Challenging His Teacher’s Racism: Was Huck William James?

12/31/2017 10:40 am ET

This essay first appeared on the Johns Hopkins University Press Blog, December 17, 2017, https://www.press.jhu.edu/news/blog/challenging-his-teacher%E2%80%99s-racism-was-huck-william-james

A moment of awakening to an honest reckoning with natural facts

In his youth, William James tried on a range of career possibilities. In the 1860s, his attention was focused on a career in science. He had spent his childhood in a host of schools on both sides of the North Atlantic guided by his father, Henry James, Senior, who promoted experiential learning and familiarity with natural facts for his five children. The elder James had high hopes for a “scientific career for Willy,” his oldest son. Like his father, Willy James had an appetite for the natural facts of scientific investigation and a reflective temperament. Henry James noticed the growing authority of science in this era, and hoped that his eldest son would train in science to give more respectability to his own idealistic belief that all the natural facts of our empirical world are mere shadows pointing to higher spiritual truths, which he hoped would help shed society of selfishness.

This was the picture of science William James brought to his first scientific training as a chemistry student starting in September of 1861 at the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard University. His chemistry teacher, Charles Eliot would become the university’s president eight years later. As president, he would bring the example of the science school’s specialized training to the founding of the Graduate Department in 1872, a major forerunner of what would become the premier path for professional training in graduate schools around the country and around the world.

In the next few years, William James studied, in addition to chemistry, physics, anatomy, physiology, and medicine. In his science classes, young James would meet a very different form of science than he was hearing at home. Most of his teachers, including Eliot, insisted that the distinctive strength of science was in its experimental method, with controlled investigations into empirical facts. This materialism of method, for specialized inquiry into material dimensions of nature, sometimes encouraged a materialist philosophy, the view that nature is only physical matter while all apparently immaterial dimensions of life, including thought, belief, feelings, and life itself, can be explained by empirical facts.

Eliot remembered his nineteen-year-old student as an “agreeable pupil, … tolerably punctual at recitations,” but “not wholly devoted to the study of Chemistry.” Instead, “his mind was excursive.” William’s exploration of “other sciences and realms of thought” was in keeping with his father’s approach to education, and his mental excursions show that he was retaining his father’s spiritual questions even if not endorsing all of the elder James’s idealistic answers.

When William James turned twenty one in January of 1863, he wrote to a cousin with a joshingly earnest declaration about “the choice of a profession,” and listed “four alternatives: Natural History, Medicine, Printing, Beggary.” Still feeling the tug of his father’s philanthropic ideals but also forced to “consider lucre,” he said of his choices, “much may be said in favor of each,” which he named “in the ascending order of their pecuniary invitingness.” In the next year, he would indeed enroll in the Medical School. His talk of printing would foreshadow the popular writing he would take up, starting with book reviews in 1865 and continuing with his public intellectual work years later. But at this point, natural history was at the top of his list.

The prospect of becoming a field naturalist especially caught James’s attention, and when one of the teachers at the Lawrence School, Louis Agassiz, organized with his wife Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, a natural history trip to Brazil in 1865, the young science student jumped at the chance. The Swiss-born Agassiz was one of the most famous and charismatic scientists of his time. He charmed audiences with his exuberant enthusiasm for the wonders of the natural world, and was so instrumental in organizing professional science and spurring financial support that his most recent biographer, Christoph Irmscher, calls him the “creator of American science.” David Starr Jordan, who would become president of Stanford University, declared that “graduate instruction in science in America began” with the exuberant teaching of Louis Agassiz. Before his arrival in the United States, Agassiz had first established his academic reputation with a definitive study of the fish of Brazil collected by German explorers in 1819-1820. For his own expedition to Brazil, Agassiz had still bigger plans.

When Charles Darwin proposed the development of species by means of natural selection in The Origin of Species (1859), the first critiques were from scientists. Agassiz objected to Darwin’s methods and conclusions. Gradual evolution challenged the Ice Age theory that Agassiz used to explain the periodic creation of species followed by climactic destruction, in rounds of special creation that integrated divine action into scientific theory. Darwinism did not overtly reject religion, but it explained natural facts without religious references. Agassiz presented the trip to Brazil as an opportunity to show the special creation of species through the work of glaciers, as “God’s great plough[s].” Finding evidence of multiple successive species and ice even in the tropics would, Agassiz announced, disprove Darwinism.

For William James, the expedition was an opportunity to try on the profession of natural history, with a scientist who shared some of his father’s idealistic views, no less. Agassiz and Henry James had even attended the same Saturday Club discussions in the early 1860s. They also shared kindred racial views. The elder James sentimentally patronized African Americans as a more “sensuous” people, who needed the guidance of whites. When his third son, Wilkinson (Wilkie) James volunteered to serve as an officer in the “Colored” Massachusetts 54th Regiment, the father doubted the resolve and courage of the African American troops; Wilkie quickly corrected him about their adamant bravery at the Battle of Fort Wagner (featured in the movie Glory).

