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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
The second part of James’s odyssey occupied less than a decade, from 1861 to 1869, and though full of drama and adventure, it set off almost at once on the right course. Painting with Hunt took up just one year; giving it up expressed the pupil’s sound judgment that talent is not enough: “Nothing is more contemptible than a mediocre artist.” William turned to his other interests and abilities; he enrolled in the Lawrence Scientific School of Harvard and, after three years there, entered the Medical School in 1864. Then came a providential interruption: the famous naturalist Louis Agassiz, subsidized by a Boston patron and the Emperor of Brazil, outfitted an expedition to study the fauna of the Amazon. By invitation William joined as one of the seven volunteer aides making up the exploring party of seventeen. We get a glimpse of him from a letter Mrs. Agassiz wrote to her younger children in Cambridge: “He is a delightful traveling companion. You know how bright, intelligent, cultivated he is—a fellow of vivid, keen intellect. He works hard and is ready to turn his hand to anything for your father.”
The fifteen months spanning 1865 and 1866—three in Rio and the rest up-country—were a test of endurance, punctuated for William by smallpox, eye trouble, and the hardships of life in the wilds. Before the end, though, he concluded that he was indeed profiting from the disciplining of his natural quickness and speculative power: “No one,” he wrote home, “sees farther into a generalization than his own knowledge of details extends.” The statement prefigures one of the seminal principles of his later philosophy—the passion for concreteness and the ridding not merely of false but of misused abstraction.
One finds also in these letters from Brazil the early-matured style, strong in the picturesque exaggeration that was a family trait. In William the tone varies easily from reflectiveness (as above) to irony (“I speak Portuguese like a book and am ready to converse for hours on any subject. To be sure, the natives seem to have a slight difficulty in understanding me, but that is their lookout.”) and to extravagance (“I am writing to you in a room 120 ft. long—just about big enough for one man”). Then it may go on to self-searching tenderness about one or another member of the family or even a public figure: “I can’t tell why, but albeit unused to the melting mood, I can hardly think of Abraham Lincoln without feeling on the point of blubber. Is it that he seems the representation of pure simple human nature against all conventional additions?” And looking at the devastation, moral and physical, of the war at home and hoping nobody still wants to hang Jefferson Davis, he concludes: “Can anyone think of revenge now?”