have let loose a demon in me, and that all my actions will now be for the sake of such rewards. However, I will try to be faithful to this one unique and beautiful azalea tree, the pride of my life and delight of my existence. Winter and summer will I tend and water it--even with my tears. Mrs. James shall never go near it or touch it. If it dies, I will die too; and if I die, it shall be planted on my grave.

Don't take all this too jocosely but believe in the extreme pleasure you have caused me, and in the affectionate feelings with which I am, and shall always be, faithfully your friend,


[The next letter begins by acknowledging one from Henry James in which he had alluded to the death of a Cambridge gentleman who had been run over in the street. William James had been called upon to announce the tragedy to the man's wife. Henry James had closed his letter exclaiming, 'What melancholy, what terrible duties vous incombent when your neighbors are destroyed! And telling that poor man's wife!--Life IS heroic--however we "fix" it! Even as I write these words, the St. Louis horror bursts in upon me in the evening paper. Inconceivable--I can't try; and I WON'T. Strange how practically all one's sense of news from the U.S. here is huge Horrors and Catastrophes. It's a terrible country NOT to live in.']

To Henry James

CHOCORUA, June 11, 1896

. . . Your long letter of Whitsuntide week in London came yesterday evening, and was read by me aloud to Alice and Harry as we sat at tea in the window, to get the last rays of the Sunday's [sun]. You have too much feeling of duty about corresponding with us, and, I imagine, with everyone. I think you have behaved most handsomely of late--and always,--and though your letters are the great fetes of our lives, I won't be 'on your mind' for worlds. Your general feeling of unfulfilled obligations is one that runs in the family,--I at least am often addicted by it,--but it is 'morbid.'

The horrors of not living in America as you so well put it, are not shared by those who do live here. All that the telegraph imports are the shocks; the 'happy homes,' good husbands and fathers, fine weather, honest business men, neat new houses, punctual meetings of engagements, etc., of which the country mainly consists, are never cabled over. Of course the Saint Louis disaster is dreadful, but it will very likely end by 'improving' the city. The really bad thing here is the silly wave that has gone over the public mind--protection-humbug. silver, jingoism, etc. It is a case of 'mob-psychology.' Any country is liable to it if circumstances conspire, and our circumstances having conspired, it is very hard to get them out of the rut. It MAY take another financial crash to get them out, which of course will be an expensive method. It is no more foolish and considerably less damnable than the Russophobia of England which would seem to have been responsible for the Armenian massacres. That to me is the biggest indictment 'of our boasted civilization'!! It REQUIRES England, I say nothing of the other Powers, to maintain the Turks at that business.

We have let our little place, our tenant arrives the day after to-morrow, and Alice and I and Tweedie have been here a week enjoying it and cleaning house and place. She has worked like a beaver. I had two days spoiled by a psychological experiment with mescal, an intoxicant used by some of our Southwestern Indians in their religious ceremonies; a sort of cactus bud, of which the U.S. Government had distributed a supply to certain medical men, including Weir Mitchell, who sent me some to try. He had himself been 'in fairyland.' It gives the most glorious visions of color--every object thought of appears in a jeweled splendor unknown to the natural world. It disturbs the stomach somewhat, but that, according to W. M., was a cheap price. I took one bud three days ago, was violently sick for twenty-four hours, and had no other symptom whatever except that and the Katzenjammer the following day. I will take the visions on trust!

We have had three days of delicious rain--it all soaks into the sandy soil here and leaves no mud whatever. The little place is the most curious mixture of sadness with delight. The sadness of THINGS--things every one of which was done either by our hands or by our planning, old furniture renovated, there is n't an object in the house that is n't associated with past life, old summers,--dead people, people who will never come again, etc., and the way it catches you round the heart when you first come and open the house from its long winter sleep is most extraordinary.

I have been reading Bourget's Idylle Tragique which he very kindly sent me, and since then have been reading Tolstoi's War and Peace, which I never read before, strange to say. I must say that T. rather kills B., for my mind. My moral atmosphere is, anyhow, so foreign to me, a lewdness so obligatory that it hardly seems as if it were part of a moral donnee at all; and then his over-labored descriptions, and excessive explanations. But with it all an earnestness and enthusiasm for getting it said as well as possible, a richness of epithet, and warmth of heart that make you like him, in spite of the unmanliness of all the things he writes about. I suppose there is a stratum in France to whom it is all manly and ideal, but he and I are, as Rosina says, a bad combination. . .

