Friday, December 17, 2010

William James

I’m always comforted when I read a biography of someone famous, someone I respect, and find out that they were pretty much like most mortals: indecisive, insecure, and often depressed.

I just read a biography of William James by Robert Richardson. When James was younger, he couldn’t make up his mind on what he wanted to do. He was a talented painter and had a considerable amount of artistic training during his teens. He also wanted to be a scientist and accompanied one of the most famous biologists of the day, Louis Agassiz, on an expedition to South America to study the fish of the Amazon.

But he ended up settling for an MD from Harvard University. Now that sounds impressive to us, but in the mid 19th century it wasn’t impressive. At all. James was always insecure about the fact that he just had an MD, because at that time it wasn’t a graduate degree. You didn’t have to have a bachelor’s degree to get in. And Harvard wasn’t an elite school. The medical school in Cambridge was particularly easy to get into, and it was incredibly easy to obtain the degree. You just had to attend the lectures, pay 30 dollars, and there was no test until the very end. One oral comprehensive exam. It covered nine subjects, and if you passed five of them you got the degree (i.e., you could get a 55% and pass). The whole thing could be done in one year.

Once James got this medical degree, he decided he didn’t want to practice medicine. He would teach physiology instead. And over time he drifted into other fields, eventually making huge contributions to psychology and philosophy. But he often got depressed and questioned the value of his contributions to science and philosophy. He was never really content with the path that he was on. His direction was always changing.

He and his brother Henry were a bit competitive, as you can imagine. Especially considering the fact that Henry was younger than William, but Henry enjoyed literary success many years before William made a name for himself as the author of The Principles of Psychology. It’s often said that William wrote philosophy like a novelist and Henry wrote novels like a philosopher. William also thought of himself as a competent literary critic, and was quick to give Henry advise on how to write fiction. Henry, on the other hand, tended to accept William’s psychology and philosophy immediately and wholeheartedly. But he felt very comfortable criticising William’s family life. William was married for 32 years and had 5 children. Henry never married.

Another famous phrase about the James family is that they were “a nation unto themselves.” Their father, Henry James Sr., dragged his family all over Europe when the James boys were young. He thought they could only get a good education in Europe, but didn’t keep them in one spot for very long. They were constantly being uprooted and planted in the next supposedly excellent continental school. As a result, the James children felt rootless and resented their father’s wandering ways.

William ended up spending most of his career at Harvard, but was given to sudden departures across the Atlantic, usually without his family. His fame grew over the years, and he gave many lectures in Europe to large crowds. Henry ended up spending most of his life in England, and was something of a celebrity there. They both were among the first modern American cultural ambassadors to Europe (modern in the sense that they embodied the ideas and principles of what came to be called modernism). But in many ways, they hardly felt American themselves. William was vehemently and publicly critical of American imperialism and arrogance at the turn of the century. Henry eventually became a British citizen in 1915. To a large extent, they rejected nationalism and maintained the cosmopolitanism of their youth.

The James family was close, but that closeness was through the written word. Their correspondence was constant, playful, and honest. What the James gang lost in proximity they made up for in letters that revealed the true condition of their hearts and minds. Their doubts and fears and regrets. We read about their ideals and their views on how to live life, and observe them coming up short, doing their best to cope with disappointment and loss.

In the past, I’ve had the ambition to read the essays and novels of William and Henry James, based on their philosophical and literary reputation. But now I have a feeling that reading their correspondence would be just as rewarding. Maybe even more so.
Henry and William, left to right.

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