Shared Perspectives

Turning William James's home into condominiums seems a serious cultural mistake, like converting Goethe's childhood home in Frankfurt into an upscale clothing store; turning Darwin's house in Downe, England, into a cozy country inn; or developing Jefferson's Monticello into a country club.

The house at 95 Irving St., Cambridge, Mass., was the site where James penned some of the country's most important works in psychology and philosophy. He was visited in the library-study by those such as his brother Henry James, Josiah Royce, Hugo Munsterberg, Edward L. Thorndike, Hermann von Helmholtz, Mary Calkins, Gertrude Stein, W.E.B. DuBois, Walter Lippman, Charles Sanders Peirce and others.

At his death in 1910, "James was remembered as America's representative thinker, foremost psychologist, and preeminent philosopher, as well as its most influential writer on religion, psychical research and self-help" (Myers, 1986, page 1). His work has stimulated countless reinterpretations over the years, and has been an inspiration for those drawn to both natural science and human science traditions in psychology. There is also a widespread resurgence of interest in pragmatism in philosophy, social theory, law and cultural studies, with valuable collections in Menand's "Pragmatism: A Reader" (1997) or Dickstein's "The Revival of Pragmatism"(1998).

As his work has proved so fertile, enormous scholarly effort has been invested in the production of a scholarly edition of "The Works of William James" (19 volumes, Harvard University Press, 1975­86), and in "The Correspondence of William James" (1992, with seven of 12 planned volumes completed). His family is one of the most studied in American history, with biographies of William James, his brother Henry, his sister Alice, two lesser known younger brothers, his father and the family as a whole). Given my own interests in the study of lives ("Life Histories and Psychobiography"; "Psychology and Historical Interpretation"; Oxford University Press, 1982 and 1988), and more recently, in the history of psychology, the connections between James's life and work are particularly interesting.

Saving other historical homes

It would have been better if preservation efforts had started earlier, and sometimes I despair at what has been lost. However, much can still be done. Many preservation or restoration efforts do not start as early as one might have imagined, with Jefferson's Monticello not being preserved as a public site until 1923, almost a century after his death.What can we learn from an array of other examples? Freud's home at Berggasse 19 in Vienna, which he left in 1938 with the Nazi occupation, was turned into the Sigmund Freud Museum in 1971; while his home at 20 Maresfeld Gardens in London became a museum soon after his daughter Anna died in 1982. Einstein insisted that he did not want his house at 112 Mercer St. in Princeton to be a museum; it is currently a private residence owned by the Institute for Advanced Study. Mark Twain's house in Hartford, Conn., sold by the family in 1903, became a private residence, a boy's school and an apartment building before it was preserved. After Darwin died in l882, his house was retained in the family until around 1900, and in 1907, it became The Down House School for Girls. With funds from the British Association for the Advancement of Science, it was purchased in 1927, and with public donations, opened to the public in 1929.

What can be done?

William James is a central person in American psychology, philosophy and intellectual history. The country is defined in part by how we handle such cultural legacies. It seems a shame to be subdividing and remodeling his home at the same time there is a rising tide of interest in his work. His life and legacy are generative and complex enough to deserve preservation and to be made available for fresh encounters by subsequent generations. I would be delighted to hear from those with ideas, organizations or economic-political resources for preserving the house. (E-mail me at Runyan@uclink4.berkeley.edu.)


William McKinley Runyan, PhD, is professor in the School of Social Welfare and affiliated professor in the psychology department at the University of California, Berkeley. Portions of this article have been adapted from a longer piece on "History in the making: What will become of William James's house and legacy?" in the August 2000 issue of History of Psychology.