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Cet article tente d’évaluer l’impact sur l’initiation philosophique de William James de son voyage au Brésil, et plus particulièrement de l’expédition Thayer (1865-1866), dirigée par le scientifique suisse-américain Louis Agassiz. Mon approche cherche à explorer un « axe transatlantique sud » dans la pensée de James, qui joue un rôle clé dans la composition de son point de vue pluraliste.

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  • 1 Letter to Henry James Sr. and Mary Robertson Walsh James, April 21st-22nd, 1865 (Machado, 2006 53).
  • 2 See Melville. About the relation between Herman Melville and Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), see Heflin ch (...)

1In his first letter1 describing the mooring of the steamboat Colorado in Rio de Janeiro on April 22nd, 1865, William James, then a 23-year-old student at Harvard Medical School, describes the happiest day of his life. Much in the same way as Herman Melville wrote years earlier,2 James has no words to comment on the magnificent view of the harbor, with “the boldest grandest mountains, far and near,” the palm and other trees of “such vivid green” as he has never seen anywhere else. On land, Rio closely resembles an African city, with black men and women in picturesque attitudes “at the last degree”: walking, wobbling, leaning back or sleeping on the streets. The men wear white linen drawers and short shirts, the women wear huge turbans. To him, the strange sights, the pleasure of walking on “terra firma,” the “delicious smell of land,” after three weeks of hardship in the rough seas, are “perfectly intoxicating” (Machado, 2006 54).

  • 3 Letter to Alice James, April 27th, 1865 (Machado, 2006 57). About the international audience and co (...)

2The exploratory stroll also reveals that the city streets and shops resemble those in Europe. In an “excellent bookstore,” filled with “French scientific & philosophical works,” James feels such a “yearning towards the sinful but human old continent,” as made him almost burst his skin (Machado, 2006 55). Brazilians are described as having a pale Indian color with a very aged expression. Always polite and obliging, “they wear black beaver hats and glossy black frock coats, which makes them look like épiciers endimanchés” (55; emphasis W. James). James apologizes to his friend and future painter, John Lafarge, for not having accepted the money offered for the purchase of feathers and flowers. Rio is an open-air market, with all kinds of curiosities—plants, beetles, birds, butterflies—being disputed by an international audience eager for tropical representations.3

3On the following day James thinks again about the mountains and wonders if there are any glaciers there, a fact that would change the voyage plan entirely (Machado, 2006 55). His speculation sounds far-fetched, Rio de Janeiro being a city in the heart of the tropics; however, that is the main motivation for the young student’s coming to Brazil. Knowing that his former Harvard professor, the renowned Swiss-American scientist Louis Agassiz, was looking for volunteers for a scientific expedition that would cross Brazil to the Amazon region, James volunteered, hoping to hone his naturalistic skills, and thus confirm his real vocation.

  • 4 See Irmscher, 2013 and 2017, ch. 2 and introduction.

4The Thayer Expedition, which remained in Brazil from April 1865 to July 1866, had as its main objective to search for traces of glaciers in South America, proving that a catastrophe responsible for the demise of all living beings from Earth had actually happened (Machado, 2006). Furthermore, through a collection carried out in the various tributaries of the Amazon River, the expedition was intended to confirm that the different species of fish did not move from their place of origin, but were created for that specific area. For Agassiz, both the theory of “glaciation” and that of the “geographic distribution of species” would prove that the extinction and re-creation of living beings were the result of a divine plan of constant improvement, entirely different from Darwin’s theory of natural selection, grounded in chance and long periods of evolution.4

  • 5 Letter to Henry James Sr., May 3rd, 1865.
  • 6 Letter to Henry James Sr., June 3rd, 1865.

