Posts Tagged ‘Chocorua’

“flickers & twinkles”

January 4, 2011

One of the highlights of my Chocorua trip in August was meeting and speaking with William James (& Emerson & Thoreau) biographer Robert Richardson (The Heart of William James). He was on the radio yesterday, talking about James and pragmatism, and the idea that while our words usually are not quite up to expressing our most impressive thoughts and feelings, the philosopher’s ambition to “settle the universe’s hash” is yet not an entire waste of time and effort. As James told a rapt Berkeley audience in 1898,

Why, that is the truth!—that is what I have been believing, that is what I have really been living on all this time, but I never could find the words for it before. All that eludes, all that flickers and twinkles, all that invites and vanishes even whilst inviting, is here made a solidity and a possession. Here is the end of unsatisfactoriness, here the beginning of unimpeded clearness, joy, and power.” Yes, my friends, I have such a discourse within me! But, do not judge me harshly, I cannot produce it on the present occasion… “Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results

No, not on the present occasion. But stay tuned.


NOTE: a crisp British perspective on American pragmatism was aired last year on the BBC’s “In Our Time.”

in transition

August 18, 2010

Home. A good place to come back to.

I’m really half still in New England, though, and the transition is a little hard. Chocorua, where James said he felt most genuinely real and free, was so beautifully welcoming.

The old homestead on Route 16, across the road from lake and mountain, is for sale too, for not quite a million. A bargain for someone who can appreciate all those doors opening out.

And what fun, re-creating the iconic stonewall face-off with Josiah Royce.

So many fine conversations, in charming and unconventional venues like a church and a library.  My favorite: the screened “1776 porch” looking onto a lovely garden and bird sanctuary. The anonymous proprietors had not bothered to relocate the cat bowl. Why should they? He lives there, we were the squatters. One of the sessions there was about putting the “F”(un) back in Philosophy.” Another, led by a musicologist from Notre Dame, was about the prominent (but previously unnoted) part played in Somerset Maugham’s Razor’s Edge by James’s “Energies of Men.”

Cambridge, in August as ever, is a heady and inspiring place. The new James exhibition in Houghton Library (“Life is in the Transitions”), curated by biographer Linda Simon and there for public perusal through December, is compelling… as was the whole “Footsteps” Symposium weekend, in fact. Paul Croce, the WJ Society, and the local organizers did a wonderful job putting it all together.

There are so many moments I want to lock into memory. One in particular: John McDermott practically lunging across me to tag Hilary Putnam in solidarity as a contemporaneous peer, while captivating the room with yet another passionate testimonial to the enduring power of Jamesian spontaneity and freedom. (Harvard historian James Kloppenberg had invited the elder sages among us to share their experience as teachers and exemplars of Jamesian virtue.)

The guided walking tour of Cambridge was a perfect touch. James had no more use than I for arid academic symposia in which scholars do nothing but sit in stuffy windowless rooms wallowing in words and textual abstractions. He’d have loved the view from the 15th floor of WJ Hall.

Also enjoyed meeting and hearing Robert Richardson.

Looking forward now to the next James centenary, in 2042. What will life have made of itself, by then?


Postscript. Very nice follow-up email from Prof. Croce-

Dear Symposium Participants,

I still feel the energy and excitement of the symposium, and I thank you all for helping to make it a wonderful event.  And special thanks to Lynn Bridgers who did an enormous amount of work setting up the program, to Kent Schneider who orchestrated events (and music!) in Chocorua, and to Leslie Morris who arranged our attendance at the exhibition and our use of the Houghton for the reception.

For many of us, a new semester started after the Symposium—my own first class was the next day!—and this has delayed my communication.  It has been weeks since we last met, and before more time flies, let me share some news with you….

*William James Studies is interested in reviewing papers from the Symposium for publication. Please contact the editors Mark Moller ( or Linda Simon (, and see the submission guidelines (; please send in revised versions of your paper by November 15, 2010.