Tolstoi is immense!

I am glad YOU are in a writing vein again, to go still higher up the scale! I have abstained on principle from the Atlantic serial, wishing to get it all at once. I am not going abroad; I can't afford it. I have a chance to give $1500 worth of summer lectures here, which won't recur. I have a heavy year of work next year, and shall very likely need to go the following summer, which will anyhow be after a more becoming interval than this; so, somme toute, it is postponed. If I went I should certainly enjoy seeing you at Rye more than in London, which I confess tempts me little now. I love to see it, but staying there does n't seem to agree with me, and only suggests constraint and money-spending, apart from seeing you. I wish you could see how comfortable our Cambridge house has got at last to be. Alice, who is upstairs sewing whilst I write below by the lamp,--a great wood fire hissing in the fireplace,--sings out her thanks and love to you....Affectionately,


To Dickinson S. Miller


LAKE GENEVA, Wis., Aug. 30, 1896.


Your letter from Halle of June 22nd came duly, but treating of things eternal as it did, I thought it called for no reply till I should have caught up with more temporal matters, of which there has been no lack to press on my attention. To tell the truth, regarding you as my most penetrating critic and intimate enemy, I was greatly relieved to find that you had nothing averse to say about The Will to Believe. You say you are no 'rationalist,' and yet you speak of the 'sharp' distinction between beliefs based on 'inner evidence' and beliefs based on 'craving.' I can find nothing sharp (or susceptible of schoolmaster's codification) in the different degrees of 'liveliness' in hypotheses concerning the universe, or distinguish a priori between legitimate and illegitimate cravings. And when an hypothesis IS once a live one, one RISKS something in one's practical relations towards truth and error, WHICHEVER of the three positions (affirmation, doubt, or negation) one may take up towards it. THE INDIVIDUAL HIMSELF IS THE ONLY RIGHTFUL CHOOSER OF HIS RISK. Hence respectful toleration, as the only law that logic can lay down. You don't say a word against my LOGIC, which seems to cover your cases entirely in its compartments. I class you as one to whom the religious hypothesis is von vornherein* so dead, that the risk in espousing it now far outweighs for you the chance of truth; so you simply stake your money on the field as against it. If you SAY this, of course I can, as logician, have no quarrel with you, even though my own choice of risk (determined by the irrational impressions, suspicions, cravings, senses of direction in nature, or what not, that make religion for me a more live hypothesis than for you) leads me to an opposite methodical decision.

Of course, if any one comes along and says that men at large don't need to have facility of faith in their inner convictions preached to theme that they have only too much readiness in that way already, and the one thing needful to preach is that they should hesitate with their convictions and take their faiths out for an airing into the howling wilderness of nature, I should also agree. But my paper wa'n't addressed to mankind at large but to a limited set of studious persons, badly under the ban just now of certain authorities whose simple-minded faith in 'naturalism' also is surely in need of an airing --and an airing, as it seems to me, of the sort I tried to give. But all this is unimportant; and I still await criticism of my Auseinander-setzung of the logical situation of man's mind gegenuber the Universe, in respect to the risks it runs.

I wish I could have been with you at Munich and heard the deep-lunged Germans roar at each other. I care not for the matters uttered, if I only could hear the voice. I hope you met Sidgwick there. I sent him the American hallucination-census results, after considerable toil over them. But S. never acknowledges or answers anything, so I'll have to wait to hear from some one else whether he 'got them off.' I have had a somewhat unwholesome summer. Much lecturing to teachers and sitting up to talk with strangers. But it is instructive and makes one patriotic, and in six days I shall have finished Chicago lectures, which begin to-morrow, and get straight to Keene Valley for the rest of September. My conditions just now are materially splendid as I am the guest of a charming elderly lady, Mrs. Wilmarth, here at her country house, and in town at the finest hotel of the place. The political campaign is a bully one. Every one outdoing himself in sweet reasonableness and persuasive argument--hardly a dignified note anywhere. It shows the deepening and elevating influence of a big topic of debate. It is difficult to doubt of a people part of whose life such an experience is. But imagine the country being saved by a McKinley! If only Reed had been the candidate! There have been some really splendid speeches and documents. . . .

