In 1901, when he was fifty-nine, William James delivered the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh. James was an international academic celebrity. The Principles of Psychology, which appeared in 1890 and which had taken him twelve years to write, was quickly recognized as the leading summation of developments in a field that had been transformed, within James’s own lifetime, by the introduction of laboratory methods and by the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin. An abridged edition for students, Psychology: Briefer Course, popularly known as “Jimmy,” appeared in 1892; by the time of the Gifford Lectures, it had sold nearly fifty thousand copies.

The Gifford lectureship was a two-year appointment. James returned to Edinburgh for the second series of lectures in 1902, and that year the lectures were published as The Varieties of Religious Experience. The Varieties has probably been, over the years, James’s most popular book, read even after his functionalist psychology was superseded by behaviorism and when his pragmatist philosophy was in eclipse. It is composed primarily of case histories, collected from all around the world and organized by category—“Conversion,” “Saintliness,” “Mysticism,” and so on. It looks, in other words, like a psychology textbook, and that is because it is a psychology textbook. The Varieties is not a study of religion; it is, as the subtitle states, “a study in human nature.”

James regarded the investigation of religious experience as a branch of abnormal psychology. He did not think that by treating the subject in this manner he was demystifying religion; he thought that by treating it in this manner he was taking religion seriously. His approach reflected the holistic empiricism of which he was possibly the greatest nineteenth-century exponent: people have religious experiences, just as people have the experience of seeing tables or feeling cold. We assume that having the experience of seeing tables has something to do with there being tables in the world, and that feeling cold has something to do with the temperature. Not everyone has visions or receives mystical revelations; but some human beings do. Those experiences are as psychologically real as any other state of consciousness, and since consciousness has evolved for the purpose of helping us to cope with our environment—since consciousness is not epiphenomenal, but is an active player in life—there must be something in the universe to which the religious feeling “belongs.” “God is real,” as James put it, summing up what he took to be the common-sense intuition about religion, “since he produces real effects.”1

When he published the lectures, James put the sixth and seventh together in a chapter called “The Sick Soul.” “The Sick Soul” is an examination of morbidity—pessimism, disillusionment, anhedonia, and various types of melancholy, one symptom of which James calls “panic fear.” And he offers the following case:

Here is an excellent example, for permission to print which I have to thank the sufferer. The original is in French, and though the subject was evidently in a bad nervous condition at the time of which he writes, his case has otherwise the merit of extreme simplicity. I translate freely.

“Whilst in this state of philosophic pessimism and general depression of spirits about my prospects, I went one evening into a dressing-room in the twilight to procure some article that was there; when suddenly there fell upon me without any warning, just as if it came out of the darkness, a horrible fear of my own existence. Simultaneously there arose in my mind the image of an epileptic patient whom I had seen in the asylum, a black-haired youth with greenish skin, entirely idiotic, who used to sit all day on one of the benches, or rather shelves against the wall, with his knees drawn up against his chin, and the coarse gray undershirt, which was his only garment, drawn over them inclosing his entire figure. He sat there like a sort of sculptured Egyptian mummy, moving nothing but his black eyes and looking absolutely non- human. This image and my fear entered into a species of combination with each other. That shape am I, I felt, potentially. Nothing that I possess can defend me against that fate, if the hour for it should strike for me as it struck for him. There was such a horror of him, and such a perception of my own merely momentary discrepancy from him, that it was as if something hitherto solid within my breast gave way entirely, and I became a mass of quivering fear. After this the universe was changed for me altogether. I awoke morning after morning with a horrible dread at the pit of my stomach, and with a sense of the insecurity of life that I never knew before, and that I have never felt since. It was like a revelation; and although the immediate feelings passed away, the experience has made me sympathetic with the morbid feelings of others ever since. It gradually faded, but for months I was unable to go out into the dark alone.

In general I dreaded to be left alone. I remember wondering how other people could live, how I myself had ever lived, so unconscious of that pit of insecurity beneath the surface of life. My mother in particular, a very cheerful person, seemed to me a perfect paradox in her unconsciousness of danger, which you may well believe I was very careful not to disturb by revelations of my own state of mind. I have always thought that this experience of melancholia of mine had a religious bearing.”

On asking this correspondent to explain more fully what he meant by these last words, the answer he wrote was this:

“I mean that the fear was so invasive and powerful that if I had not clung to scripture-texts like ‘The eternal God is my refuge,’ etc., ‘Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy-laden,’ etc., ‘I am the resurrection and the life,’ etc., I think I should have grown really insane.”2

As everyone now knows, the business about the Frenchman was a pretense. In 1904, the Varieties was itself translated into French, and the translator, a man named Frank Abauzit, wrote to James requesting (understandably) the original text for this passage. “The document,” James wrote back, “…is my own case—acute neurasthenic attack with phobia. I naturally disguised the provenance! So you may translate freely.”3 Abauzit was a friend of the Swiss psychologist Théodore Flournoy, who was a friend of James’s; they shared an interest in psychic phenomena—spiritualism, mediums, trances, and so on. In 1911, a year after James’s death, Flournoy published a little book called La Philosophie de William James, in which he quoted the passage in the Varieties about the vision of the epileptic and then cited James’s letter to Abauzit confessing the deception. And that is how it became known that the story is autobiographical.


Edwin Holt, an American psychologist, and William James, Jr., one of James’s sons, published an English translation of Flournoy’s book in 1917, but they deleted the material about the vision of the epileptic patient: neither the quotation from the Varieties nor the reference to James’s letter appears. In 1920, though, the passage about the patient was quoted and the experience was identified as James’s own in The Letters of William James, edited by his oldest son, Henry; and it has turned up in virtually every account of James’s life ever since. It has been the cause of endless biographical mischief; for although the vision of the epileptic has an important place in the story of James’s thought, it does not have an important place in the story of James’s life.

