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William James Finds His Vocation
One of America s truly great men—scientist, philosopher, and literary genius—forged his character in the throes of adversity
February/March 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 2
By 1859, the time of Darwin’s Origin of Species , of Wagner’s Tristan , and of the birth of Freud, Willy still needed some general education. Hence Europe again—Geneva, this time—where he entered the university and distinguished himself in anatomy (including dissection), a discipline in which his good draftsmanship served him well. Then he traveled to Germany for the summer, to learn the language. Willy “soaked it up” while living with a family in Bonn. (Geneva had afforded him a reading knowledge of Italian, in addition to perfecting his French.) But the urge to paint still throbbed inside him, and his arguments virtually forced a return to Newport, where, in 1860, he joined Hunt and La Farge “as an apprentice.”
When young James decided to give up painting, he wrote: “Nothing is more contemptible than a mediocre artist.”
At the same time, it will not do to forget that William never lost touch with his native land. Its ways and speech were deep in him, fused with those that came from the whole civilization to which he had been bred. I mean by this not only that his home situation had made ideas as concrete as tables and chairs; I mean also that even lacking the valuable lesson of American public school life as it was then, James picked up the true spirit of democracy in the unsupervised rambles in downtown New York that his father encouraged.
The zest for being in the rough and tumble of life and not just a moralizing spectator was a temperamental trait, an element of the young boy’s energy and love of action. It may be read into the episode of his brother Henry’s wanting to share in some boyish expedition. As the older and less shy, Willy had naturally fallen into the role of rhodel and guardian, and he turned down the request with the final rebuff: “ I play with boys who curse and swear.” Later on, William’s impatience with conventional goodness and propriety affords the rare spectacle of a philosopher who was gifted, Lincoln-like, with the common touch. Santayana is again a good witness, for he never really liked or understood James and, like a good critic, objected to what others also find present but not objectionable: “He was so extremely natural that there was no knowing what his nature was, or what to expect next; … I found no foothold, I was soon fatigued.”
James’s childhood hide-and-seek with schoolmasters here and abroad had certainly developed a critical judgment that gave short shrift to received opinion and professional routines. When William in his twenty-fifth year encountered German academic ways in philosophy and science, he wrote home: “You never saw such a mania for going deep into the bowels of truth, with such an absolute lack of intuition and perception of the skin thereof.” The “skin” is the plain concrete feel of things, and James gives to the Germans’ uniformly abstract and verbal ways of explaining things a revealing series of epithets: “disgusting and disheartening … corrupt and immodest.”
Father Henry’s transatlantic shuttle had provoked or facilitated or reinforced all these attitudes. If they led in some fashion to the coming breakdown of the young mind called upon to organize and assess them, they were at the same time the best preparation for a genius who was not, after all, going to be another Delacroix, William’s favorite painter in Paris. When the elder James’s sons were little, they were sometimes embarrassed at being asked what their father did. He, when consulted for the right answer, gave one that did not help at all: “Say I’m a philosopher, say I’m a seeker for truth, say I’m a lover of my kind, say I’m an author of books, if you like; or best of all, just say I’m a Student. ” When William gave up painting, he was already halfway to a career that could be described in identical terms.