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“I’ll Be a Farmer”: Boyhood Letters of William James

ISSUE:  Autumn 1990

In 1856, when William James, 19th-century philosopher and psychologist, was 14 years old, he and his brother Henry were living in Paris with their parents, their brothers, and sister Alice. The James family had been abroad for a year, moving from country to country as the senior Henry James continued his obsessive search for the perfect education for his children.

There are ten letters written by young William James between 1856 and 1859 to a school friend, Edgar Beach Van Winkle, that have been given scant attention. Except for Gerald E. Myers, who referred to them, quoting at length from only one, and R.B. Perry from three, these boyhood letters have been ignored by James’ biographers. Van Winkle was friends with both William and Henry when the James family lived on 14th Street in New York City. In his first volume of Henry James Letters, Leon Edel published one brief note from young Henry to Van Winkle. But Henry’s postscript to one of William’s 1858 letters, quoted partially by Myers, provides a sample of the future novelist’s writing style, along with a touch of fraternal irritability with his older brother.

William’s letters are clearly written, extraordinarily articulate essays, giving his friend Ed full details on every aspect of their unsettled life abroad, as the five James children were shepherded from country to country and school to school. In 73 handwritten pages he provided details of his studies, along with vivid descriptions of the cities in which they lived and their inhabitants, as well the interiors of their homes. His longest, most revealing letters, however, are those written between the ages of 15 and 16, when his increasing preoccupation with the choice of a profession began to torment him.

William’s first extant letter was dated July 1, 1856. After opening with an apology to Ed for not having written sooner, 14-year-old William launched into a detailed account of their life abroad:

“We have been absent from home just a year. Three months have been spent at Geneva, between 8 & 9 at London and the rest here, at Paris.

“Geneva is a queer old city. The new and the old parts of it look as if they belonged to entirely different towns in entirely different countries. The old part is black; the streets are black; the houses are black; the people are black. It’s a regular 15th century place. In it is Calvin’s church with the very canopy under which he preached[.] But the new part of Geneva is beautiful. It is situated on the lake which is as pure and clear as filtered Croton water and a good deal bluer. Large white houses rise on each side of the water. There are handsome stone quays with no shipping near them except pleasure boats, and the constant flow of people over the bridge enlivens the scene.

“It is impossible to describe London; all that can be said of it is that it is a great huge unwieldy awkward colorless metropolis with a little brown river crawling through it. It’s half a dozen times as large as New York, much too big to be agreeable.

“Paris is a direct contrast to London. The sky is blue; the houses are white & everything else is red. There is a general red hue about the population which comes, I suppose from the red trowsers of the soldiers. The sun and the white plaster and the bright colors are all very dazzling. On a clear warm day the reflection of the sun from the pavement is scorching. It makes your eyes water. The aspect of New York is a medium between that of London & Paris. The brick boxes which are called “houses” in London are never painted. The Parisian buildings are covered with white stucco which is usually much splashed with mud & very dirty, in spots. New York is about as large in extent as Paris and much prettier than either it or London[.]

“Our house in Paris is situated on the Ave. des Champs Elysées[.] We have taken it for two months and I don’t know whether we shall stay in it any longer. Nearly all the French dwelling houses are divided into “appartements” in each of which a family lives. There are only a few dozen single houses or “pavillions” in Paris.

“Our house is furnished “à la française.” I will describe the room in which I write. There are six gilt legged armchairs & four mahogany [doors]. Naked gilt babies all over the ceiling. Gilt stripes all over the walls; gilt sofas, gilt other chairs, gilt fender; huge gilt clock and candelabra; gilt wood work; gilt everything. There is a gilt clock in every room in the house except two—Every two weeks a man comes in to wind up and regulate the clocks, which are not one like any of the others, and all wrong.

“July 25th. We have got a tutor here, who comes for two hours four days in the week. We lately discovered that he’s a poet. . . . We study with him German, Latin, Arithmetic and French, and with father on the days of the week on which he does not come, we have History and geography &c. I know now about ten times as much French as I did at home, and I can make myself understood perfectly. . . . We are going to move from this house next week, to an appartement which we have taken for 14 months, so you see we are in for it.