This may seem counterintuitive. James called the story, in his letter to Abauzit, “my own case,” after all, and there is no reason to believe he made that up. It is the story of a kind of crisis, and biographies tend conventionally to be structured as crisis-and-recovery narratives, in which the subject undergoes a period of disillusionment or adversity, and then has a “breakthrough” or arrives at a “turning point” before going on to achieve whatever sort of greatness obtains. The vision of the epileptic is an obvious candidate for such a crisis in the life of William James, and most biographers have elected it to the office. But that is the wrong place to put it.

In the standard narrative of James’s life, the vision of the epileptic is paired with a second experience, which is said to represent his recovery or breakthrough. This is what might be called the Renouvier episode. Information about this experience also surfaced in the 1920 edition of James’s Letters. In this case the source is a diary James kept from 1868, when he was twenty-six and studying in Germany, until 1873, when he accepted an offer to become a member of the Harvard faculty. The entry for April 30, 1870, when James was living with his parents in Cambridge, reads as follows (the reference in the second sentence is to the second of the Essais de critique générale, entitled L’Homme [1859], by the French philosopher Charles Renouvier; the later reference is to Alexander Bain, a British psychologist and follower of John Stuart Mill):

I think that yesterday was a crisis in my life. I finished the first part of Renouvier’s second “Essais” and see no reason why his definition of Free Will—“the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts”—need be the definition of an illusion. At any rate, I will assume for the present—until next year—that it is no illusion. My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will. For the remainder of the year, I will abstain from the mere speculation and contemplative Grüblei [in this context, “grubbing among subtleties”] in which my nature takes most delight, and voluntarily cultivate the feeling of moral freedom, by reading books favorable to it, as well as by acting. After the first of January, my callow skin being somewhat fledged, I may perhaps return to metaphysical study and skepticism without danger to my powers of action. For the present then remember: care little for speculation; much for the form of my action; recollect that only when habits of order are formed can we advance to really interesting fields of action—and consequently accumulate grain on grain of willful choice like a very miser; never forgetting how one link dropped undoes an indefinite number. Principiis obsta [“Resist beginnings”]—Today has furnished the exceptionally passionate initiative which Bain posits as needful for the acquisition of habits. I will see to the sequel. Not in maxims, not in Anschauungen [“contemplations”], but in accumulated acts of thought lies salvation. Passer outre [“To go on”]. Hitherto, when I have felt like taking a free initiative, like daring to act originally, without carefully waiting for contemplation of the external world to determine all for me, suicide seemed the most manly form to put my daring into; now, I will go a step further with my will, not only act with it, but believe as well; believe in my individual reality and creative power. My belief, to be sure, can’t be optimistic—but I will posit life (the real, the good) in the self-governing resistance of the ego to the world. Life shall [consist in? the page is torn here] doing and suffering and creating.4

The obvious temptation is to make the vision of the epileptic the crisis for which the reading of Renouvier was the cure. And this is just what James’s son Henry did in his edition of the Letters: he suggested that the vision of the epileptic must have occurred in the winter of 1869-1870, and that the diary entry for April 30, 1870, therefore marked the moment his father’s “resolution and self-confidence appear to be reasserting themselves.”5 Ralph Barton Perry, James’s former colleague in the Harvard philosophy department and his official biographer, linked the two experiences in the same way in his two-volume life, The Thought and Character of William James (1935): he called the Renouvier episode the “turning point” in James’s “spiritual crisis,” and dated the vision of the epileptic “probably in 1870, just prior to his conversion to Renouvier.”6 Most biographers have followed their practice.


But there are problems. Gay Wilson Allen, in William James: A Biography (1967), had it that James told his son Henry that the vision of the epileptic was his own, and when it had occurred, but this claim seems to have no basis. Henry apparently learned about the episode the same way everyone else did, from Flournoy’s book, after his father’s death. And this means that we have no idea when the original experience actually took place. Assuming—no small assumption—that the autobiographical details in the fictional Frenchman’s account are James’s own, it can be inferred that the incident took place some time after James had visited an asylum, during a period of uncertainty about his career, and while he was living at home. This narrows the possibilities down to almost any date between 1861 and 1878, which is the year that, at the age of thirty-six, James finally got married.

James was continually changing his mind about his career (as, almost until the wedding, he continually changed his mind about his marriage). And he was often inside asylums. Insanity was a particular interest of his, and he also knew people who were patients in asylums, notably his cousin Kitty James (who married her psychiatrist, Morton Prince). James was a student at Harvard Medical School from 1866 to 1869, and probably visited asylums as part of his training. He also took his students on field trips to asylums after he became a professor. Although the diary in which the Renouvier entry appears is complete from December 1869 through April 1870, there is no mention in it of a vision of an epileptic, or even of a trip to an asylum. Yet commentators can write as if they are remarkably certain about the timing. The historian Jacques Barzun, in A Stroll with William James, informs us that the vision of the epileptic occurred “within the week before or after” March 8, 1870—that is, the month before the Renouvier episode.7 He does not explain how he arrived at this date.

In fact, there is nothing to exclude the possibility that the vision of the epileptic occurred after the Renouvier episode. Such a theory was proposed by the psychiatrist Howard M. Feinstein in an article published in 1981, which informs his fascinating work of biographical speculation, Becoming William James (1984). Feinstein begins with the standard psychiatric presumption that whatever the etiology of a mental crisis, the patient’s own account of it cannot possibly be the correct one. In James’s diary and letters beginning around 1867 and continuing into the early 1870s, he complains continually of a bad back, an inability to use his eyes, poor digestion, restlessness, pessimism, melancholy, misanthropy, general feelings of ineffectualness, and, a few times, suicidal impulses. Something, as Miss Clavel liked to say, was not right. Feinstein’s diagnosis is bad family dynamics: he thinks that (among other things) Henry, Sr., was driving his son nuts on the subject of his future career. The Renouvier episode, in Feinstein’s view, was just another self-punishing effort by William during this period to take himself in hand and make something of his life—specifically, by denying himself (as the diary puts it) the “speculation and contemplative Grüblei in which my nature takes most delight.” There does indeed seem to be a load of bad superego in that passage.