Ever thine,


[*From the very start]

To E. L. Godkin

CHOCORUA, Aug. 17, 1897.


Thanks for your kind note in re The Will to Believe. I suppose you expect as little a reply to it as I expected one from you to the book, but since you ask what I DU mean by Religion, and add that until I define that word my essay cannot be effective, I can't forbear sending you a word to clear up that point. I mean by religion for a man ANYTHING that for him is a live hypothesis in that line, altho' it may be a dead one for any one else. And what I try to show is that whether the man believes, disbelieves or doubts his hypothesis, the moment he does either on principle and methodically, he runs a risk of one sort or the other from his own point of view. There is no escaping the risk; why not then admit that one's human function is to run it? By settling down on that basis, and respecting each other's choice of risk to run, it seems to me that we should be in a clearer-headed condition than we now are in, postulating as most all of us do a rational certitude which does n't exist and disowning the semi-voluntary mental action by which we continue in our own severally characteristic attitudes of belief. Since our willing natures are active here, why not face squarely the fact without humbug and get the benefits of the admission.

I passed a day lately with the [James] Bryces at Bar Harbor, and we spoke--not altogether unkindly--of you. I hope you are enjoying, both of you, the summer. All goes well with us.

Yours always truly,


To his son Alexander (aetat 7)

BERKELEY, CAL., Aug. 28, 1898.


See how brave this girl and boy are in the Yosemite Valley!* I saw a moving sight the other morning before breakfast in a little hotel where I slept in the dusty fields. The young man of the house had shot a little wolf called a coyote in the early morning. The heroic little animal lay on the ground with his big furry ears, and his clean white teeth, and his jolly cheerful little body, but his brave little life was gone. It made me think how brave all these living things are. Here little coyote was, without any clothes or house or books or anything, with nothing but his own naked self to pay his way with and risking his life so cheerfully--and losing it--just to see if he could pick up a meal near the hotel. He was doing his coyote-business like a hero, and you must do your boy-business, and I my man-business bravely too, or else we won't be worth as much as that little coyote. Your mother can find a picture of him in those green books of animals, and I want you to copy it.

Your loving Dad,


[*Photograph of a boy and girl standing on a rock which hangs dizzily over a great precipice above the Yosemite Valley.]

To Mrs. Henry Whitman

CHOCORUA, N.H., June 7, 1899.


I got your penciled letter the day before leaving. The R.R. train seems to be a great stimulus to the acts of the higher epistolary activity and correspondential amicality in you--a fact for which I have (occasional) reason to be duly grateful. So here, in the cool darkness of my roadside 'sitting-room,' with no pen in the house, with the soft tap of the carpenter's hammer and the pensive scrape of the distant wood-saw stealing through the open wire-netting door, along with the fragrant air of the morning woods, I get stimulus responsive, and send you penciled return. Yes, the daylight that now seems shining through the Dreyfus case is glorious and if the President only gets his back up a bit, and mows down the whole gang of Satan, or as much of it as can be touched, it will perhaps be a great day for the distracted France. I mean it may be one of those moral crises that become starting points and high-watermarks and leave traditions and rallying-cries and new forces behind them. One thing is certain, that no other alternative form of government possible to France in this century could have stood the strain as this democracy seems to be standing it....

As for me, my bed is made: I am against bigness and greatness in all their forms, and with the invisible molecular forces that work from individual to individual, stealing in through the crannies of the world like so many soft rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, and yet rending the hardest monuments of man's pride, if you give them time. The bigger the unit you deal with, the hollower, the more brutal, the more mendacious is the life displayed. So I am against all big organizations as such, national ones first and foremost: against all big successes and big results; and in favor of the eternal forces of truth which always work in the individual and immediately unsuccessful way, under-dogs always, till history comes after they are long dead, and puts them on the top.--You need take no notice of these ebullitions of spleen, which are probably quite unintelligible to any one but myself.