“People talk about Paris being such a beautiful city! I never was more dissapointed [sic] in my life than I was in seeing Paris. It has been wonderfully improved by the “emperor,” [Napoleon III] and is beautiful in some parts but taken as a whole it is not to be compared to New York.

”. . . the streets in the town are narrow and dark, and hardly ever with sidewalks. They are kept very clean, but such smells meet you sometimes! The pavements in the handsome parts are made of “asphalte” instead of flags. This asphalt is a kind of black mixture which being poured over the ground soon becomes gray and hard as a rock, forming a very handsome and durable sidewalk. I suppose you have often heard of the Tuileries garden. It is the ugliest place of the kind I ever saw. . . .

“But the inhabitants are the chief curiosities of Paris. I believe the French are the strangest people on the face of the earth. They certainly are the most impolite[.] The English are the most polite nation I have met with. Indeed the[y] are sometimes to[o] much so. The shop-keepers are almost servile. The French shop-keepers are intolerable. You feel like knocking them down. For instance, you go into a stationer’s. You ask for some paper. The woman shows you a sheet of it. You ask to see some other kind. She wants to know whether you want it larger or smaller, thicker or thinner, English or French. After some time if you get what you wanted you go out, having paid twice as much as you ought to; . . . . The cheating and lying are awful!

“August 2nd. Here we are just settled in our new appartement! [Rue d’Angoulême, St Honoré 19] It’s a queer way of living, this, all huddled up together on one floor. But I suppose people who are accustomed to it would feel very uncomfortable in a whole house. . . . The fete the other day for the baptism of the “Imperial prince” was very splendid, and the Crowd behaved beautifully. . . .

“We receive American papers sometimes, and there is an English paper published here which is made up of extracts from the English and American papers. It is called “Galignani’s Messenger.” The French papers are miserable for American news, & indeed for any news. They are afraid to publish any thing about politics. . . . The Seine is a little bit of a brook, rather than a river, & there are none but small boats and rafts in it. . . .

“We are all very well. Wilky and Robby and Alice have commenced learning music and. drum on the piano from morning till night[. ] Harry sentimentalises, as usual[. ] As we have no companions and cannot play in these nasty narrow French streets, we all have to sally forth every day for a walk. I am now in Virgil and we have all three [doubtless meaning himself, Henry, and Wilky] commenced the study of German. Think of a language in which the sun is a “she,” the moon a “he” and woman an “it.”. . .

“I hear that Albert has got a beaver has he got to wearing “standers” yet. I would like to see him and Gaylord and Beck standing kicking their legs about Sarah Snyders railing. Give them all my love and tell them to write. . . .”

This first letter was addressed to Van Winkle at 62 West 14th Street in New York City. Before they headed for Europe in 1855, the James family had lived at number 58 for seven years. Throughout the letters, William affectionately mentioned his friends on 14th Street, revealing not only his longing for companionship, but perhaps even more, for the stability that period must have represented, it having been the longest time in his young life that the James family had lived in one residence.

By the time he was 15, William and his friends had become conscious of clothes and their appearance.

“You say that you are as tall as your Father, and that your personal appearance is improved by the addition of a frock Coat. As for me, my stature does not equal yours, but I am several inches taller than my Mother, and the cauda virilis has graced my person for the last four months. I intend, however to shed that appendage for the winter, though I fear, the vanity of my maternal parent may oblige me to resume it next spring.

. . . you say in your letter that [Albert] wears a “plug” a species of standing collar, and a garment called a “Raglan.” Lest he be too vainglorious, you may tell him that a year and a half ago while in London, according to the manner and custom of that city, Harry and I both sported a beaver; that six months ago while at Paris, the forms of Harry, Wilky and myself might have been seen traversing the boulevards, arrayed each in a “Raglan” of the latest form. Lest the poor fellow’s spirits should be too much depressed, you may add that we have none of us yet assumed a standing collar.”

