THE LETTERS OF WILLIAM JAMES.*
Tars collection of the letters of William James is presumably to take the place of a regular Life, and so far as informing us • The Letters of William Jame*. Edited by his Son. 2 vols. London : Longnisns. [42s. net.1
about the character of William James goes, they give us an the illumination that is necessary. Technical or polemical letters, however, are not included, so it will be seen that if this book is to be accepted as a Life it is only an incidental record of James's great intellectual Work. James's son has done the editing excellently ; there is not a letter that does not cast light, and the editor has not " improved away " the roughness from letters which were lightly or hurriedly written. In spite of roughnesseis James's power as a letter-writer was always
amazing. He seems less to have a pen in his hand than a paint brush full of .colour ; he splashes on the radiant hues without
effort because he cannot help it, and yet the mind of the scholar
is always at the back saving metaphor from excess, anecdote from pointlessness, and epithets from superfluity. The editor
remarks that the character and instincts of his father were the clue to his philosophy. That is perfectly true. James's temperament was the foundation of Pragmatism. But the variety of his education and his occupations prepared the way for his glorification of Experience as the only guide for thinking and living. He had a training in keeping his attention glued to concrete facts, and not letting his mind wander away into the too attractive realms of theory and fancy, when he went to the Amazon as a member of the scientific expedition organized in 1865 by the naturalist Alexander Agassiz. Physiology followed the study of natural history, and there again a necessarily practical course of study swayed his mind in favour of experience as the one thing that mattered.
But it would be hopeless to try to understand James's character without taking note of his ancestors. He came of solid and straight-thinking Puritan stock, and with all respect and admira- tion for William James's own letters—which are indeed such letters as one comes across only once in a generation—we find that nothing remains in our memory more vividly than a certain letter written by William James's father. The father after much religious doubt became a Swedenborgian, but it was just like him never to be under the least illusion that the Church he had joined was in practice a New Jerusalem. When his con- tempt was excited he did not hesitate to express it—but let us quote the letter which was written to the editor of a Sweden- borgian paper:
"DEAR Sm,—You were good enough, when I called on you at Mr. Appleton's request in New York, to say among other friendly
things that you would send me your paper ; and I have regularly received it ever since. I thank you for your kindness, but my conscience refuses any longer to sanction its taxation in this way, as I have never been able to read the paper with any pleasure, nor therefore of course with any profit. I presume its editorials are by you, and while I willingly seized upon every evidence they display of an enlarged spirit, I yet find the general drift of the paper so very poverty-stricken in a spiritual regard, as to make it absolutely the least nutritive reading I know. The old sects are notoriously bad enough, but your sect compares with these very much as a heap of dried cod on Long Wharf in Boston compares with the same fish while still enjoying the freedom of the Atlantic Ocean. I remember well the manly strain of your conversation with me in New York, and I know
therefore how you must suffer from the control of persons so
unworthy as those who havo the property of your paper. Why don't you cut the whole concern at once, as a rank offence to
every human hope and aspiration T The intercourse I had some years since with the leaders of the sect, on a visit to Boston, made me fully aware of their deplorable want of manhood ;
but judging from your paper, the whole sect seems spiritually benumbed. Your mature men have an air of childishness and your young men have the aspect of- old women. I find it hard above all to imagine the existence of a living woman in the bounds of your sect, whose breasts flow with milk instead of hardening with pedantry. I know such things are of course, but I tell you frankly that these are the sort of questions your paper forces on the unsophisticated mind. I really know nothing so
sad and spectral in the shape of literature. It seems composed by skeletons and intended for readers who are content to disown pusir good flesh and blood, and be moved by some ghastly mechanism. It cannot but prove very unwholesome to you
spiritually, to be so nearly connected with all that sadness and silence, where nothing more musical is heard than the occasional jostling of bone by bone. Do come out of it before you wither as an autumn leaf, which no longer rustles in full-veined life on the pliant bough, but rattles instead with emptiness upon the frozen melancholy earth. Pardon my freedom ; I was impressed
by your friendliness towards me, and speak to you therefore in return with all the frankness of friendship. Consider me as having any manner and measure of disrespect for your ecclesiastical pretensions, but as being personally, yours
cordially, H. JAMES."
The writer of that letter was as unconventional as his son William was to be. Prigs enraged him. He was for ever smashing up smugness, and he once said that he would rather that any son of his were " corroded with all the sins of the
Decalogue than have him perfect" Under the intellectual directorship of this man the James family became a kind of debating society. Every meal was a symposium of criticism and repartee. This fact must be remembered in the reading of William James's letters, for when he seems to be caught in a tide -of rhetoric he is really back in imagination at the family symposium and is trying with mock solemnity to outdo one of his brothers at an effort in the grand manner.