5Based in a laboratory on Rua Direita, Rio de Janeiro’s main street then, James, following Agassiz’s orders, began collecting sea creatures in the Guanabara Bay, but soon showed the symptoms of smallpox, which he had contracted in the city. In addition to the suffering caused by the disease, James found that the physical collection work was actually tedious and unbearable. It is in this context that he revealed, for the first time, the desire to devote himself exclusively to philosophy: “When I get home, I’m going to study philosophy all my days.”5 And on leaving the sanatorium, after having reflected for the three weeks he suffered “in the embrace of the loathsome goddess,” the idea matures: “I am now certain that my forte is not to go on exploring expeditions. I have no inward spur goading me forwards on that line, as I have on several speculative lines” (Machado, 2006 61; author’s emphasis).6

6That James decided in Brazil in favor of a philosophical life is one of the commonest themes among the American philosopher’s commentators and biographers. According to Ralph Barton Perry, the letters sent from Brazil by James date back to a period of time between his early medical studies and the beginning of his actual philosophical career (74). Jean Wahl states that it is in Brazil that James discovered his inclination to the philosophical understanding of the world in contrast with simple collection of samples and natural species (30). For Robert Richardson (2006), the expedition to the Amazon region was a crucial experience, on the one hand bearing the negative mark of his refusal to be a naturalist and, on the other, bequeathing his passion for detail and special facts.

  • 7 Machado is currently Full Professor at the University of São Paulo’s Department of History and a sp (...)
  • 8 For the earlier references of James’s participation in the expedition, see: Perry; Livingston. In B (...)

7However, in addition to the obvious impact of James’s visit on his personal journey, a series of recent Brazilian and US studies, especially the book Brazil through the Eyes of William James: Letters, Diaries, and Drawings, 1865-1866 by Brazilian historian Maria Helena Machado,7 have brought to light the broader context of the Thayer Expedition.8 They help us to understand how James, plagued by his uncertainties regarding his future, was also entangled in a complex web of geopolitical and continental interests, involving issues such as the permanence of slavery and the plantation economy, the effects of racial exchange on the continent, the internationalization of the Amazon region and the impacts of evolutionism on the relationship between science and religion.

8Taking that broad perspective into consideration, the purpose of this paper is to re-evaluate William James’s philosophical initiation from the point of view of the continental experience that characterizes the Thayer Expedition. My hypothesis is that the transatlantic exchanges triggered James’s first pluralistic effort, pursued through sensitive impressions obtained during the trip to Brazil, and being followed, in the same period, by a clear theoretical dimension registered in his first publications. Thus, my approach is inspired by the set of studies that Martin Halliwell and Joel Rasmussen call “William James and the Transatlantic Conversation” (2014). But unlike a reading limited to exchanges carried out in the North Atlantic, my aim is to suggest that there is a Southern transatlantic axis in James’s thinking, playing a key role in the composition of his pluralistic point of view.

  • 9 For a similar approach to the concept of “South,” see: Cocco.

9Let me first clarify that by “South” I mean not only a vector of geographical and territorial representation, but also a qualitative perspective built on a set of social, cultural and political relations. From this point of view, the South appears in two distinct and concomitant ways: (i) firstly, as the laboratory of a static and determined world, founded on hierarchy and segregation; (ii) secondly, as the composition of a pluralistic universe open to experience and indeterminacy.9 If then the Amazon region, as we shall see, is considered as the privileged place of a “battle” to be fought, it is because it fully concentrates the presence of both perspectives on the South on the edge of the transatlantic cauldron.

10In the first and second parts of this article, I use the term “The Deepest South,” developed by American historian Gerald Horne (2007), to describe the Amazon region as a nineteenth-century laboratory of social and natural hierarchies, fostering two utopias: first, a vast slave empire whose center would be the South of the United States, an imagery that prevails until the end of the American Civil War; second, an industrialized and globalized space, radically opposed to miscegenation and pluralism—the perspective adopted by the Thayer Expedition.

