Friday, August 13, 2010

On Some Mental Effects of the Earthquake

William James (1842–1910)
From William James: Writings 1902–1910

William James taught at Stanford University for one memorable semester in 1906. On the morning of April 18, a 7.9-magnitude earthquake struck the San Francisco Bay area and shook the 64-year-old philosopher from his bed. The damage to the campus was extensive; the library, gym, and chapel were destroyed and a second floor of the girl’s dormitory collapsed, but remarkably there were only two deaths on the campus.

Four days later William wrote his brother, the novelist Henry James:
Dear Henry, Your chronic anxiety about our fate in American conditions of climate, etc. will probably have been exacerbated by the news of the earthquake, so I take the opportunity of a transient lull in affairs here to write you briefly of our own experience. First we are unscathed in limb, and our only loss in property is a few plates & other chinese things bo’t in San Francisco. . . .
San Francisco itself was not so fortunate, and when “automobiles bro’t the dreadful news” to Stanford, a resident of the house in which William was boarding insisted on traveling to the city to check on the well-being of a relative, and several friends made the trip that day, “boarding the only train that went, and escaping on the only one that came away.”

Because Stanford closed the school for the remainder of the semester (and still paid Professor James his full salary), he and his wife left for Cambridge, Massachusetts, five days after the disaster. A week later he set down his observations and musings on the earthquake and the human response to it in an article that appeared in June in Youth’s Companion.

Note: William James’s “friend B.” refers to Charles M. Bakewell (1867-1957), a professor at Yale who had been one of James’s students. “Mr. Keith” is William Keith (1839-1901), a landscape painter and close friend of John Muir.

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When I departed from Harvard for Stanford University last December, almost the last good-by I got was that of my old Californian friend B.: “I hope they’ll give you a touch of earthquake while you’re there, so that you may also become acquainted with that Californian institution.” . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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