Wednesday August 25th, 2010

“You will be discouraged, I remain happy!”

On April 18, 1874, William James wrote a letter to his brother Henry (“Dear Harry”). William was 32; Henry had recently turned 31, and was in Europe—he would eventually settle in England for the last four decades of his life. Much is made of the fact that William remained in America for his adulthood while Henry chose England, and I imagine even more could be made of it, if a full-length treatment of the subject hasn’t already been written. The excerpt below from the April 18th correspondence is taken from The Selected Letters of William James, which includes a terrific introduction by Elizabeth Hardwick, who also edited the compilation.)

My short stay abroad has given me quite a new sense of what you used to call the provinciality of Boston, but that is no harm. What displeases me is the want of stoutness and squareness in the people, their ultra quietness, prudence, slyness, intellectualness of gait. Not that their intellects amount to anything, either. You will be discouraged, I remain happy!

But this brings me to the subject of your return, of which I have thought much. It is evident that you will have to eat your bread in sorrow for a time here; it is equally evident that time . . . will provide a remedy for a great deal of the trouble, and you will attune your at present coarse senses to snatch a fearful joy from wooden fences and commercial faces, a joy the more thrilling for being so subtly extracted. Are you ready to make the heroic effort? . . . This is your dilemma: The congeniality of Europe, on the one hand, plus the difficulty of making an entire living out of original writing, and its abnormality as a matter of mental hygiene . . . on the other hand, the dreariness of American conditions of life plus a mechanical, routine occupation possibly to be obtained, which from day to day is done when ‘t is done, mixed up with the writing into which you distill your essence. . . . In short, don’t come unless with a resolute intention. If you come, your worst years will be the first. If you stay, the bad years may be the later ones, when, moreover, you can’t change. And I have a suspicion that if you come, too, and can get once acclimated, the quality of what you write will be higher than it would be in Europe. . . . It seems to me a very critical moment in your history. But you have several months to decide. Good-bye.