Feinstein quotes a letter from William to his brother Robertson, who had settled in Milwaukee (a reasonable distance from Henry, Sr.), which seems to support the theory that the Renouvier episode was a false epiphany. The Renouvier diary entry is dated April 30, 1870; on July 25, 1870, William informs Robertson that “my own symptoms of improvement 2 months ago have not amounted to anything.” “As is so often the case with such self-treatment,” observes Dr. Feinstein, “the ‘cure’ was part of the problem.”8

But Feinstein did not wish to abandon the crisis-and-recovery narrative. He only wished to reorder it. In his revised chronology, the Renouvier episode becomes a symptom of the crisis, and the vision of the epileptic, which happens later, marks the breakthrough. James had the vision, Feinstein argues, not in the winter of 1870, which is where Perry and most other commentators had placed it, but two and a half years later; and he offers as evidence another letter to Robertson, this one written in 1874, in which William reports that “I had a crisis just before and about the time of your last visit here.” Robertson’s “last visit” to the James family home in Cambridge had taken place in November 1872: he had just gotten married, and was introducing his new wife to the family. (She was approved, but just: “She is in no way responsive; takes everything as her due, is a peer of all the world, and don’t know the beginning of a life beyond sense,” Henry, Sr., reported serenely to his son the novelist.9 ) The vision of the epileptic, Feinstein concludes, must have happened in the fall of 1872, long after the Renouvier episode. Many people, including the editors of the marvelous twelve-volume edition-in-progress of The Correspondence of William James, have accepted Feinstein’s chronology.10

But it, too, has some holes. The July 25, 1870, letter to Robertson which Feinstein cites to show that the Renouvier “cure” had failed (“my own symptoms of improvement 2 months ago have not amounted to anything”) was preceded by another letter from William to Robertson, dated April 17, 1870, in which William reports that “after 3 months prostration I begin to show signs of getting on my legs again.” This can’t be an allusion to the Renouvier episode, because the diary states that “yesterday was a crisis in my life”—that is, April 29. What James is referring to, in fact, is his bad back, which was always the leading item on his list of health problems, and which at times prevented him from walking even short distances without pain. “Getting on my legs” is not a metaphor. There is, in James’s letters, always a strong correlation between the state of his back and the state of his spirits, as would be natural for someone with a chronic ailment. But he is not saying, in that July 25 letter, “Renouvier has failed me.” He’s saying that after a brief remission, his back is bothering him again.

And the 1874 letter, also to Robertson, that Feinstein offers in support of his dating of the vision of the epileptic is at odds with his own theory. Feinstein cites the letter, but he does not quote it. Here is what it says:

I had a crisis just before and about the time of your last visit here, which was more philosophical than theological perhaps, that is did not deal with my personal relations to God as yours seems to have done [Robertson had written toWilliam about his own developing religious interests]—but it was accompanied with anxiety and despair &c—I worked through it into the faith in free-will and into the final reign of the Good conditional on the co-operation of each of us in the sphere—small enough often—in which it is allowed him to be operative. Why God waits on our cooperation is not to be fathomed—but as a fact of experience I believe it—and having that belief open to me, I have lost much of my former interest in speculative questions—I have taken up Physiology instead of Philosophy and go along on a much calmer sea….

This is essentially the message of the Renouvier diary entry.

Whatever this “crisis” in the fall of 1872 entailed, therefore, it was not a renouncement of Renouvier. On November 2, 1872, James wrote a letter to Renouvier himself, in which he expressed “the admiration and gratitude that reading your essays has inspired in me…. Thanks to you, I possess for the first time an intelligible and rational conception of freedom.”11 Six weeks later, he wrote to Robertson, safely back in Wisconsin, advising him that when feelings of depression come, “the only thing is to have faith and wait, and resolve whatever happens to be faithful ‘in the outward act’ (as a philosopher [i.e., Renouvier] says) that is do as if the good were the law of being, even if one can’t for the moment really believe it. The belief will come in its time.” And there is a letter from William’s father to Henry the novelist (then living in Rome), apparently written in March 1873, in which he reports that William has been crowing recently about the improvement in his health and spirits since the previous spring: “I ventured to ask what especially in his opinion had produced the change. He said several things: the reading of Renouvier (particularly his vindication of the freedom of the will) and of Wordsworth.”12

Finally, there is a piece of evidence that has not been mentioned before, but that brings us as close as we are likely to get to this mysterious crisis of 1872. It is a passage in James’s handwriting on a single sheet of notepaper dated October 21, 1872, and it reads, in part:

Tonight I feel full of Lebensmuth [optimism] because of the unforeseen awakening in me within the past few days of dormant feelings and keen powers of thought. But this is an irrational ground of reconciliation with the Universe, being based on accidental particulars of experience, the which if they happened to be of an opposite quality wd. justify an opposite conclusion. The desideration is a conception of the whole which, no matter what be the experience of the moment, will reconcile one to it. So far I see only the: “for the sake of—!” The evil is somehow mechanically continuous with the good. The latter is thus ever imminent, ever potential and for its sake I’ll go the former.13

This does not correlate very well with the feelings aroused by the apparition of the epileptic patient as James described it in The Varieties of Religious Experience.

What is significant about these notes and letters from 1872 and 1873 is that they indicate that James was still struggling to recover from some sort of breakdown two and a half years after recording in his diary the fresh start inspired by Renouvier. Feinstein is surely right to point out that an experience that does not produce results for almost three years can hardly be counted a breakthrough. The most we can say is that Renouvier’s idea about free will was one of the things James preserved from a long period of ill health and poor spirits. It was neither the cause of his breakdown nor the cure.


What was the problem? In 1979, a graduate student felicitously named James William Anderson reported, in his dissertation, rumors that James had once been a patient at the McLean Asylum for the Insane, outside Boston. These reports were subsequently repeated by the historian of science Robert J. Richards, who said the rumors had been confirmed for him by “someone who had worked in the hospital archives in an official capacity”; by Feinstein, in Becoming William James; and by Alfred Kazin, who wrote in 1993 that “years ago the famous Harvard psychologist Henry A. Murray told me that at one point in his life James had put himself into McLean’s.”14 In a new biography of James, Genuine Reality, Linda Simon names a psychiatrist, Ruth Tiffany Barnhouse, who did her residency at McLean in the 1950s and who says she saw James’s patient records in the McLean archives.

