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William James




Reading Books

To Henry James

Berlin, Sept. 26, 1867

Beloved Harry, — I hope you will not be severely disappointed on opening this fat envelope to find it is not all letter. I will first explain to you the nature of the enclosed document and then proceed to personal matters. The other day, as I was sitting alone with my deeply breached letter of credit, beweeping my outcast state, and wondering what I could possibly do for a living, it flashed across me that I might write a 'notice' of H. Grimm's novel which I had just been reading. To conceive with me is to execute, as you well know. And after sweating fearfully for three days, erasing, tearing my hair, copying, recopying, etc., etc., I have just succeeded in finishing the enclosed. I want you to read it, and if, after correcting the style and thoughts, with the aid of Mother, Alice, and Father, and rewriting it if possible, you judge it to be capable of interesting in any degree any one in the world but H. Grimm, himself, to send it to the Nation or the Round Table.

I feel that a living is hardly worth being gained at this price. Style is not my forte, and to strike the mean between pomposity and vulgar familiarity is indeed difficult. Still, an the rich guerdon accrue, an but ten beauteous dollars lie down on their green and glossy backs within the family treasury in consequence of my exertions, I shall feel glad that I have made them. I have not seen Grimm yet as he is in Switzerland. In his writings he is possessed of real imagination and eloquence, chiefly in an ethical line, and the novel is really distingue, somewhat as Cherbuliez's are, only with rather a deficiency on the physical and animal side. He is, to my taste, too idealistic, and Father would scout him for his arrant moralism. Goethe seems to have mainly suckled him, and the manner of this book is precisely that of Wilhelm Meister or Elective Affinities. There is something not exactly robust about him, but, per contra, great delicacy and an extreme belief in the existence and worth of truth and desire to attain it justly and impartially. In short„ a rather painstaking liberality and want of careless animal spirits — which, by the bye, seem to be rather characteristics of the rising generation. But enough of him. The notice was mere taskwork. I could not get up a spark of interest in it, and I should not think it would be d'actualite for the Nation. Still, I could think of nothing else to do, and was bound to do something....

To Henry James

Chocorua, June 4, 1890

My dear Harry, —... The great event for me is the completion at last of my tedious book. I have been at my desk with it every day since I got back from Europe, and up at four in the morning with it for many a day of the last month. I have written every page four or five times over, and carried it `on my mind' for nine years past, so you may imagine the relief. Besides, I am glad to appear at last as a man who has done some-thing more than make phrases and projects. I will send you a copy, in the fall, I trust, though [the printer] is so inert about starting the proofs that we may not get through till midwinter or later. As `Psychologies' go, it is a good one, but psychology is in such an ante-scientific condition that the whole present generation of them is predestined to become unreadable old medieval lumber, as soon as the first genuine tracks of insight are made. The sooner the better, for me!...

To W. D. Howells

Chocorua, Aug. 2o, 1890

My dear Howells, — You've done it this time and no mistake! I've had a little leisure for reading this summer, and have just read, first your Shadow of a Dream, and next your Hazard of New Fortunes, and can hardly recollect a novel that has taken hold of me like the latter. Some compensations go with being a mature man, do they not? You couldn't possibly have done so solid a piece of work as that ten years ago, could you? The steady unflagging flow of it is something wonderful. Never a weak note, the number of characters, each intensely individual, the observation of detail, the everlasting wit and humor, and beneath all the bass accompaniment of the human problem, the entire Americanness of it, all make it a very great book, and one which will last when we shall have melted into the infinite azure. Ah! my dear Howells, it's worth some-thing to be able to write such a book, and it is so peculiarly yours too, flavored with your idiosyncrasy.

To H. G. Wells

Cambridge, Nov. 28, 1908

Dear Wells, — First and Last Things is a great achievement. The first two `books' should be entitled `philosophy without humbug' and used as a textbook in all the colleges of the world. You have put your finger accurately on the true emphases, and — in the main — on what seem to me the true solutions (you are more monistic in your faith than I should be, but as long as you only call it `faith,' that's your right and privilege), and the simplicity of your statements ought to make us `professionals' blush. I have been 35 years on the way to similar conclusions — simply because I started as a professional and had to debrouiller them from all the traditional school rubbish.

The other two books exhibit you in the character of the Tolstoy of the English world. A sunny and healthy-minded Tolstoy, as he is a pessimistic and morbid-minded Wells. Where the `higher synthesis' will be born, who shall combine the pair of you, Heaven only knows. But you are carrying on the same function, not only in that neither of your minds is boxed and boarded up like the mind of an ordinary human being, but all the contents down to the very bottom come out freely and unreservedly and simply, but in that you both have the power of contagious speech, and set the similar mood vibrating in the reader. Be happy in that such power has been put into your hands! This book is worth any 100 volumes on Metaphysics and any 200 of Ethics, of the ordinary sort.



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