11As we will see in the last part of this article, James started leaning towards a pluralistic thinking, when confronted with the struggles waged in the “Deepest South.” The transformation stemmed from three efforts, expended with considerable clarity, despite the author’s young age, namely: (i) an effort to observe reality without following established premises, allowing himself to be transformed by new experiences; (ii) an effort to be open to difference and to contact with new cultures, rejecting Agassiz’s racial theories; (iii) an effort towards a non-dogmatic reception of evolutionism, avoiding a new scientific determinism.

The Deepest South

12Mark Twain’s autobiography mentions a curious fact. Almost a decade before the arrival of the Thayer Expedition in Brazil, he read Lieutenant William Herndon’s narratives of the Amazon and was delighted with his descriptions of the coca leaf. Determined to make a fortune exporting the product, Clemens, then in Ohio, embarked on the Paul Jones steamboat with the hope of reaching the Amazon basin heading south from the Mississippi. Once in New Orleans, he realized he had forgotten an important detail: there were no boats connecting the American city with Pará (present-day Belém, in Brazil), and, he admitted, “it probably will not exist for the entire century” (Machado, 2006 18).

  • 10 Original quote in Portuguese: “Neste ponto, o rio, que sobre todos desafia o nosso lirismo patrióti (...)

13Although inspired by a sense of adventure, Twain’s perception of a possible link between the Mississippi River and the Amazon was not entirely wrong. According to Maria Helena Machado (2006 31), Matthew Fontaine Maury, American lieutenant and prominent inventor of the marine telegraph and naval torpedo, had reached the same conclusion when studying the sea currents and the transatlantic winds. Following this theory, a piece of wood crossing the Amazon River would easily reach the mouth of the Mississippi through the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. Therefore, the Amazon was closer to Florida and the Mississippi than to the capital of the Brazilian empire, Rio de Janeiro. Curiously, decades later, the Brazilian explorer and famous writer, Euclides da Cunha, would claim that the Amazon River is “the least Brazilian of our rivers,” since it defies national lyricism by launching a huge amount of “a soil without homeland” towards the North American coast.10

14Maury believed that such geophysical findings should be translated into a foreign policy favorable to the slave states in the South, based on the deportation of slaves to American colonies in the Amazon, creating thereby an alternative economic axis. Maury, with that purpose in mind, secretly sent William Herndon to the Amazon, asking him to describe everything that could serve the Southern interests. The result of those observations was the bestseller Twain had in hand, Exploration of the Valley of the Amazon (1853), a sort of Manifest Destiny pointed to the South, urging the union, “like two brothers,” between the Amazon and the Mississippi Valleys (Herndon; Machado, 2006).

15Gerald Horne calls this vector of expansion “the Deepest South.” This vector also includes the West, since one of the routes used to reach California was around Cape Horn, with a necessary stop in Rio de Janeiro. During the Gold Rush (1848-1855), thousands of Americans traveled the Brazilian coast and reported their impressions about the territory, customs and the unavoidable vision of slavery (Horne 5).

16According to Horne, this contact had concrete and ambivalent effects on American sensitivity in the antebellum period. On the one hand, travelers were horrified by the dreadful sight of Rio de Janeiro’s slave market, often shocked by black corpses, victims of the Atlantic crossing. On the other hand, American newspapers reported the peculiar access of some African descendants to public offices, commerce and honors of the empire. Paradoxically, Brazil appeared as a possible model for US society, all the more so because it had influenced important abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass, who defended this position in the article Blacks in Brazil, published in 1849 (Horne 13; Brito, 2014 and 2019).

  • 11 “Strikingly, as these Euro-Americans were repulsed by the dreadfulness of Brazilian slavery, a numb (...)

17While, ironically, both feelings—Brazil as a racial nightmare and Brazil as a racial paradise—served to undermine slavery in the United States,11 the Southern front had a totally opposite dream: an approximation with Brazil seemed inevitable, considering the blockade of slave expansion in the West. Taking the Amazon basin under control could guarantee a stable future for the plantation economy, expanding the American frontier beyond national barriers. The “Deepest South” reveals itself in an ambivalent way: a space for a new abolitionist sensibility; a utopian frontier for a solid slavery coalition.