This fresh wrinkle has had two effects on James scholarship. It has devalued somewhat the biographical significance of the Renouvier episode—since if James was hospitalized, it is not likely to have been for frustration with what is, after all, a fairly conventional philosophical puzzle about whether there is such a thing as free will. And it has redirected attention to the story about the epileptic patient. Hospitalization for a mental disorder not only seems to explain the shock of recognition in that passage (“That shape am I“); it suggests that something more is possibly being masked than the nationality of “the sufferer.” James may have had deeper reasons for not wishing to give himself away.

But was James in fact an inmate at McLean? The McLean Hospital (the name was changed in 1892) still exists. Robert Lowell was a patient there; so was Sylvia Plath. It is now located in Belmont, and is affiliated, as it has been since its founding in 1811, with Massachusetts General Hospital and the Harvard Medical School. James scholars who have asked to see James’s patient records there have been informed that hospital policy forbids the release of information about individual patients, including confirmation that someone was ever a patient there.

I wrote to the archivist at McLean asking whether James might simply have visited or worked at the hospital in his capacity as a medical student, and met with this boilerplate rebuff. But when I approached the administration of the hospital, I got a different response, which is that re-quests for information about William James had been forwarded to the James family, which has refused to permit the information to be released.15 Robertson James, in later life an alcoholic, appears to have been a patient at McLean16 ; William’s cousin Kitty James Prince definitely was a patient (he used to visit her there). And William James, Jr., James’s son, may, as Linda Simon suggests in her biography, have been hospitalized at McLean for depression. So the family’s reluctance to send researchers into the archives looking for folders labeled “James”—or even “James, William”—might only be an effort to protect the privacy of some of its less celebrated members. On the other hand, if the celebrated member was never an inmate, a statement to that effect would have sufficed to shield the rest. In the absence of such a statement, we can probably assume that he was.

The next question is when. What makes partial biographical information generally worse than no information at all is that speculation fills the gaps and eventually becomes indistinguishable from “the facts”—as has happened with the dating of the vision of the epileptic. In the case of James’s hospitalization, the inclination is to insert the information into the period of his physical and mental distress—that is, sometime between 1867, when he began to complain regularly about his various symptoms, and late 1872, when, at the age of thirty, he finally got a job, as a part-time teacher at Harvard—and then to try to rewrite the crisis-and-recovery narrative around it.

The boldest move in this direction so far is by Kim Townsend, in an adventurous book called Manhood at Harvard, the story of the construction of a weirdly brittle culture of masculinity in late-nineteenth-century Cambridge. James is, quite appropriately, the leading character in the book, and Townsend has a long analysis of his breakdown. Townsend thinks that James’s hospitalization occurred before 1870, and he offers a letter (until now unnoticed) that appears in the second volume of Henry James the novelist’s autobiography, Notes of a Son and Brother (1914), as a possible smoking gun.

The letter is from Henry, Sr., to Henry the novelist, written, according to the autobiography, in “the spring of ’70.” “Horatio Alger is writing a Life of Edwin Forrest,” the father reports, and has recently paid a visit to the James home in Cambridge. (Forrest was a popular actor whom Henry, Sr., had known when the family was living in New York City.) “Alger talks freely about his own late insanity,” the letter continues, “—which he in fact appears to enjoy as a subject of conversation and in which I believe he has somewhat interested William, who has talked with him a good deal of his experience at the Somerville Asylum.”17 “The Somerville Asylum” is McLean, which was originally located in Somerville. The “his” in that last clause is ambiguous: it can refer either to William’s or to Alger’s “experience at the Somerville Asylum.” But Horatio Alger was never a patient in an asylum.

Townsend (following Feinstein) believes the episode of the epileptic happened later, in 1872, but he also thinks that the passage recalling it contains a screen memory: he thinks that the patient (“a black-haired youth with greenish skin, entirely idiotic, who used to sit all day…with his knees drawn up against his chin, and the coarse gray undershirt, which was his only garment, drawn over them”) is a man who has been driven insane by masturbation. Thus the shock of identification, and thus the “panic fear.”

The notion that James had a “problem” with what one biographer rather quaintly calls “self-abuse”18 predates the rumor about McLean. It seems to have been introduced to the world by the historian Cushing Strout, in an article published in 1968 and frequently cited in works on James. Strout’s idea is that the vision of the epileptic occurred some time between 1866, when James returned from a trip to Brazil and decided he didn’t want to be a naturalist, and 1869, when he received his medical degree and decided he didn’t want to be a doctor. He thinks that James became convinced, after reading a work called The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs, by William Acton, that there is a link between introspection (“speculation and contemplative Grüblei“) and masturbation, and between masturbation and insanity. So that, Strout concludes: “That hideous figure [of the epileptic]…objectified not only the self-punishing guilt in his own symptoms, but also his fear of being trapped in a medical career which seemed to be his only option after his disillusionment with natural history.”19

This interpretation was amplified a little by Sander Gilman, who, in his book Disease and Representation, suggested that the source for James’s description of the epileptic patient might have been a work called Des maladies mentales, by Jean Etienne Dominique Esquirol, published in 1838 (and written, as Gilman points out, in the supposed language of James’s “sufferer”). Esquirol’s book contains full-length portraits of mentally ill persons, one of which depicts a patient who looks uncannily like the epileptic described by James, and whom Esquirol identifies as an idiot and a masturbator. “James’s fear of madness,” Gilman concludes, “…was a direct fear of receding into madness as a result of his own behavior.” And he quotes a passage from James’s diary, dated February 1, 1870, which, he says, refers to James’s masturbatory habit “in a direct manner”: “Hitherto I have tried to fire myself with the moral interest, as an aid in the accomplishing of certain utilitarian ends of attaining certain difficult but salutary habits. I tried to associate the feeling of Moral degradation with failure…. But in all this I was cultivating the moral…only as a means and more or less humbugging myself.”20 We have moved some distance from the philosophy of Charles Renouvier.