Throughout William’s letters, a playful, boyish, sometimes sarcastic tone runs counterpoint to the voice of a serious, thoughtful, maturing young man. In his first letter to Van Winkle, William had discoursed frankly on the reprehensible French character, but almost two years later, in a letter written from Boulogne Sur Mer, he would recant. “In my first letters, there was a mean display of miserable prejudice against the French. I am heartily ashamed of it. I like the French more and more every day. Dear Ed never give way to prejudice. Human nature is the same all over the world. Every where it has faults and every where it is good at heart.”

He judged the French schools favorably, claiming that “the French way of teaching mathematics is much better than the American and English method,” but he dismissed Swiss schools as “all humbug.”

One of the surprising revelations for William during those years abroad, was the ignorance of most Europeans about America and Americans. “At home we are all accustomed to regard our country as the most important in the world, as in fact it is, though not perhaps under the common point of view. Here though, people seem hardly cognizant of its existence. I suppose you will think it incredible, but I assure you that well educated English boys hardly know what language is spoken there, and as for there being railroads &c, there, such an idea never enters their heads.”

In Boulogne, where the Jameses lived for about a year, William and his brothers were the only Americans among more than two hundred boys. “. . .it would make you stare to hear the questions which are asked about our country. The English and French boys can hardly believe that we were born in America. . . . Few English boys know that the English language is spoken in the United States!!”

The move to Boulogne Sur Mer in 1857 had been a temporary summer move from Paris. There, in late August, Henry became gravely ill with typhus fever. The family nevertheless moved to Paris in the fall, but soon word reached Henry Sr. that the American economy had taken a serious downward turn and that his financial situation had altered. He decided to return to Boulogne where instead of paying 800 francs a month for an apartment, they would pay 200.

In early January, 1858, while Henry was still recovering, William replied to Ed’s inquiry about his brother’s health: “He is quite as sound in body and mind as any of us, although he is not considered well enough to go to school. The only trace of his fever remaining is a scarcity of hair on his head, which we had shaved. He has grown taller than I am, and his shoulders are much broader than mine. He is raw-boned in proportion and sends his best wishes to you.”

Fifteen-year-old Henry added the following note at the end of his brother’s letter:

“Dear Ed

In your just received letter, you expressed a sincere sympathy with me during my illness, and a wish that you might soon hear from me.

I assure you I felt very much obliged to you for the former expressions, and had sat down to write to you when Mr. Willy—(he quite merits that name now, in more respects than one) usurped my rights, and took upon himself the performance of the duty I had exclusively deemed my own, inasmuch as you were so strenous [sic] in your desires to that effect. However I hope that your next letter will be addressed to me; for I will take great pleasure in answering it. H. James.”

The adult Henry, in his Autobiography, would recall Edgar Van Winkle as one who “walked in a regular maze of culture.”

Of William’s ten letters to Van Winkle, six were written from abroad. His lively comments on his new surroundings, and his astute observations, ceased when a growing concern about his future began to overshadow everything else. Like many adolescents, he was preoccupied by the choice of a profession. To his friend Ed, who was just entering Union College, William wrote long, earnest confessions concerning his troubled search.

At first, he had only casually referred to the fact that Ed was going to college to prepare for a career as an engineer, adding that while their friends “have already started in life. . . I have not yet been able to choose a profession.”

Perhaps his offhand manner simply masked his anxiety, for, in a subsequent letter, the seriousness of his concern became evident:

“First of all, I want to ask you some questions about your profession. The question of “what to be” has been tormenting me, and as yet I have not come to any decision. Trade I detest. I would like to be a doctor, but I fear I could not stand dissections and operations. As I am fond of mathematics, and I think I would like engineering, [sic] But I have not as yet got a very definite idea of an engineer’s duties. The only reply I can get to my question is: “Why, they lay out roads and do things of that kind.” Now I would very much like to know exactly what the “things of that kind” are. Please therefore tell me precisely what your duties are going to be, and in what manner you expect to enter upon them. Do you serve an apprenticeship to an engineer? I would moreover like to know if it is neccessary [sic] to study the classics at Union College or if one can merely go through a mathematical course. Also, how long is that course? I expect by next June to have a thorough knowledge of the ancient geometry, plane and solid, and of plane trigonometry. In Algebra I shall have gone through equa. of the 1st and 2nd degrees and shall have completed the theory of progressions & logarithms. I am already pretty well grounded in natural philosophy. Do you think then, that I could enter Union College in the fall after studying hard in the summer? . . . And please write soon.”

