William James Finds His Vocation


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?”

JAMES CAME BACK to finish his medical studies, sandwiching in an internship at the Massachusetts General Hospital, but the school’s teaching of therapy and bedside manner left him cold. After receiving his M. D. in 1869, he was sure he did not want to be a physician. Intervening experiences had redirected his scientific interests. Besides, his neurasthenia had worsened soon after his return from Brazil in 1866—a trembling weakness, pain in the lower back and, as one or two intimates knew, persistent thoughts, for a whole winter, of “the pistol, the dagger, and the bowl.” Believing that the physical part of the trouble could be cured abroad at a spa, William, encouraged as usual by his father, went off to Paris and then to Germany in April 1867. He wound up far from cured but studying hard in Berlin and making his German as much second nature as his French. That he was “a mere wreck, bodily” did not stop mental activity, and though feeling a “deadness” that made him wish for “hibernation,” he decided to take up “the nervous system and psychology” from the scientific point of view that the Germans were making their own.

THE PERSON before us, then, is a greatly gifted youth of twenty-five, favored by fortune in every respect except that of health, whose recurrent impulse to quit life was augmented by the sense of being a failure—useless and shifting in aim, a financial and moral burden on the family—and who yet at every turn encountered the experience that he needed for his yet uncharted development. The worst experience, or rather, the best because the deepest, was just around the corner. William met it victoriously because of that haphazard “preparation.”