The notion of William James as a compulsive masturbator (but are they afraid of the dark?) has a certain sensational appeal, so it is slightly disappointing to discover that none of the evidentiary buckets in this thesis holds water. Townsend has, to begin with, made a mistake all students of the Jameses eventually learn to avoid, which is the mistake of relying on anything Henry James says in his autobiography. Henry freely changed dates, suppressed facts, and rewrote passages from other people’s letters, and then often added injury to insult by destroying the originals. Contrary to the letter that Henry James alleged he received from his father in “the spring of ’70,” Horatio Alger did not write a biography of Edwin Forrest. His cousin William Alger did. William Alger was a Unitarian clergyman who lived in Boston and was a friend of Emerson, which is how he would have known Henry James, Sr. Henry James, Jr., though, had probably never heard of William Alger, or by 1914 had forgotten him if he had, so he very likely either added the first name to the passage he was quoting, or changed William to Horatio on the assumption that his ditsy father had gotten it wrong.

Horatio Alger, too, had been a Unitarian minister, in Brewster, on Cape Cod, but he had been obliged to resign his ministry in 1866 following accusations (which he did not contest) of pederasty with members of his congregation. He fled to New York City, and soon after began his career as the author of the famous books for boys. He continued to cultivate friendships with eligible boys, but he is supposed to have foresworn further indulgence. Alger evidently felt a good deal of anguish about his “sin,” but he is not likely to have volunteered to chat about it four years later with people he barely knew, and “insanity” (Henry Sr.’s term) seems, in any case, a couple of shades too strong.

William Alger, on the other hand, really had been insane. During a trip to Europe in 1871, he collapsed in Paris and was pronounced “hopelessly insane” by Charles Brown-Séquard, a renowned physiologist. (The diagnosis was reported in the Boston newspapers; so much for nineteenth-century notions of medical confidentiality.) Alger was brought back to Boston and was immediately admitted into the McLean Asylum. He was released in the spring of 1872, and was able to return to his work.21 His Life of Edwin Forrest: The American Tragedian was published in 1877.

Then when did William Alger have his conversation at the James family home about his (not William James’s) experiences at McLean? In his autobiography, Henry says his father’s letter reporting that conversation was written in “the spring of ’70″—a year before William Alger’s breakdown. But he is, as usual, making it up. Henry Sr.’s letter, changing topics, continues: “Everyone hopes that J.G. hasn’t caught a Rosamund Vincy in Miss M.” J.G. is John Chipman Gray, once an intimate friend of Henry and William’s favorite cousin, Minny Temple, who had died of tuberculosis in 1870, and who was the inspiration thirty years later for the character of Milly Theale in The Wings of the Dove. Miss M. is Nina Mason; she and John Gray were married on June 4, 1873. Rosamund Vincy, of course, is the woman who marries and then ruins the ambitious doctor Lydgate in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. That novel was published in December 1872. Henry James’s date was therefore three years off. (The marriage of the Grays, by the way, did not imitate art. John Gray co-founded Ropes & Gray, the famous Boston law firm, and was a professor for forty years at Harvard Law School. Nina Gray became, in later years, a confidant of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.) The “Horatio Alger letter,” in short, is a red herring.

Which leaves the self-abuse. There is no evidence that James ever read Acton’s The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs or Esquirol’s Des maladies mentales. But (as Townsend notes) he did read, and with some admiration, Henry Maudsley’s Body and Mind (1870), a respected psychology text, which warns that “the development of puberty may lead indirectly to insanity by becoming the occasion of a vicious habit of self-abuse in men.”22 But the connection between masturbation and mental disorder was a commonplace of nineteenth-century neurology. James was a medical student with a special interest in nervous disorders; he would not have needed to have read any particular book to pick the idea up.

Leaving psychoanalytic interpretations of the story of the epileptic patient aside for the moment, it is not easy to find evidence that James ever felt he had a problem with masturbation himself. The passage from his diary of February 1, 1870, that Gilman quotes—“Hitherto I have tried to fire myself with the moral interest, as an aid in…attaining certain difficult but salutary habits”—is suggestive, but only if we read “moral” and “habit” in a twentieth-century sense. James was taking those terms from Alexander Bain’s The Emotions and the Will (1859), for decades a standard text in British psychology and a work James later relied on in key sections of his own Principles of Psychology. (This is the same Bain who turns up in the Renouvier diary entry three months later: “Today has furnished the exceptionally passionate initiative which Bain posits as needful for the acquisition of habits.”)

In a chapter called “The Moral Habits,” Bain uses, as an example of a situation in which such habits might be developed, what he describes as “one of the strongest of our fleshly indulgences”: sleeping late. The passage is such a noble specimen of the Victorian rhetoric of moral hygiene that it is worth quoting the heroic climax:

Some necessity that there is no escaping, compels a man from his early youth to be out of bed every morning at six o’clock. For weeks and months, and perhaps, years, the struggle and the suffering are acutely felt. Meanwhile, the hand of power is remorseless in the uniformity of its application. And now it is that there creeps on a certain habitude of the system, modifying by imperceptible degrees the bitterness of that oft-repeated conflict. What the individual has had to act so many times in one way, brings on a current of nervous power, confirming the victorious, and sapping the vanquished, impulse. The force of determination that unites the decisive movement of jumping out of bed with the perception of the appointed hour, is invigorated slowly but surely. Iteration is softening down the harsh experience of the early riser, and bringing about, as time advances, an approach to the final condition of mechanical punctuality and entire indifference. Years may be wanted to arrive at this point, but sooner or later the plastic element of our constitution will succeed.23

If getting out of bed early is a “moral habit,” pretty much anything can be a moral habit. Nothing in his diary entry about the acquisition of “moral habits” requires us to assume that James was referring to masturbation.

The only evidence that remains is the passage about the epileptic patient. But the crucial thing to notice about that passage is that the epileptic is epileptic. He is a person with an organic disorder, not a person who has made himself idiotic by “unhealthy habits.” “Nothing that I possess can defend me against that fate, if the hour for it should strike for me as it struck for him,” says the Frenchman. The fear being expressed is the fear of unforeseen catastrophe. It is not the fear of self-destruction.