18Following the same argument, the historian Matthew Jason Karp, in a recent book entitled This Vast Southern Empire (2016), argues that the idea of a Southern empire allows American history to readjust its own coordinates. For Karp, although traditional historians present the Texas annexation (1845) on a geographical continuity that points to the West, its natural geopolitical companions at the time were Cuba and Brazil: “For the southern leaders involved in the annexation, the most critical balance of power was not sectional or senatorial, but international and hemispheric” (82). And the balance of the Southern empire is clear: it must guarantee slavery, cotton and protection against British interests.

The Insistent South

  • 12 Letter to Henry James Sr., September 12th, 1865 (Machado, 2006 75).
  • 13 Machado, 2006; Cotkin, ch. 1.

19In April 1865, during the three weeks the Thayer Expedition sailed toward the “Deepest South,” the Civil War met its end, and Abraham Lincoln was murdered. In September, William James, sailing in the Solimões River, in the Amazon, wrote to his father, Henry James, Sr., saying that he could not think of “old Abe” without imminently bursting into tears.12 From the moment the first letters were sent to Brazil, James made a series of allusions to generals and leaders of Northern troops, which shows how war had impacted him, despite his absence from the “great event” that marked his generation.13

20Backstage investigations into the Thayer Expedition show that James was not as distant from the war and its outcomes as imagined. According to Louis Menand, the American government used the expedition’s prestige to weaken the Confederates’ influence in Brazil and tried to open Amazon rivers to international trade (Menand). For that reason, Louis Agassiz boarded with confidential letters destined to the US minister James Watson Webb. Although the diplomatic effort related to the war became obsolete after its end, the campaign for the internationalization of the Amazon River, however, succeeded, with effective participation of two crew members of the Colorado: Reverend Fletcher, a protestant missionary and diplomat in Brazil during the 1850s (D. James; Rosi), and Louis Agassiz himself.

  • 14 See Fletcher, ch. XIII. For the relation between D. Pedro II, Agassiz and American transcendentalis (...)
  • 15 The exchange of letters between D. Pedro II and Agassiz can be entirely found in D. James.

21Even though Fletcher appears only incidentally in James’s letters, he did have a fundamental role in the approximation between Brazil and the United States, taking benefit from a personal friendship with the emperor Dom Pedro II. In the book Brazil and the Brazilians (1857), Fletcher underlines the fact that this relation was made easier by the emperor’s lively interest in American writers, such as James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Whittier, and, especially, the poet Henry W. Longfellow.14 From 1855 on, Fletcher was successful in putting Dom Pedro II in direct contact with Longfellow and then Louis Agassiz. In 1863, an intense exchange of letters was initiated between the emperor and the naturalist, which culminated in the significant support offered by the Brazilian Empire to the Thayer Expedition.15

22This cooperation, analyzed from the transatlantic point of view, resulted in a curious intersection of different perspectives. With the Union victory in the Civil War and the abolition of slavery in the United States, the dream of a “vast southern empire” fell apart altogether with the outlandish plan of exporting slaves to Brazil. The aggressive view of Maury was overcome in favor of a more bilateral relationship based on trade openness, industrial progress and international cooperation of both nations, as advocated by Fletcher and Agassiz. Was it to be the end of the idea of the “Deepest South” as a laboratory of hierarchy and segregation? Which image of the South was to emerge from the rubble of a long-dreamed of slavery empire?

  • 16 In this letter, written in French to Dom Pedro II, from New York, the naturalist sought: (i) to ann (...)

