William James & Alice Howe Gibbens: an old-fashioned love story

In 1876, William James, an eminent philosopher and psychologist, declared his love to his future wife, Alice Howe Gibbens.  Study how he did it:

My dear Miss Gibbens

It seems almost a crime to startle your unconsciousness in the manner in which I am about to do; but seven weeks of insomnia outweigh many scruples, and reflecting on the matter as conscientiously as I can, it seems as if this premature declaration were fraught with less evil than any of the other courses possible to me now.

To state abruptly the whole matter: I am in love, und zwar [it’s true] (– forgive me — ) with Yourself.

My duty in my own mind is clear. It is to win your hand, if I can. What I beg of you now is that you should let me know categorically whether any absolute irrevocable obstacle already exists to that consummation. I mean literally absolute, and shall strictly so interpret your reply….[1]

James, like many young persons today, preferred to initiate love affairs by text.  Unlike many young persons today, James also had keen appreciation for bureaucratic manners, for economics, and for learned expression.

James’ love letter starts out with a vague reference (“It seems”) and proceeds with long, convoluted sentences.    “I love you” is for the uneducated.  The learned put the beloved in the ultimate preposition:  “I am in love [obscure foreign phrase and interrupting self-reflection] with Yourself.”

Immediately after this declaration of his love, James writes passionately of his duty.   In common speech, “if I can” usually indicates determination to try to the extent of one’s abilities.  James’ active mind moves beyond that convention and prompts him to ask whether “any absolute irrevocable obstacle” exists.  Such an obstacle would mean that exertions could not produce results.  In short, they would be a waste.

No fool, James made his declaration of love only after careful cost-benefit analysis.  He explained to his beloved, “it seems as if this premature declaration were fraught with less evil than any of the other courses possible to me now.”   What woman wouldn’t be impressed with such a mind?

William James and Alice Howe Gibbens had long, fruitful, and intimate marriage.   They had four children and endured the loss of a fifth.   Alice encouraged William in his work and served as an amanuensis for him, just as Mary Shelley did for Percy Bysshe Shelley.  In 1906, William wrote to Alice:

Never have you seemed as near and dear to me as in the past six months. It is a good thing, little as you think of “friendship,” to have friendship grow deeper and deeper — after 27 years of matrimony! Isn’t it?[2]

William’s love letter was a great success.

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Notes:

[1] William James, letter to Alice Howe Gibbens. Keene Valley [September 1876 ]. b MS Am 1092.9 (1165).

[2] Susan E. Gunter, Alice in Jamesland: The Story of Alice Howe Gibbens (University of Nebraska Press, 2009), p. 221, quoted in Colm Toibin, “The Admirable Mrs. James,” a review of Gunter, Alice in Jamesland in New York Review of Books, June 8, 2009.

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