The story of the epileptic is a story about what used to be called “the problem of evil”; that is why it appears in a book on religious experience. The epileptic patient represents the classic challenge to faith: innocent suffering. The realization that people can suffer as a result of their own actions does not cause a religious crisis. What causes a religious crisis is the realization that people can lead exemplary lives and suffer anyway. The Frenchman has been insulated by the assumption that in a rational universe, bad things cannot happen to good people. The blow to his ego, when the image of the patient suddenly rises to his mind, comes from the recognition that moral worth does not immunize us against disaster. “The eternal God is my refuge” is the lesson the vision teaches: the only salvation is faith. Evil, in James’s time, was a motiveless malignancy. We think of evils as caused by something—by greed, or genes, or abuse—and miss the point of James’s story.


The biggest impediment to getting a coherent crisis-and-recovery narrative out of the materials of William James’s life between 1867 and 1873 is that large portions of the record are simply missing. James was never a daily diarist, but the entries in the notebook he used for a diary are fairly regular from April 1868, when it begins, to February 1869. Then twenty-one pages (or as much as forty-two pages of writing) have been cut out, apparently with scissors. The next dated entry is for December 21, 1869. Most of James’s diary for 1869, in other words, has disappeared.

Those pages were probably destroyed, either by James himself or by his widow, Alice, who winnowed her husband’s papers with meticulous care, and who had (like her brother-in-law Henry) small tolerance for the embarrassing detail. It is, of course, stimulating to imagine the sort of revelation that might have led James, or his heirs, to consign these diary pages to the flames. And people who want to place the vision of the epileptic or the McLean hospitalization in 1869 will naturally look upon the missing pages as the dog that does not bark.

The reason letters and diaries are usually destroyed, though, is that they contain references to other people who might be embarrassed (or litigious) if their names appeared in print. And there is one tiny clue that points in this direction. James graduated from medical school in June 1869 and spent the summer—the period the missing pages presumably cover—in Pomfret, Connecticut, on vacation with his family. He was, by his mother’s account in her letters to Henry, in fairly miserable shape. Two sheets of notepaper are preserved among his papers in an envelope labeled “Pomfret 1869.” James seems to have been trying to work out, on these pages, some sort of philosophy of conduct, and is weighing the alternative postures of sympathy (an “expansive embracing tendency”) and defensiveness, or what he calls “self-sufficingness”—and in the course of this he writes: “My feeling towards B.W. (e.g.) comes from too partial a sympathy; so does the optimist’s each sympathizing with opposite sides of her being.” And a bit later on: “sympathy gives pain (B.W.) Shd. sympathy go so far as to dictate suicide?”24 The wording is cryptic, but James seems to be referring to his feelings for a woman.

Certain identification of la belle B.W. sans merci is impossible. There seem to be no similar references to anyone with these initials in James’s personal writings. One candidate is Bessie Ward, the sister of Tom Ward, one of James’s best friends. Her father was the James family banker; her mother, the former Anna Hazard Barker, was a famous beauty. “The adorable Miss Bessy,” Henry called her after running into her later in Rome; “…—pretty, intelligent, gracious and elegant—a most noble and delightful maiden.”25 “Sympathy gives pain” suggests that if William had a crush on Bessie Ward (and she certainly sounds like a person one might have a crush on; Henry James was not an unreliable judge of young women), it was unreciprocated. (William nursed a number of fruitless passions in his youth. He appears to have gotten involved, while he was in Germany, with an American woman, Catherine Havens, who was even more neurotic than he was; he was smitten by Fanny Dixwell, who married Oliver Wendell Holmes, and by Clover Hooper, who married Henry Adams. Bessie Ward, much to the amusement of William’s sister, Alice, eventually married a Saxon baron, named Schönberg.) If William had committed his feelings about Bessie Ward (or some other B.W.) to paper, this might later have provided a reason for destroying that portion of his diary. In any case, there is no hint of the asylum here.

The excised section from 1869 is the small gap in the record. After the extant diary resumes on December 21, 1869, there are regular entries up to the Renouvier episode, on April 30, 1870. But the next page is dated February 10, 1873—almost three years later. There is one more entry, for April 10, 1873, and the diary ends.

The silence of the diary would matter less if we had enough letters. But we don’t. Though James was ordinarily a prolific correspondent, between the July 25, 1870, letter to Robertson James, already quoted, and a letter dated May 30, 1872—a period of nearly two years—only four letters survive. If there were other letters besides these four, they were presumably destroyed along with the diary pages. Between August 1871 and May 1872—ten months—nothing remains at all.26 And third-person information about William’s activities during this period—for example, in letters written by other family members—is sparse. All kinds of things may have happened to him between 1869 and 1872. We know only a few.

Was the period for which there are neither letters nor diaries the period in which James was a patient at the McLean Asylum? Apparently not. Like other researchers Linda Simon was denied access to James’s medical records at McLean, but she did arrange to examine the patient logs from 1866 through 1872 with the names blacked out. She found nothing in the remaining information about age, sex, occupation, and time of stay that matches up with William James.

Given the fragmentary nature of our knowledge of James’s life in the early 1870s, it seems fair to conclude that the story of the epileptic patient is biographical flotsam. It is unmoored to any known event in James’s life. It can be interpreted as a precipitating crisis, as a psychological breakthrough, as simply one among many crises, most of which are now unrecoverable—or as a partial invention, a little work of semi-fiction.

Even considered as a discrete event, unembedded in some larger structure of negation and transcendence, the story of the epileptic is not exactly raw data. Linda Simon registers some skepticism about the verisimilitude of the account James gives of it in The Varieties of Religious Experience, and she is right to do so. The story feels mildly precooked; the coda, in particular, about clinging to “scripture texts” in order to avoid insanity does not sound very much like William James. The story is designed, after all, to mimic a medical case history, and to fit into a book about religious experiences. The Frenchman’s testimony is cross-referenced to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and to the story James’s father wrote about his own spiritual crisis, which led to his conversion to Swedenborgianism, and remarkable similarities are pointed out by James. As Oscar Wilde once said of Wordsworth: He found under the stones the sermons he had already placed there. One reason for the disguise must have been to license some opportunistic revisions of the original experience—whatever it may have been.