Ever your


[The Reverend Henry W. Rankin of East Northfield, addressed in the next letter, had supplied James with numerous references to the literature of 'conversion' and psycho-religious phenomena. He continued to do this, generously undiscouraged by the fact that James's views differed from his own unalterably. Another letter to Mr. Rankin will be given in the Atlantic for September.]

To Henry W. Rankin

NEWPORT. R.I., Feb. 1, 1897


A pause in lecturing, consequent upon our mid-year examinations having begun, has given me a little respite, and I am paying a three days' visit upon an old friend here, meaning to leave for New York to-morrow, where I have a couple of lectures to give. It is an agreeable moment of quiet and enables me to write a letter or two which I have long postponed, and chiefly one to you, who have given me so much without asking anything in return.

One of my lectures in New York at the Academy of Medicine before the Neurological Society, the subject being 'Demoniacal Possession,' I shall of course duly advertise the Nevius book. I am not as positive as you are in the belief that the obsessing agency is really demonic individuals. I am perfectly willing to adopt the theory if the facts lend themselves best to it, for who can trace limits to the hierarchies of personal existence in the world? But the lower stages of mere automatism shade off so continually into the highest supernormal manifestations, through the intermediary ones of imitative hysteria and 'suggestibility,' that I feel as if no GENERAL theory as yet would cover all the facts. So that the most I shall plead for before the neurologists is the recognition of demon-possession as a regular 'morbid-entity' whose commonest homologue to-day is the 'spirit-control' observed in test-mediumship, and which tends to become the more benignant and less alarming, the less pessimistically it is regarded. This last remark seems certainly to be true. Of course I shall not ignore the sporadic cases of old-fashioned malignant possession which still occur today.

I am convinced that we stand with all these things at the threshold of a long inquiry, of which the end appears as yet to no one, least of all to myself. And I believe that the best theoretic work yet done in the subject is the beginning made by F. W. H. Myers in his papers in the S.P.R. Proceedings.

The first thing is to start the medical profession out of its idiotically CONCEITED IGNORANCE of all such matters--matters which have everywhere and at all times played a vital part in human history.

You have written me at different times about conversion, and about miracles, getting as usual no reply, but not because I failed to heed your words, which come from a deep life experience of your own evidently, and from a deep acquaintance with the experience of others. In the matter of conversion, I am quite willing to believe that a new truth may be supernaturally revealed to a subject when he really asks. But I am sure that in many cases of Conversion it is less a new truth than a new power gained over life by a truth always known. It is a case of the conflict of two SELF-SYSTEMS in a personality up to that time heterogeneously divided, but in which, after the conversion crisis, the higher loves and powers come definitively to gain the upper-hand and expel the forces which up to that time had kept them down in the position of mere grumblers and protesters and agents of remorse and discontent. This broader view will cover an enormous number of cases PSYCHOLOGICALLY, and leaves all the RELIGIOUS IMPORTANCE to the result which it has on any other theory.

As to true and false miracles, I don't know that I can follow you so well, for in any case the notion of a miracle as a mere attestation of superior power is one that I cannot espouse. A miracle must in any case be an expression of personal purpose, but the demon-purpose of antagonizing God and winning away his adherents has never yet taken hold of my imagination. I prefer an open mind of inquiry, first about the facts, in all these matters; and I believe that the S.P.R. methods, if pertinaciously stuck to, will eventually do much to clear things up. You see that, although religion is the great interest of my life, I am rather hopelessly non-evangelical, and take the whole thing too impersonally.

But my College work is lightening in a way. Psychology is being handed over to others more and more, and I see a chance ahead for reading and study in other directions from those to which my very feeble powers in that line have hitherto been confined. I am going to give all the fragments of time I can get, after this year is over, to religious biography and philosophy. Shield's book, Steenstra's, Gratry's, and Harris's I don't yet know, but can easily get at them.

I hope your health is better in this beautiful winter which we are having. I am very well, and so is all my family. Believe me, with affectionate regards,

truly yours,


This collection of letters was originally published in The Atlantic Monthly in three installments. See the July, 1920 installment. See the September, 1920 installment.

The Atlantic Monthly; August 1920; Familiar Letters of William James II; Volume 126, No. 2; pages 163-175.
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