James Family Plot with six headstones

Approaching William James

I may have been procrastinating when I biked to William James’s grave.

I’ve been a fan ever since I read Varieties of Religious Experiences as an undergraduate. Recently, I’d checked out James’ psychology textbook. Not the monumental, two-volume, 1200-page Principles of Psychology published in 1890 that established James as the Father of American Psychology, but the lesser, 400-page Psychology: The Briefer Course, an 1892 abridgement of Principles. James’s students referred to the big volumes as James and the shorter book as Jimmy.

I’d read the long introduction to Briefer Course and was about to start the main text when the idea to visit William James’s grave popped into my head. The weekend before I’d meant to bike but had read instead. Why is it always easier to do something other than what you’re supposed to be doing?

I’d already stood in front of the house at 95 Irving Street where James and his family lived from 1889 until his death in 1910. I’d never thought about where he was buried until I came across a short item. If you’d told me he was interred in Cambridge, I’d have assumed he was six feet under at beautiful Mount Auburn Cemetery, rather than the less verdant Cambridge Cemetery across the street.

When I drove to Maine for the 4th of July, I’d neglected to visit my own parents grave. Though the road took me within a mile of the cemetery, I didn’t stop. Being dead, my parents were unlikely to mind, but I wasn’t sure what my indifference said about me. I was in a rush to visit friends and didn’t want to miss the lobster cookout or the group plunge into the cold ocean. I was more concerned with living than visiting the dead, though the two weren’t necessarily at odds.

I biked to the cemetery just before noon. The sun was hot and annoyingly bright. The place was almost empty of visitors. I got a map at the entrance gate and biked along Meadow Avenue where the James family plot was located. I missed the site on the first pass, but pedaling back up the road, I saw the low brick wall with JAMES inscribed in a concrete rectangle. I ditched my bike and walked to the tidy row of headstones.

William James HeadstoneSide-by-side, six headstones stood in a row—the James family presenting a coherent front.

On the far left, Herman, William James’s third son who died in infancy. Next, William James and his wife Alice. Bits of lichen dotted their headstone. Someone had placed a small smooth stone on top.

“I’ve come to pay my respects,” I said, touching the hot stone.

WILLIAM JAMES
TEACHER PSYCHOLOGIST
PHILOSPHER
NEW YORK JANUARY 11  1842
CHOCORUA NH AUGUST 26  1910
_____________________________
ALICE GIBBENS
WIFE OF WILLIAM JAMES
WEYMOUTH FEBRUARY 5  1849
CAMBRIDGE SEPTEMBER 30  1922
_____________________________

William’s parents were next: Henry, and a stone for his wife Mary. They were followed by William’s younger brother, the novelist Henry James, who died in London in 1916. Last, the headstone for Alice James, William and Henry’s younger sister. A tree throws shadows on her stone.

I’d made the small effort, found the place, but I didn’t stay long. I got back on my bike, pedaled home, and began the work I’d been avoiding.