The literary self-consciousness of the passage—in particular the way in which it is made to resemble Henry Sr.’s account of his crisis, which involved the apparition of “some damnèd shape squatting invisible to me…and raying out from his fetid personality influences fatal to life”27—has been remarked on by a number of commentators. But even the perception that the boundary separating the epileptic from the “normal” person is paper-thin was probably not as spontaneous as the passage makes it seem. Charles Brown-Séquard, the man who diagnosed poor William Alger in Paris in 1871, had been William James’s teacher at the Harvard Medical School five years earlier. Diseases of the brain were his specialty, and he taught, according to William’s own lecture notes, that there is “a not[able] tendency in every man to some of the features of epilepsy.” Brown-Séquard mentioned coitus and the involuntary jerking of muscles when being tickled or in sleep: “Thus degree by degree we are led to look on epilepsy as an incr[eased] degree of the normal reflex excitability of certain parts of nervous centres.”28

This concept, much amplified, grew to occupy a central place in James’s own psychology. “His thought was that there is no sharp line to be drawn between ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ minds, that all have something of both,” James’s former student Dickinson Miller recalled. “Once when we were returning from visits to two insane asylums at one of which we had seen a dangerous, almost naked maniac, I remember his saying, ‘President Eliot [Charles William Eliot, the president of Harvard] would not like to admit that no sharp line could be drawn between himself and the men we have just seen, but it is true.”‘ The epileptic patient had performed his heuristic role before.


Without suggesting that anything that might significantly transform our understanding of William James has been suppressed, we are entitled to note that the version of his early breakdown in his son Henry’s 1920 edition of the Letters and his protégé Ralph Barton Perry’s 1935 biography is very much the authorized version. Two pieces of evidence—the story of the epileptic patient and the response to reading Renouvier—were plucked from a fragmentary record and erected into the narrative emblems of a breakdown and recovery. For the story of a philosophical-spiritual crisis overcome by “the will to believe” is conveniently symmetrical with James’s writings in The Will to Believe (1897) and Pragmatism (1907), writings which exhort us to act “as if” in the face of uncertainty—to believe that if we take a risk, the universe will meet us halfway. The biography is shaped to lend authenticity to the philosophy: James, too, knew pessimism and despair, and this is how he overcame them.

Except that he didn’t overcome them. Simon’s new biography is perfunctory on the intellectual accomplishments of its subject: pragmatism, for instance, gets nine pages. But she makes a contribution on the personal side by emphasizing, more fully than any earlier biographer, the persistence of James’s ill health. For James was depressive all his life. And this may be the diagnosis that explains the insufficiency of all other diagnoses. Biographers prefer to assume that James was despondent in the years after his graduation from medical school because of some problem—a family problem, a sexual problem, a career problem, an identity problem, a philosophical problem. But depression is not a problem; it’s a weather pattern. Under its cloud, everything else is a problem. When the weather changes, these problems disappear, or become “challenges” or “opportunities”—until dark skies return.

Throughout James’s life, evidence in letters or diaries that he has recovered his health and spirits is always followed, sooner or later, by evidence that he has had a relapse. The letter from James’s father in the spring of 1873 announcing William’s new robustness is followed by a letter in the summer from his mother (never the tenderest analyst of her oldest child’s troubles) to Henry, Jr., complaining that William “has such a morbid sympathy with every form of trouble and privation…. He is very despondent about himself.” In March 1874, she complains, again to Henry, that “the trouble with [William] is that he must express every fluctuation of feeling, and especially every unfavorable symptom.” And the following July: “His temperament is a morbidly hopeless one.” In the summer of 1880, Henry, after seeing his brother in London, confides to his mother that “I can’t get rid of the feeling that he takes himself, and his nerves, and his physical condition too hard and too consciously.”29

William did take those things rather consciously. “If you knew my life,” he wrote to Renouvier in 1882, when he was forty, “you would confess that my little stream of work runs on under great disadvantages.” He was not referring to external pressures. He seems to have undergone what he called an “annual collapse” every February. He agonized for two years during his courtship of Alice Gibbens—a period when he behaved, as he confessed to her later, like “a man morally utterly diseased.” He complained to colleagues of depression in 1893 (“I…know now a new kind of melancholy”) and again in 1894.30 In 1899, when he was supposed to be writing The Varieties of Religious Experience, a heart ailment brought on a depression that lasted nearly two years. He was incapacitated again by severe depression in 1909, the year before his heart disease finally killed him. “The fact is,” he wrote in 1901 to his brother Henry (who, despite his wish that William would display a little more fortitude, was subject to severe depressions himself), “that my nervous system is utter trash, and always was so. It has been a hard burden to bear all these years, the more so as I have seemed to others perfectly well; and now it is on top and ‘I’ am under.”

William experimented with pretty much every cure available for his various psychosomatic symptoms: chloroform, electric shock (intended to stimulate the nerves), weight-lifting, diet, hypnotism, hydrotherapy, drugs, travel, Christian Science, “mind cure” treatments (during which the practitioner “disentangled” James’s mind while he slept), and the “talking cure” (a primitive form of psychotherapy). So it would hardly be surprising if he had also checked himself into the McLean hospital. Some of the rumors indicate that James was being treated there for depression later in life. This seems plausible. It is worth noting that McLean did not accept voluntary admissions until 1881.

Still, the Renouvier diary entry and the story of the epileptic patient, even if they do not give structure to the story of James’s life, are plainly relevant to our understanding of James’s thought. The question is, How? The texts themselves are a good deal less clear on this point than they have generally been taken to be. In the story of the epileptic patient, the Frenchman’s sudden perception that he might end up in the same condition induces a fear of going out in the dark and of being left alone, which is allayed by recalling tags from the Bible. In the Renouvier episode, a feeling of inanition caused by excessive philosophical speculation is addressed by a decision to assume a more active role in life. In the first case the problem is fear of catastrophe, and the remedy is religious consolation. In the second, the problem is intellectual paralysis, and the remedy is belief in the efficacy of self-assertion. The two episodes do not seem to be related as crisis and recovery, or negation and transcendence, or down and up. They seem to be experiences of quite different kinds of distress alleviated by quite different kinds of self-therapy. The mistake has not been singling these passages out as emblematic of Jamesian insights. The mistake has been stringing them together as the endpoints of a single crisis.