William added that he realized there were few openings for civil engineering jobs, but assured his friend, “I don’t care about making a fortune. I only want to have a pleasant occupation and enough money to live upon.”

The intensity of William’s concern about his future escalated, and finally, in a long letter written from Boulogne in March 1858, William opened his heart to his friend, whom he considered “one of the only chaps I ever knew who had any ideas of their own.” The problem that tormented William was not simply the choice of a profession as a means of earning a living; more important to him was to choose what one enjoys and does best, and still earn a living. He realized how unrealistic that was, but, he maintained, the problem would not exist if “society was decently ordered.” It is clear from the ten closely written pages, how much thought the 16-year-old William had given to his philosophy:

“Everyone I think should do in society what he would do if left to himself, and I think I can prove it to you conclusively.

“In the first place what ought to be everyone’s object in life? To be as much use as possible. Open a biographical dictionary. Every name it contains has exercised some influence on humanity, good or evil, and 99 names out of 100 are good, that is useful. But what is use? Analyse any useful invention, or the life of any useful man and you will see that its or his use consists in some pleasure, mental or bodily conferred upon humanity. . . . In the damnable way in which society is now ordained, when a man cannot be sure of that food shelter and raiment. . .which is his birthright as much as the air which he breathes, when he is stifled and crushed by his brothers, . . .all inventions which tend to put the neccessaries [sic] of life within his reach take the first place and are the most honored. . . . such inventions are alone called “useful.”

”. . . suppose that food and clothing and shelter were assured to everyone. What men would then be held in honour? Not only the constructors of bridges and tunnels, the inventors of steam engines and spinning jennies, but all those who afforded some pleasure to others, whether material or spiritual; and in such a state of society (which will soon come, I hope) every man would follow out his own tastes, and excel as much as possible in the particular line for which he was created. It is then the duty of everyone to do as much good as possible. You may say that its the duty of every one to live as much like a saint as possible to fast and pray and all that. True for you, as the Irish say, but that is not all. A man must do that and something more. The best way to serve God is to serve your fellow men. “He prayeth well, who loveth well both man and bird and beasts.” For my part, I have the greatest faith in the innate good of mankind. I love every human being and every living and inanimate thing. When I go out on the beach when I see the sky and the sea and the glorious old cliff, I feel a sort of wild joy which makes my heart leap to my throat and the tears come to my eyes. And when I come home along the Port through the dear old dirty odoriferous fishermen, I feel as I could hug them all. Yes mankind is all good and as soon as governments and priests are abolished, such a thing as sin will not be known. There is no such thing as a bad heart. I know that you and every one else must feel in the same way. All the evil in the world comes from the law and the priests and the sooner these two things are abolished the better. . . .

”. . . Which of us would wish to go through life without leaving a trace behind to mark his passage. . . . For what was life given us? Suppose we do nothing and die; we have swindled society. Nature in giving us birth, has saddled us with a debt which we must pay off some time or other. . . . A common laborer who digs a canal is of use certainly. But of what kind of use? A machine could be invented to supply his place, and the canal would go on just as well as if he, the man with all his mind and soul were at work on it. True use or good does not then consist in mere brute force. For what was our mind given us if not that we should employ it. We should then each in our particular way find out something new, something which without us could not be. . . .

“I think now you will agree with me that every one has his own particular use, and that he would be a traitor were he to abandon it for something else for which he had little taste. Thank God! man shall not live by bread alone. I want to be a man and to do some good, no matter what.

“If I followed my taste and did what was most agreeable to me, I’ll tell you what I would do. I would get a microscope and go out into the country, into the dear old woods and fields and ponds[, ] there I would try to make as many discoveries as possible, —and I’ll be kicked if I would not be more useful than if I laid out railroads by rules which others had made and which I had learned from them. If in the former case I do not vindicate my existence better than in the latter, then I’m no man. I’ll tell you what I think I’ll do. I’ll be a farmer, and do as much good in the Natural History line as I can.”

