Copying the coyote

Richard Poirier

When, in the summer of 1898, at the age of 56, William James went to Berkeley, California to deliver a series of lectures on pragmatism, he could have used his own life to illustrate the immensely difficult but successful application of one of its tenets: that truth is best seen as ‘what it is better for us to believe’, not as ‘as an accurate representation of reality’, and that what is better for us to believe is what can be ascertained only in and through our actions, not by consultation with fixed ideas or traditions or, notably in his case, by family example. Until his late thirties, like his father, the theologian Henry James Sr, he had experienced breakdowns in which invalidism was compounded by the threat of insanity; like his brother Henry, 15 months his junior, he had had acute problems with his back and with constipation; like his sister Alice and another brother, Robertson, he had suffered nervous collapses, then called neurasthenia, which were augmented by recurrent eye troubles. Thanks to the further example of his father, who was famously leisured and vague (‘I am determined,’ he wrote a friend, ‘to take holiday for the rest of my life and to make all my work sabbatical’), and to his mother’s benevolent inducement of hypochondria in all five of her children, William had been in danger of devoting himself, in Alice’s phrase, to the ‘life-long occupation of improving’, even as he tried to make a go now of one thing, now of another. Howard Feinstein has written a brilliant study of William’s crises over idleness, illness and vocation, within the context of intense parental and sibling entanglements, especially as these lead back to his father’s own conflicts with his father, the fearsome William James of Albany. In the process, Feinstein offers an appalling account of the high incidence in three generations of the James family, and of many other privileged families in 19th-century New England, of affective disorders, alcoholism and psychopathology.

William nonetheless managed to use his illnesses to effect transitions from one form of activity or one place to another, especially if it meant getting away from Cambridge on frequent trips to Europe. He worked for a time in the studio of John La Farge and might have become a talented painter; he went with Louis Agassiz on a scientific expedition to the Amazon; he received a degree in medicine from Harvard, where, despite his abhorrence of laboratory work and mostly to please his father, he instructed in anatomy and physiology, until at last, and after some quite shrewd academic manoeuvring, he became Professor of Philosophy, a subject that had long been his primary interest, in 1885. It was not until the age of 50 that he published his first and possibly greatest work – one should come to it, argues Jacques Barzun, in ‘a mood suited to a Moby-Dick or War and Peace’ – the massive Principles of Psychology. Just before the trip to California he had brought out The Will to Believe, and Other Essays. Meantime at 36 he had made a happy marriage to a woman selected by his parents, and they had had five children, one of whom died in its first year.

To his youngest child, Alexander, James wrote a remarkable and overlooked letter from California, enclosing with it a photograph of a girl and boy standing on a rock dangerously perched over a deep ravine in Yosemite Valley. James had visited there the week before on one of the strenuous camping expeditions that had already injured his heart. ‘Darling old Cherubini,’ he wrote:

See how brave this girl and boy are in the Yosemite Valley! I saw a moving sight the other morning before breakfast in the 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 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.

I will have something to say about this letter in a moment, but want to note here that James’s correspondence is filled with things equally remarkable, some of them in the two volumes, long out of print, of The Letters of William James, published in 1920, and in the Selected Letters edited by Elizabeth Hardwick in 1962, recently reissued in paperback. A substantial new collection is needed to confirm the identity of purpose between his letters and the almost equally informal and personal philosophical writings. It would be a logical extension of the complete works in the process of being published by Harvard University Press under the editorship of Frederick Burkhardt and Fredson Bowers. Filled with his affectionate concreteness, and often solicitously conversational in tone, the philosophical essays are meant to be anti-intellectualist, in so far as ‘intellectualism’, a term he uses with some of the pejorative connotations given to it earlier by Henri Bergson, consists of inquiring into the nature of abstractions like Reality in order to abide by them better. Most of his books are collections of public lectures, and, as he says in the Preface to Pragmatism, they were ‘printed as delivered, without developments or notes’; they are ‘essays in popular philosophy’, to recall the subtitle of The Will to Believe.

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