In fact, for James the two experiences represented eternally opposed responses to life. He made himself clear on the matter in an odd corner of his work—in the introduction he wrote to his father’s Literary Remains, a memorial anthology which was published in 1884 and promptly sank without a trace. Most people who believe in God, William says there, are really pluralists. God for them is just one force in the universe, “a concrete being whom it does not take a scholar to love and make sacrifices and die for.” It is hard to feel affection for an omnipotent God, or a God defined as Universal Substance, or First Principle. And pluralism, says James, is anyway “a view to which we all practically incline when in the full and successful exercise of our moral energy.” For when we feel healthy, our will seems a match for the forces we confront: life, as James put it elsewhere, “feels like a real fight,” whose outcome is still in doubt.

But, he goes on to say in the Introduction to his father’s writings, there are other times when life feels like a mechanical and predetermined process whose outcome we are powerless to affect; and at these times, trying to buck ourselves up with the thought that we, too, can make a difference, that we get a vote, is futile. In his description of this fatalistic state of mind, he evokes the epileptic patient:

To suggest personal will and effort to one ‘all sicklied o’er’ with the sense of weakness, of helpless failure, and of fear, is to suggest the most horrible of things to him. What he craves is to be consoled in his very impotence, to feel that the Powers of the Universe recognize and secure him, all passive and failing as he is. Well, we are all potentially such sick men. The sanest and best of us are of one clay with lunatics and prison-inmates. And whenever we feel this, such a sense of the vanity of our voluntary career comes over us, that all our morality appears but a plaster hiding a sore it can never cure, and all our well-doing as the hollowest substitute for that well-being that our lives ought to be grounded in, but, alas! are not. This well-being is the object of the religious demand,—a demand so penetrating and unassuageable that no consciousness of such occasional and outward well-doing as befalls the human lot can ever give it satisfaction. On the other hand, to satisfy the religious demand is to deny the demands of the moralist…. So that of religion and moralism, the morbid and the healthy view, it may be said that what is meat to the one is the other’s poison. Any absolute moralism is a pluralism; any absolute religion is a monism…. The accord of moralism and religion is superficial, their discord radical. Only the deepest thinkers on both sides see that one must go.31

James was a moralist who gave a great deal of his time and intellectual energy to the business of trying to understand religion. But although he believed in the legitimacy of the religious response to the universe, he was never able to attain its consolation himself. All his efforts to make contact with God, or to enter into what he could regard as a spiritual state of mind, were unsuccessful. “My personal position is simple,” he wrote two years after the publication of The Varieties of Religious Experience to one of the book’s critics. “I have no living sense of commerce with a God.” And then, in an understatement: “I envy those who have, for I know that the addition of such a sense would help me greatly.”32

This is why treating the Renouvier episode as a response to a spiritual crisis is a disservice to James. James thought that philosophy could never be an adequate response to despair, because he thought that philosophy begins and ends with the recognition of its own limitations. Philosophy is a moralism: it is for people who feel strong enough to face the universe on its own terms, knowing that there is, in the end, nothing to back them up, nothing to guarantee that their vote will be counted. “A philosopher has publicly renounced the privilege of trusting blindly which every simple man owns as a right,” James wrote in 1873, in the final entry in his diary, “—and my sight is not always clear enough for such constant duty.”

He went on, of course, to write a great deal of philosophy, but he could do it only when he felt healthy enough to face the abyss, and he always expressed relief when he could take a break from it. Gertrude Stein’s anecdote about the final exam she took in James’s course when she was his student at Harvard is well known: “Dear Professor James,” she claims she wrote on the exam, “I am so sorry but really I do not feel a bit like an examination paper in philosophy to-day.” The next day, she says, she received a note from James. “Dear Miss Stein,” he wrote, “I understand perfectly how you feel I often feel like that myself,” and he gave her the highest mark in the course. 33 Gertrude Stein was not above autobiographical embellishment, but this story is probably truer than it seems. She had understood the lesson. James knew that philosophy was not enough; but it was all he had.

James was a beloved figure—not just a man whose writings other people found inspiring, but someone more personally affecting than that. He was adored even by people, such as Bertrand Russell, who detested his philosophy. After James’s death, many of these people, both the inspired and the uninspired, struggled to explain what it was about James that had made him such an irresistible character. Linda Simon has collected most of these efforts in a volume called William James Remembered. They are worth reading, for there was a side of James that is not fully expressed in his writing, as highly inflected with personality as it seems.

In his work, James can sometimes seem to be expounding, with a little too much bravado, a kind of can-do, self-help attitude toward life, to be suggesting that the answer to most of our problems is just to drop our philosophical worry-bones and get on with the business of making and doing. Many readers since James’s time have complained that the pragmatism and pluralism he promoted are not enough, that life confronts us with some situations that call for a different sort of response. But no one knew this better than James. It is the poignancy of his life that he never found, for himself, that other sort of response. He created a philosophy of hope expressly premised on the understanding that there is, finally, no reason for hope. This is why reading Renouvier was not a cure, and it is why the experience with the epileptic is attributed to someone else. James was too wise to believe that true melancholy can ever be overcome by a theory, and he was too honest to pretend to a spiritual satisfaction he was never able to feel.

John Jay Chapman was one of the readers whom James’s writings failed to inspire, but he loved James anyway, and in his memoir he put into words the quality others searched for: “There was, in spite of his playfulness, a deep sadness about James. You felt that he had just stepped out of this sadness in order to meet you, and was to go back into it the moment you left him.” What lends authenticity to his philosophy is not its triumph over the unhappiness in his own life, but its failure.

This Issue

December 17, 1998