23In 1867, shortly after finishing a course on Brazil in Boston, Agassiz wrote to the emperor, remarking: “two events are going to electrify our country, the liberation of the slaves of the State [the United States] and the opening of the rivers in Brazil.” Agassiz expected that the abolition would be able to regenerate a “disinherited race” and, in its turn, the opening of the Amazon region to foreign settlers could bring back the adventurous spirit of US pioneers. A new era of freedom was coming, boosted by the circulation of people, goods and commercial interests.16

24This freedom, nevertheless, constituted a new source of anxiety and preoccupation. In A Journey in Brazil (1868), Elizabeth Agassiz, wife of the naturalist and also a participant in the Thayer Expedition, describes a dance of enslaved Africans at Guanabara Bay supposedly performed to celebrate abolition in the United States. She asked: “What will they do with this precious gift of freedom?” (E. Agassiz and L. Agassiz 49). In 1863, the same question was put to Louis Agassiz, in a more official tone, by the American Inquiry Commission, created to investigate the possible effects of abolition on the black population. In his answer, Agassiz argues that the most relevant challenge of the country is to avoid having “mixed-race people” become the majority, a fact supposedly responsible for the decadence of South and Central America (Machado, 2010 37; Irmscher, 2013 279).

25The vector that pointed to the “Deepest South” no longer brought the utopia of an intercontinental slavery power, but a warning to the United States about the deleterious effects of “mulattoism,” a term used at that time to designate the process of race amalgamation. The Amazon was once more the privileged stage of the controversy. In A Journey in Brazil, Elizabeth Agassiz mentions the “progress” made by the Thayer Expedition on the study of races, stating that “in no other part of the world would it be possible to study so thoroughly the mix of types as it is in the Amazon” (E. Agassiz and L. Agassiz 296).

26The second part of the expedition, then, in parallel to the defense of creationism in natural history, establishes as a scientific objective the confrontation between the so-called “hybrid types” and the “pure racial types,” those not yet plunged into “amalgamation.” When Agassiz arrived in Brazil, he was already a staunch supporter of the polygenist thesis that human races have distinct natural and divine sources and, consequently, any hybrid produced by a racial crossing would be inferior to the original type (Wallis; Stephens; Menand; Huber and Machado).

27The method chosen by Louis Agassiz to prove the physical and moral inferiority of the hybrid type was the rising technique, at that time, of the photographic record. The daguerreotypes produced by Agassiz since his arrival in the United States were rediscovered, by chance, only in 1976, by an employee of the Peabody Museum in Harvard. As we shall see, the historical reconstruction of Agassiz’s photographic series, carried out in recent works (Wallis; Lago; Huber and Machado; Rattes; Rogers), also reveals a connection between the American South and what historian Gerald Horne calls “The Deepest South.”

28Agassiz’s pioneering use of photography, for alleged scientific purposes, began in South Carolina, during the 1850s, as a result of his close relations with the Charleston naturalist circle. After defending his polygenist and racist theses there, Agassiz was invited by a prominent local scientist, Robert Gibbes, to visit cotton plantations and study enslaved Africans. Agassiz sought to identify them by the different “ethnicities” of origin and by their body characteristics, which gave rise to a series that would be later registered in fifteen daguerreotypes. In these records, we can identify the image pattern that will be reproduced in Brazil: slaved Africans are “photographed in full body, naked, and in fixed poses—front, back and profile—or just torso, and semi-naked” (Huber and Machado 23).

29When the Agassiz couple arrived in Rio de Janeiro, they seemed to share the same impression as the young James: an African city with a noisy market, where “picturesque” groups of black people, chattering and selling their goods, could be found. After decades of intense slave trade, the city allowed the naturalist to study the “racial types” coming from almost all regions of Africa (he registered, in the end, twenty-four different “ethnicities”). In his search for non-mixed “pure types,” Agassiz devoted greater attention to Blacks from West Africa, generically called “Minas” and described them, in A Journey in Brazil, as those “of correct traits and of a more noble type than that of the black people in the United States” (E. Agassiz and L. Agassiz 82). Agassiz called this series “Pure Races,” defining as a goal the comparison with the types already studied in South Carolina and with the “hybrid types” (Huber and Machado).