*For papers of a historical and cultural orientation, the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era is interested in reviewing Symposium papers for publication; contact editor Alan Lessoff,, and see their web page:

*We were the inaugural audience for the Houghton Library’s year-long exhibition, “Life is in the Transitions: William James, 1842-1910;” to see the exhibition online, go to

*Michael Brant of Conference Recording Services (;; (510) 527-3600) did a superb job recording our event, and the audio and video recordings are available at

*Davidson Films (; Fran Davidson [], 1-888-437-4200) was taking some footage of the Symposium and of some participants for their film on William James for the series “Giants of Psychology,” and it should be ready by January.

*Please consider joining the William James Society for its next gathering at the American Philosophical Association Eastern meeting, Boston, December 27-30; the program includes my paper on “The Pre-Disciplinary James;” and a panel on “James Across the Disciplines” with papers by Ramón del Castillo (Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia-Madrid), “The Comic Mind of William James;” Loren Goldman (Rutgers University), “The Ideological James: Radical Appropriations of a Liberal Philosopher;” and Emma Sutton (University College London), “James and the Politics of Psychopathology;” with a comment by Francesca Bordogna (Northwestern University).

*Please consider submitting a paper for a William James Society session at the APA Central meeting in Minneapolis, March 30-April 2, 2011; contact Cecelia Watson (; early-career scholars particularly welcome.

*thanks to many of you for your follow-up messages and words of enthusiasm, and especially for these audio and visual links to the Symposium events:

-from Phil Oliver:;

-from Vinny Hevern:

[Post-postscript, DECEMBER 2010: Flickr photos]

-from Bob Doyle:

We would like to include these, some photos, and more on the William James Society web page,–contributions of content and suggestions about postings most welcome.  If you are new to the society, I hope you can stay involved with our work and our activities.  The election to the executive committee is coming soon; nominations welcome and please exercise your franchise in a few months when it is time to vote.

The Symposium was an exciting event.  I hope we can meet again before too long—perhaps at another Society event.



Paul J. Croce

218 Sampson, Stetson campus; 386-822-7533;

Professor of American Studies at Stetson,

Director of the Stetson Student Research in Science and Religion (2SR) Program,

Director of Stetson American Studies International (SASI),

President of the William James Society,

Co-organizer of the Symposium, In the Footsteps of William James, August 13-16, 2010,


August 12, 2010

I’m not sure whether to call it a conference or a pilgrimage.

The organizers are calling it In the Footsteps of William James: A Symposium on the Legacy – and the On-Going Uses – of James’s Work. It’s to honor and extend that legacy, on the occasion of the centenary observation of his death in Chocorua, New Hampshire in 1910. It begins in Chocorua on Friday and then migrates to Cambridge, near Harvard, on Monday.

I’m chairing a session on Sunday, on morality and freedom and the “will to believe.” Looks like I’ll be delivering a paper too.

But I’m really going for the experience of treading in my favorite philosopher’s footsteps, at his school and in his homes and on his mountain. I’ve been there before, briefly, first in ’93. But this will be the full immersive baptism, as it were. A (secular) variety of religious experience, even.

And I’m on my way…

last stand

April 23, 2010

Let’s wrap things up for Richardson’s James bio, and for our semester’s required reading list in Intro. (But as I always tell students at semester’s end: don’t stop now. Check out this excellent James site, for starters, and keep on learning. Education only begins in college. don’t let your schooling interfere with it.)

William, like his hero Bergson, was wary of mental snapshots. But the image of him atop a ladder, peering into the English garden adjoining his brother’s home for a peek at G.K. Chesterton, does indeed give off “a sense of everlasting youth.” I want some of that.

Near the end he was reading Plutarch’s Lives, struck by those noble Greeks and Romans so rammed with life. That’s what poor Henry Adams was missing, with his “heat death” pessimism. We’ve already noted William’s response, the charged anticipation of an expiring pulse too happy to continue.

The laws of thermodynamics may not be “wholly irrelevant” but they do fail to find the real hot-spot of human energies. William James’s life and career were always hot on their trail. Richardson is right: his last stand for the spirit of man is indeed another picture worthy to be hung on the wall alongside “Death of Socrates.”