William James’ quest for direction in life was to continue for several years, during which time he studied science and art, for he had demonstrated ability in both. But he would abandon his study of painting, and although he succeeded in completing his medical studies, he never practiced medicine. Only after a period of illness in early manhood, and a deep depression that brought him to the point of considering suicide, did William find his path. In 1872 when he was 30, the new president of Harvard, Charles W. Eliot, appointed William to a one-year instructorship in “Comparative Anatomy and Physiology,” to start in 1873.

Amid the sober philosophical reflections in young William’s letters, and his occasional bursts of playful teasing, there are poignant expressions of homesickness. “I long to get home,” he wrote. “With all her faults, I love my country still.” It was a sentiment he would repeat 25 years later in a letter from London to his wife: “I hanker now much after my own country, which with all her faults is mine still.”

After three years abroad, when the James family was, at last, on their way home, William wrote to Edgar from London in May 1858, expressing not only his eagerness to behold his “native shores,” but to assess the value of educating American children abroad. Sixteen-year old William wrote, “I think that as a general thing, Americans had better keep their children at home.”

The James family arrived back in the States in late June 1858. From his grandmother’s home in Albany, he wrote Ed two months later, “I am overjoyed to get home again,” and went on to explain that, because of their early departure from London, Ed’s letter answering William’s questions about academic requirements for entrance into Union College had gone astray. William hoped to enter in fall, and with apologies, and a renewed sense of urgency William asked Ed to write “again what I must know to pass the examination. . . .”

But his youthful enthusiasm for joining his friend at Union would be crushed by his father who refused to permit his son to go to any college. William wrote:

“When I left you the other day at Schenectady, it was with the almost certainty of becoming within a few months a fellow “man” with you at Union College. But I was greatly mistaken; for on coming to speak with my Father on the subject, I found much to my surprise that he would not hear of my going to any college whatsoever. He says that Colleges are hotbeds of corruption where it [is] impossible to learn anything. I think this opinion very unjust but of course, much as I should like myself to go to Union, I must abide by his decision.”

Whether William knew it or not, his father had himself attended Union College. A rebellious youth, the senior Henry James had struggled against his own domineering father and a strict Calvinist upbringing. The fact that Henry Sr.’s behavior at Union had not been exemplary may have been his reason for concluding that “the moral atmosphere of Colleges was very debasing.”

William ended his letter with a note of resignation; he had no choice but to “make the best of it,” and he dropped the subject. He then went on, cheerfully telling Ed of the “comfortable cottage with four acres of land” they had moved into in Newport for the summer and where he thought they might settle permanently. The climate was ideal, the fishing and bathing good; they had made new friends. He closed the letter by playfully teasing his friend about the Misses Rogers on whom Ed had reportedly made a favorable impression. “. . .this last sentence will I know send a thrill through you[r] whole being and render you unfit for any further perusal . . . .”

Although the irrepressible William did not brood long over his disappointment, he apparently did not completely put it out of his mind, and a few months later wrote, “I think sometimes with regret of the imposing streets of Schenectady, and the palatial walls of Union where I might now be distinguishing myself, but—however—”

After a summer in Newport, the plans were to remain until spring, then possibly settle in Boston or Cambridge.

In Newport, William took drawing lessons from William Hunt, although it was with his father’s reluctant consent, for the senior Henry James was opposed to his son pursuing a career as an artist. In addition, William was fully occupied with other pursuits:

“I am busy teaching myself Mathematics and so forth; and although modesty of which I have a large share, precludes my estimating my own capacity, yet I can assure you that, as a teacher, I am a person by no means to be despised, . . . I have also another pupil in the shape of a dog, a white & black greyhound pup of marvellous beauty which Wilky purchased a fortnight ago at an alarming sacrifice of comfort on my part, as well as of profit on that of the seller. For the care of the quadruped (which Wilky calls his own) devolves upon me. I feed him and sleep with my head next to the closet in which he slumbers. . . . He is seized invariably at dead of night with a fit of indigestion, or some other stomachic affection which keeps us both awake until daybreak he groaning and belching and I tossing feverishly on my couch waiting for an interval of silence in which to fall asleep.”