James's education was of a very miscellaneous kind, as his father, with his unsettled attitude towards life, was continually breaking up the home and living in some new place either in Europe or America. The editor says :-
" He began young to be a wide reader ; soon he became a wide reader in three languages. Above all, he was encouraged early to trust his own impulse and pursue his own bent. Prob- ably his active -and inquiring intelligence could not have been permanently cribbed and confined by any schooling, no matter how narrow and rigorous. But, as nothing was to be more remarkable about him in his maturity -than the easy assurance with which he passed from one field of inquiry to another, ignoring conventional bounds and precincts, never losing: his freshness of tone, shedding new light, and encouragement every- where, so it is impossible not to believe that the influences and circumstances which combined in his youth fostered and corrobor- ated his, native mobility and detachment of mind."
William James's health was not good, and more than once he was on the verge of a breakdown. There is a curious passage in which we learn that James, who some years ago put a par- ticular description of melancholia into the mouth of an anony- mous French correspondent, was actually describing his own experience. William was unlike his brother Henry the novelist in this respect, that his travels made him more of an American than ever. There are some amusing accounts -of the meetings between Henry (who of course lived most of his life in England and who, to the gratifieaton of us all, accepted British nationality during the war as a token of his sympathy -with us) and his brother when the latter landed in England. In a letter to Henry dated June 6th, 1903, when Henry was about to visit America, William wrote :— " Cirocoamt, June 6, -1903.
DEAREST HENRY,—Your long and excitingly interesting type-written letter about coming hither arrived yesterday, -and I hasten to retract all my dampening -remarks,-now that I understand the motives fully. The only ones I had imagined, blindling that I am, were fraternal piety and patriotic duty. Against those I thought I ought to proffer the thought of eggs' and other shocks, so that when they came I might be able to say that you went not unwanted. But the moment it appears that what you crave is millions of just such shocks, and that a new lease of artistic life, with the lamp of genius fed by the oil of twentieth-century American life, -is to be the end and aim of the voyage, all my stingy doubts wither and are replaced by enthusiasm that you are still so young-feeling, receptive and hungry for more raw material and experience. It cheers me immensely, and makes me feel more so myself. It is pathetic to hear you talk so about your career and its going to seed without the contact of new material ; but feeling as you do about the new material, I augur a great revival of .energy and internal effervescence from the execution of your project. Drop your F.nelish ideas and take America and Americans as they take themselves, and you will certainly experience a rejuvena- tion. This is all I have to say to-day--merely to let you see how the prospect exhilarates us."
William James was saved from bad health and restlessness by his marriage, and thereafter he had as much steadiness and stability as such an effervescent mind could ever have had, and certainly more happiness than he had ever dreamed of. Every student of psychological subjects knows William James's books with their combination of close observation and romantic readableness. We take but a single .example of.how he thought psychologically from a letter to his sister Alice. He is writing about death:— "And what a queer contradiction comes to the ordinary esientific argument against immortality (based on body being mind's condition and mind going out when body is gone), when one must believe •(as now, in these neurotic- cases) that some internality in the body prevents really existing parts of the mind from coming to their effective rights at all, suppresses them, and blots them out from participation in this -world's experiences, although they are there all the time. When that which is you passes out of the body, I am sure that there will be an exploaion of liberated force -and life till then eclipsed and kept down. I can hardly imagine your transition without a great oscillation of both `worlds' as they regain their new equilibrium after the change ! Everyone will feel the shook,- but, you yourself will be more surprised than anybody else."
No sooner was James likely to become the leader of psycho- logical thought than he threw off, psychology for his earlier love of philosophy and applied himself laboriously to teaching philosophy at the age of fifty-two. Although, having given himself to the unluorative profession of philosophy, he was never quite free from anxieties, he loved teaching youth. He had an unbounded sympathy with young men, and it is clear -from some of his letters that he regarded almost any literary effort on the part of youth as a signal for encouragement and praise, whereas he was profoundly critical of those who had established reputations. His- modesty, his good humour, and -his humanity never, however, prevented him from tripping up the presuming when presumption manifestly required a cheek. His affectionate students probably felt that a man-who dressed as casually as he did was never impossibly removed from them. As for the schoolmen of philosophy, they never quite understood him. He seemed to them continually to mingle the fantastic with the sober, and he would have defended himself on the ground that nothing within human experience was unimportant or insignificant. He joyously affirmed where he could not prove.