Letter/Observer Forum

William James at Stanford

I was pleased to see a historically oriented piece in the January 2006 issue of the APS Observer [“William James’ Shaky Sojourn in Stanford”]. Many readers probably enjoyed learning about William James’ 1906 visit to Stanford and his various observations on the fledgling university, just 15 years old at the time.

Those who enjoyed reading the excerpts from James’ letters in this article might like to know that the University Press of Virginia has just finished publishing a definitive, fully annotated 12-volume collection of The Correspondence of William James (1992-2004) in which the majority of known letters to and from James are reproduced in their entirety, while the remainder are “calendared” with brief summaries. Edited by Ignas K. Skrupskelis and Elizabeth M. Berkeley, these volumes are extraordinarily valuable for James scholars and a source of considerable enjoyment and insight for others.

Readers might also like to know that James did not simply hop on a train and leave California immediately after the horrific San Francisco earthquake of April 18, 1906. Instead, after literally being shaken from his bed on that fateful morning, James took a train into San Francisco, where he surveyed the personal as well as physical devastation that had taken place. That day, and in several subsequent visits to the city, he was struck most of all by the way that people were dealing with the tragic loss of life and property, and the courage and resilience they were showing, thus verifying his own sense that the “fighting spirit” underlying warfare can be turned to higher and better purposes.

Just two months earlier, he had spoken on “The Psychology of the War Spirit” at a peace conference at Stanford, drawing on ideas he had presented in 1904 and later published as “The Moral Equivalent of War” (1910). In June of 1906, back in New England, James published an article, “On Some Mental Effects of the Earthquake,” which contains some of his striking observations, both of his own personal reaction during the earthquake and of the subsequent “universal equanimity” and “improvisation of order out of chaos” on the part of others.

That article wasn’t the only significant intellectual outcome of James’ visit to Stanford. His visit was also the occasion of a remarkable set of experiences — dream experiences — that he later discussed in “A Suggestion about Mysticism” (1910). Although this is not the place to review these experiences or his later publication, it is apt to note that James’ being on the West Coast, so far from family and friends, was almost certainly relevant to the instigation of these dreams and the strong feelings they generated of being out of place — of being absorbed into a wider field of consciousness in which he was somehow caught up in someone else’s dreams.

Much more could be said about James’ visit, especially if one goes from reading James’ letters and publications to reviewing his diaries and other archival materials. For instance, what would Stanford’s history — and James’ biography — have been like if he had accepted David Starr Jordan’s offer of a professorship at Stanford? We’ll never know, but then, we don’t need to spend much time considering hypothetical alternatives when what actually did happen is so interesting.

David E. Leary
University of Richmond

Editor’s Note: The author of this letter also corrected the source for the original column. The correct source is The Letters of William James, published in 1920, and the Henry James who edited the collection was William James’ son.

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