In high comic spirits, William elaborated on his futile attempts to train the dog, and because of his failure, confessed that his father was contemptuous of his “lamentable inefficiency & worthlessness of. . .character. . . .”

It was the same sort of playful flight of fancy William was capable of throughout his life and was later evidenced in letters he wrote to his own children.

William’s last letter from Newport, dated September 18, was written just a little more than a year after the family had settled there.

“Dear Ed;

Father took it into his head the other day that it was absolutely neccessary [sic] for our moral and intellectual welfare to return immediately to Europe, & accordingly he has just taken passage in the Persia, which sails the 29th inst. I suppose your lively imagination could hardly have conceived such turpitude on the part of a being endowed with a human heart; but it is none the less true that we are to be torn from our friends and from our Fatherland once more.

“I for my part am very sorry to leave America, though the rest of the family, to all appearance are delighted. . . . We shall probably stay three years! Boulogne will be our halting place this winter and when Spring comes we shall repair to Germany, most likely to Dresden, there to stay a long time.

“Father has come to the conclusion that America is not the place to bring up such “ingenuous youth” as myself & bros., and consequently this step. Of course this is so in great measure, and so we must make the best of our exile. I was very much dissapointed [sic], because, having given up all thoughts of Union, I had my heart set upon going to Cambridge. However I hope it won’t be too late for that when we come home again. . . . I love dear old America. . . .”

From Geneva, William wrote his friend on Dec. 18, 1859:

“You see we have emigrated again from America. After so long a silence you ought not to be surprised to hear of my being in any quarter of this world, or even to learn that I had left it for the next. . . . We are only at Geneva, where we arrived one frosty night about two months ago, having sailed from New York in the Vanderbilt on the 8th of October. We fully expected when we got home after our former European stay never to come abroad as a body again but some power interposed to prevent our finding a resting place at home for the present. . . .”

The somewhat subdued William informed his friend that although Newport “was an Eden of a place, it was,” he claimed, doubtless quoting his father, “destitute of “educational advantages.”” William thought that they might stay “a couple of years” in Geneva, after which they might go to “Dresden, Frankfurt or Berlin.” At any rate, they were “not going home until we know German thoroughly.” The two younger brothers had been sent away to boarding school. “Wilky and Bobby are “destined for commerce.”” As for himself and Henry, they were “as innocent of any future plans, indeed more innocent, than on the day, (oh never, never will we forget that happy day!) which we spent with you at Schenectady. Probably something will turn up for us when we get home.”

But the series of disappointments seemed not to suppress William’s optimism. Even Geneva’s unpleasant weather didn’t discourage him. “The sun is often invisible for two weeks at a time; . . . A sort of early twilight continues all day long for days and days together. A low black pall of thick clouds spread over the whole heavens uniformly, prevents the view of the mountains and makes the ground appear as luminous as the sky, while a strong cutting bleak wind blows steadily and chills your very bones. But as I believe and hope, this state of things is not of very protracted duration, and the summer weather will certainly make amends for it.”

This was the last surviving boyhood letter William James wrote to his friend Edgar Beach Van Winkle. One year later, in October 1860, the family was back in the United States, once more settled in Newport.

In one of his early letters to Ed, William had referred nostalgically to “those “Harbinger” days in Fourteenth street,” a reference that would be explained forty-five years later, when both men were in their sixties. Van Winkle, who had become chief engineer of New York’s Department of Public Works, sent his boyhood friend a copy of “Harbinger,” probably a club or school publication they had worked on together, in which a handwritten poem by William had been published. With his letter of thanks to Van Winkle, dated Feb. 8, 1903, James confessed that his children wondered why their father’s “poetic genius” at age 13 was never again evident. He returned the copy of “Harbinger,” with regret, and its whereabouts is unknown. Other letters between the two men, if they are extant, have not been found.

Grateful acknowledgment is made to Houghton Library and to Alexander James for permission to quote from the letters of William James.


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