On August 26, 1910 [in Chocorua, N.H.] at two-thirty in the afternoon, with Alice holding his head, William James died. At the end there had been, Alice noted, “no pain and no consciousness.”

But, Mr. Blood, remind us again:

There is no conclusion. What has been concluded, that we might conclude in regard to it? There are no fortunes to be told, and there is no advice to be given. — Farewell!

A century later, William James’s death was not his end. He remains vitally related to the wider life of the ages.

And there will be a party in his honor in Chocorua this August. He– his “wider self”– will be there. His brother was correct: William James “is a possession,” and not a few of us are “still living upon him.”

WJ 8.1

March 19, 2010

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.

James bio – 8

October 30, 2009

statue_of_liberty_-newyork-_harborIt’s the autumn of ’86, the Statue of Liberty’s just been dedicated in New York Harbor, and James is immersed in the writing of his seminal Principles of Psychology.

But he’s also doing and thinking about many other things. He’s exploring hypnosis and other “exceptional mental states” (again, check out his incredible free-form channeling of Hegel under the intoxicating influence of nitrous oxide).

He and Alice are building a home at 95 Irving Street in Cambridge, near Harvard, and renovating their Chocorua,  New Hampshire getaway (reducing to just eleven “doors opening out”).

He’s exploring the evolutionary implications of human instinct and will.

He’s getting better acquainted with colleague George Santayana, beginning to turn Harvard’s philosophy program into something very special, and becoming a legendary teacher.

And he’s about to reunite in Europe with his beloved, mysteriously troubled sister Alice. Busy days.

james study“Actively involved with both family and students, redesigning and rebuilding one home and designing and building another from scratch– all while finishing a book almost three thousand pages long in manuscript– Williamchocorua James was constructing his life with all the energy he had.” A time of career achievement, and a time of  warm and cozy domesticity. (That’s his Irving Street study on the left, and Chocorua on the right.) James seems comfortably at home in his universe.

And at last, on the eve of the Gay ’90s, Principles is finished. James is much too hard on himself and his book, “a loathsome, distended, tumefied, bloated, dropsial mass.” In fact, most psychology experts continue to regard it as a classic and a work of genius. But he was ready for something completely different.

(Note: in August 2010 the William James Society will commemorate the centenary of James’s death in the Chocorua house in 1910. But  in our narrative, of course, he’s not dead yet.)

vital living

October 15, 2009

coleridge5“We want to be able to stay up late”– like the poet Coleridge, “frenzied with grief,” past his prime, meditating into the wee hours on life’s meaninglessness— “and think through our confusions.”

Speak for yourself, Eric Wilson. Staying up late, sleeping past dawn, waking in angst and trepidation to worrisome, interminable days of hand-wringing regret followed by dark nights of desperate journaling and substance-abuse… that’s the unhealthy, unhappy profile I’m picturing here.

A better plan: read your Poore Richard, bed down early and rise “when there’s a dawn” in you. (And btw: despite your sneaky attempt to claim him through his “quiet desperation” line, Thoreau was not one of you. He was a morning person, always and cheerfully up at dawn.) I confess I haven’t researched this, it’s just a prejudice at this point, but I’m betting there are fewer depressives amongst us early-birds. That doesn’t make us “shallow” persons, does it?

Rhetorical question, never mind. I ought not to take any of this personally, I know… But I do begin to resent the insinuation that people like me and Willy James, who’ve fought for nearly every inch of contented flourishing we’re managing to hold against the charging darkness, are somehow more “passive,” simple, comfortable etc. than those who habitually frown and weep and congratulate themselves for being so “capaciously complex” in their “durable melancholia.”

They’re sounding the depths of “life’s insoluble mysteries,” the constitutional melancholics, working harder to maintain their anhedonic edge than we do to get over ours? They dwell (with Emily Dickinson) in “a fairer house” of possibility than we, “more numerous of windows, superior for doors”? Doubtful.jameschocorua(James once bragged of his summer home in Chocorua, N.H., that it featured 14 doors “all opening out,” a personal resemblance his sister was quick to notice. I have fewer doors myself, but make frequent, eager egress through them. And unlike Leibniz, Mr. Superficiality Incarnate, I do windows.)