30Nonetheless, when he arrived in Manaus, in the emperor’s steamboat Icamiaba, Agassiz took advantage of a pause in the collection of fish species to improvise a photographic studio destined to record the series “Mixed Races.” Elizabeth Agassiz commented that, at this moment, the center of the expedition had become “the study of the much varied mixtures that are made between the two races, natives and blacks, and of the crossings so frequent in this country.” She came to the conclusion that the “amalgam of races” seems to have had “a much more unfavorable influence on the physical development than in the United States.” The “purity of the type,” according to her, had been destroyed, resulting in a “hybrid class,” in a “vague compound, lacking character and expression” (E. Agassiz and L. Agassiz 292).

31Consequently, the hybrid character of the Amazon population, and their supposed physical and moral degeneration, served as a warning to a possible future of the post-abolition United States. If the classification of “pure racial types” resulted in a scale of fixed hierarchies, the study of “hybrid types” revealed the possible disappearance of all existing races, constituting an anthropological equivalent of the catastrophes described by Agassiz’s natural history. We can now understand the double battle Agassiz fought in the “Deepest South”: to assure a prior hierarchical structure in nature and, simultaneously, to combine freedom and racist segregation in a continent increasingly open to globalization.

James’s Plural South

  • 17 Letter to Henry James Sr., June 3rd, 1865.

32When William James planned his journey to Brazil, he intended to get to know himself better and then return to the United States with a “character considerably evolved and established” (Machado, 2006 61).17 It is hard to know how much of his goal was accomplished, but it would not be exaggerated to say that his experience revealed an incipient pluralistic effort.

  • 18 See letter to Henry James, July 15th, 1865. James describes the Tijuca Forest in Rio de Janeiro as (...)
  • 19 Letter to Henry James, May 3rd, 1865.
  • 20 Letter to Alice James, November 6th, 1865. Brazilian Diary, November 10th, 1865.

33This effort can be noticed, firstly, in a series of sensitive impressions that drove him away from the static and hierarchical views of the Thayer Expedition. Although succumbing at times to the clichés of tropical representation,18 James seemed to look for a less idealized perspective of nature and social practices in Brazil. He had doubts about Agassiz’s desire to be “too omniscient” and, despite his full respect for his professor at Harvard, he could not avoid seeing in his attitude a childish “charlatanerie” (58).19 The same disapproval was addressed to Elizabeth Agassiz and her endless entries for the draft of A Journey in Brazil (1868). James noticed that she was so determined to describe everything that she was totally unable to experience the tropics. In his personal diary, he mentioned that Elizabeth Agassiz saw everything through an “unnatural romantic light,” to the point of not walking “above the solid earth,” only seeing characters, fantasies, and a stage with an appropriate scenario (83-88).20

  • 21 Letter to Henry James and Mary Walsh James, October 22nd, 1865.
  • 22 Letter to Mary Walsh James, August 3rd, 1865.

34Besides, James had no inclination whatsoever towards the physical extraction of natural species—“if there is any thing [sic] I hate it is collecting,” he says (80).21 This is certainly not a question of failure. Quite the contrary, one of the remarkable achievements celebrated by Agassiz in the Amazon was the unprecedented discovery of new species of fish. At the Xingu River, James reports that Agassiz was completely paralyzed and euphoric by the success of the collection, as he feared “the Gods are bent upon his ruin” (67).22 In his diary, he satirizes the deed with the playful drawing Triumphal Return of Mr. D. from Brazil. There, we find Dexter leading a kind of Napoleonic parade in whose ranks we see the “Large Diamond of the Empire,” “Poems by Mr. D.,” “New and hitherto unknown genera discovered and captured by Mr. D.,” the announcement of the discovery of “400000000 new species [of] fish” and the “Young and beautiful Indians in love with Mr. D.” In the foreground of the drawing, Dexter appears drunk and disoriented, thrown to the ground and next to a bottle of Old Tom gin (33).