Louis Agassiz held even more virulent views of African American inferiority, and he amplified his prejudice with the authority of science. As part of his Darwin-disproving goals for the trip, he also lined up what he called human specimen of different racial hues, hoping to demonstrate the hierarchy of races. He set his photographer Walter Hunnewell on task to create a gallery of races, each also separately created, in keeping with his overall theory of special creation.

William James went to Brazil to get “valuable training from the Professor,” and he respected Agassiz as a “vast practical engine” with a prodigious knowledge of natural facts. As a student, he tried to learn when Agassiz would “pitch… in to my loose and superficial way of thinking.” But James veered away from his teacher’s theories, and even began to think that Agassiz was making a “burlesque misrepresentations of Darwin’s book.”

James also ebbed away from the ideas of racial hierarchy that the expedition was designed to promote. Despite the authority of his father’s sentimental views of race and the immediacy of his teacher’s insistence, James looked squarely at the natural facts around him and did not find the Native and African American people inferior at all. As his thoughts veered against the conventional wisdom pushing his thoughts toward assumptions of hierarchy, he cautiously started dropping the negative stereotypes. At first, he observed that the people in front of him were “at all events not sluttish.”

James’s words read like Huck Finn’s guilt-filled thoughts while floating down river with Jim, the runaway slave who was also becoming his respected partner. Both Huck Finn and William James were surrounded by racism, but their own experiences were telling a different story. Shelley Fisher Fishkin boldly asks Was Huck Black? (Oxford University Press, 1993) in identifying the African-American rhetorical traditions that inspired Mark Twain’s free-spirited, down-home, all-American character. Similarly, William James displays a fledging moral courage that parallels Huck Finn’s shifts away from the racist norms all around him.

James’s school of experience was his own natural history work, which prodded his steps into a more respectful acceptance of racial differences. Circulating with non-whites, James maintained that even though “these are peasants,” scorned by Brazilian society and by his own expedition leader, “no gentleman of Europe has better manners.” And he added that the Brazilians, “masters and servants” alike, had “not a bit of our damned anglo saxon brutality and vulgarity.” James even found that the people so readily regarded by most European Americans as exotic primitives lived lives not unlike what he knew back home. He recognized that “the amazonians have not the pleasures of [the] domestic hearth which are so dear to us, … but in the mosquito net, hardly domestic, but personal they have a faint substitute for it.” While in their household, you have the “feeling of … security” that you get with a “big blazing fireside in our winters [when] you hear the icy storm at work out of doors.”

By contrast, to support his theory of racial hierarchy, Agassiz regarded Brazil as a case study of his worst social fears since “all clearness of type had been blurred,... leaving a mongrel nondescript type.” Yet even Agassiz and his wife had to admire a “cafuzo” (with “a mixture of Indian and black blood in her veins”), who worked for Elizabeth Agassiz. Young Alexandrina had “keen perceptions,” Elizabeth Agassiz admitted, and was “a very efficient aid.” The North American was, however, very ready to explain away the non-white woman’s virtues by adding dismissively that she was “a person whose only training has been through the senses,” a view resonating with the patronizing racial theories of Henry James, Senior.

William, however, picked up on another part of his father’s theories, about the best way that Henry James himself had insisted for raising his own very non-cafuzo children: with an experiential education in natural facts. William found virtues in the vices claimed by the expedition leaders, and he used his father’s own methods of thinking to see Alexandrina with direct clarity, challenging his father’s racial assumptions. In sharp contrast with Agassiz’s exploitative portraits, young James drew a sketch of Alexandrina with individual dignity, a hint of sadness, and even some skeptical detachment.

William James’s egalitarian awakening in 1865 did not keep him from engaging in his own stereotyping of racial and ethnic differences. He even showed pride in his “organ of perception-of-national-differences.” His casual directness could be crude by twenty-first-century standards, but he repeatedly found impressive qualities at the heart of otherness. For example, in 1878, James relays a story of medical missionary David Livingston in Africa eager to “dissuade [a] savage” from his primitive healing practices. James did not balk at use of the denigrating word, but focused instead on the African’s approach to healing. Purveyors of modern medicine may sneer at such “proverbial philosophy,” but while the African’s approaches are incomplete, so too are even the most sophisticated and scientific propositions: “sometimes the patient gets well and sometimes he dies, just as when you do nothing at all.”

Back in Brazil in the 1860s, William James rendered Alexandrina with a serene look and knowing eyes. His portrait suggest her knack for spontaneous encounters with nature, just what he was striving to master in the work of natural history. Alexandrina seemed to harbor insights into nature that the most civilized scientists simply overlooked with their theories distracting from direct perceptions of natural facts.

Paul J. Croce is a professor of history and American studies at Stetson University and a former president of the William James Society. He is the author of Science and Religion in the Era of William James: Eclipse of Certainty, 1820-1880 (University of North Carolina Press). Johns Hopkins University Press has published his most recent book, Young William James Thinking, https://jhupbooks.press.jhu.edu/content/young-william-james-thinking.

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