And did you just call us “trivial liars”– ?!– but I’ll let that pass.

It does seem, though, that the stereotypically happy person is a straw-stuffed caricature , as drawn here: someone foolish enough to think it possible to “escape melancholia in an existence in which we are doomed to suffer physical and psychical pain… If we are honest, we cannot.”

The reality is that hard-won happiness must suffer at least as many blows to the spirit as reflexive sadness. No Exit. Nobody thinks so. Save your straw.

Reflecting on Beethoven, Wilson writes: His “simultaneous detachment from and attachment to death is an essential dimension of the melancholy life.”

That’s interesting, but it’s not the exclusive province of melancholia. Jennifer Hecht, speaking to and for us all, says: “Make yourself face death and become familiar with it. But once you have done that, you have to firmly guide your attention back to life. Just walk your mind away from the dark edge of the beautiful springtime field and into its lovely center.”

It finally dawns on me: Wilson is a Sartrean in American clothing, even echoing the author of L’Être et le néant‘s contempt for “the perfectly happy American life” and concluding that non-melancholics prefer “a world in which everyone simply accept(s) the status quo… a dystopia of ubiquitous placid grins… a flatland.”

They, we (the indictment continues) “hide behind the smile” out of “fear of the world’s complexity” and of death.

And here’s the biggest surprise: melancholics like himself are holding out for something much better than happiness: “ecstatic joy.” He’s joking, right?

No. Invoking Friedrich Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man (1795) Wilson insists: “We (melancholics) know that we are going to die… this very death is a spur to vital living.”

Indeed, an honest and unblinking acquaintance with your own mortality can be the clarion moment of awakening for those traveling the path of real happiness. (Joy, sorry.) It’s just that nothing in Wilson’s screed to this point has remotely resembled such a journey. This late and sudden ode to joy is out of left field, and is about as stirring as Matt Holliday’s recent acrobatics there. So Wilson, too, now drops the ball. And the world still turns.

Poor John Lennon. “You’re born in pain, and pain is what we’re in most of the time.” If he’d known how it would all end for him, tragically, stupidly, absurdly, would his pain have been intensified? Or would he have noticed and savored all that was not painful in his eventful, impactful, foreshortened life? We’ll never know.

But how ironic, that pitiable, pathetic, effortlessly-munitioned Mark David Chapman— like all the Mark David Chapmans of the world, they’re sadly legion– confused, disturbed, up late outside the Dakota, Salinger’s Catcher in hand– misperceived his victim as charmed, exalted, unburdened by life’s demands… until its senseless, sudden obliteration at Chapman’s uncreative, melancholic impulse. Hardly a “spur to vital living.”


May 16, 2009

Word comes of plans to commemorate the centenary of William James’s death, on the very site of his terminal breath in Chocorua, New Hampshire.  Chocorua was James’s refuge, just a couple hours from Cambridge on the train. He enthused over its fourteen exterior doors (prompting sister Alice to compare brother to house, both being so open and receptive etc.), loved its gorgeous setting beside the eponymous lake and mountain, and spent as much time there as he could. He died there on August 30, 1910, having overexerted his 68-year old body on ironically life-giving hiking trips that I’ll bet he’d not have traded years for.

I broke away from a philosophy conference in Portland, Maine a few years ago and drove my rental car over to Chocorua. Not much about it seemed likely to have changed, still rustic and remote and picture postcard pretty. I didn’t expect anyone there to know anything about William James or his house, but the first native I asked  directed me straight to the place. I pulled into the driveway, spied the house, and was cordially greeted by the present owner who proudly confirmed its authenticity.

If all goes well, I’ll be joining fellow friends of “Billy James” (a grad school prof called him that) on another pilgrimage to Pragmatist Mecca next August. It won’t be solemn, James’s ghost wouldn’t stand for that.