WJ 8.1

As noted in WJ 8, the mid-to-late ’80s for James as for the young nation was a time to celebrate and to exercise freedom. His  opus Principles of Psychology was feeling like an imposition on his liberty, but he pushed through and finished it.

In the Fall of ’86 the Jameses purchased a 75-acre farm overlooking Mount Chocorua on the southeastern edge of the White Mountains of New Hampshire, for $750.  The main farmhouse still stands and is well-known by the locals who directed me straight to it on my own little pilgrimage a few years ago, when I had a little free time during a conference in Portland, Maine and decided to put my rental car to good use. It looks much as it must have when William and family spent their most valued leisure hours there all those years ago.

The place filled a hole in William’s life. He loved these mountains as he loved the Adirondacks. He was an avid hiker, and felt a real craving, a hunger for nature, a physical need to spend several months a year in the country. He was delighted by its fourteen outside doors, [&] drawn to the freedom of its open spaces. It was sister Alice who so perceptively noted the parallel between the redundantly-outward-opening domicile and the receptive, novelty-seeking temperament of its new owner.

August 13-16 this coming summer, there will be a special James symposium in Chocorua (and Cambridge) honoring William James and exploring the application of his ideas in our time, on the occasion of the centenary of his death in August 1910.

James loved hiking so much because he loved “The Feeling of Effort,” and attempted to articulate why in an eponymous essay that he presented in Paris at the First International Congress of Physiological Psychology in the late summer of ’89– “one of the pleasantest ten-day periods of my life”. Picture James and colleagues from around the young psychological world banqueting at the Eiffel Tower and toasting “anti-chauvinism in science” as they gazed down on “the wonderfully illuminated landscape of exhibition grounds, palaces and fountains spread out below, with all the lights and shadows of nocturnal Paris framing it in.” Ah, freedom.

But more than the urbane sophistication of Paris, James loved “wild facts,” irregular phenomena, strange experiences, facts that fit no stall or pigeonhole.” As he told his brother the novelist, philosophers have it harder than writers of fiction. “You haven’t to forge every sentence in the teeth of irreducible and stubborn facts as I do. It is like walking through the densest brush wood.” And how he loved that walk!

As he’d written to (wife) Alice, of nature and “dirt” in another sense, “It is not for the dirt but for the whole sense of reality of which the dirt is part…” The sense of reality is what James was always scouting for.  That’s why he re-named a crucial chapter in the Psychology “The Perception of Reality,” and it’s why he emphasized action over brooding and armchair ruminating.  It’s not enough merely to believe, one must act. Acts create realities, beliefs comes later. He’d said this to his brother Bob years before, trying to shake him (and himself?) out of depression:

“When the mind is morbid only the gloomy images have any vividness… be faithful ‘in the outward act’ (as a philosopher says)… do… the belief will come in its time.” (145)

“How can we believe at will? We cannot control our emotions.” But there is a method.  “We need only in cold blood act as if… it will become real.” (289)

And so, the cultivated charms of Paris notwithstanding, he can’t wait to get back to wild Chocorua and slightly-less-wild Cambridge as the gay ’90s are about to begin. It’s time to act.


NOTE TO STUDENTS: the big annual Baseball in Literature & Culture conference is coming to our fair campus next Friday, I’m in it, so we’ll not be meeting for class on the 26th.


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