Figure 1

Figure 1

“Triumphal Return of Mr. Dexter from Brazil” (caption used in Machado, 2006 34).

Sketches of William James in the Amazon, 1865, box 1, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

35James seems to play with the intoxicating effect created by the huge amount of samples gathered by the expedition, all destined to be crammed into countless barrels at the Museum of Comparative Geology (“the Agassiz Museum”) in Harvard. It is symptomatic that, even with a special collection at hand, James never tried to represent nature in the objective manner typical of scientists. On the contrary, whenever he was free from physical work, James was interested in describing experiences in which nature was in close relation with objects, people and himself.

  • 23 Letters to Henry James, May 10th, 1865; Mary Walsh James, August 23rd, 1865; Alice James, August 31(...)

36In Rio de Janeiro, climbing the Corcovado Mountain, he was impressed by the power of the vegetation in invading the houses and “wed[ding] what is artificial to what is natural.” In the Amazon, sailing through Xingu River, aboard a boat full of domesticated monkeys and parrots, he saw approachable forests whose branches offered themselves to the arms of the crew members. In an isolated part of the Tapajós River, he felt a cold tempest pour down onto his body, hitting him “like small shot fired from a gun.” On the Solimões, he described his arrival to the “mosquito country,” where the torturing insects invade the mouth of the visitors and “numerous anthropophageous fishes” can rip out their flesh with little bites (Machado, 2006 59-75).23

37Similar impressions are registered when he gets in touch with the population of the Amazon. As he describes a conversation between his guide, Mr. Urbano, a “good looking cafuzo with much more black than Indian blood,” and his temporary neighbors, James appreciates the absence of “exaggerated words” and “improbable metaphors” that would mark the Yankees’ kind of entertainment. As he remembers his family reunions, James considers there might be more “beauty and harmony” in these conversations than in those conducted by his own father in Newport (Machado, 2006 87-96).

  • 24 “Brazilian Diary,” November 10th and November 16th, 1865.

38James recognizes in Mr. Urbano a kind of “native refinement, intelligence and a sort of cleanliness and purity” far from the “damned anglo saxon [sic] brutality and vulgarity either in master or servants.” Likewise, in observing a conversation between the natives that paddled his canoe and an indigenous old lady, James inquires whether it is race or circumstance that “makes these people so refined and well bred,” and comments: “No gentleman in Europe has better manners and yet these are peasants” (Machado, 2006 87-96)24.

39Certainly, James’s portrait of the Amazon natives is quite different from the Agassiz couple’s view of the “mixed types.” In his account of the photographic studio in Manaus, James implies that this was not scientific at all, being only a subterfuge to induce local women to undress themselves (Machado, 2006 88). In contrast to the fixed and embarrassing poses maintained for the purpose of racial hierarchy, James prefers to draw the Amazon characters in their unique and daily gestures, with images that convey movement and expression. Together with the drawings of wild animals and the sketches of the rustic places he visited, they compose a kind of mosaic of concrete experiences that escapes both the idealized tropical representation and the racist “objectivity” of Agassiz’s daguerreotypes.

Figure 2

Figure 2

James, William. Profile. Indian Boy and Full-length Sketch of Boy. 1865.

MS Am 1092.2 (10), box 1, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Figure 3

Figure 3

James, William. Man with a Pipe. 1865.

MS Am 1092.2 (5), box 1, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Figure 4

Figure 4

James, William. Portrait of an Indian Man and Two Seated Boys. 1865.

MS Am 1092.2, (7), box 1, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

40Taking those facts into consideration, we can now conceive an alternative perspective on the South, based on plural experiences whose center is the construction of the relation itself. The refusal to assume a previously determined vision of nature and “human types” results in perspectives built at each moment, encounter and new experience. It is a kind of activity that David Lapoujade, in his book on James’s philosophy, calls ambulatory knowledge: a zigzag set of paths, prolongations and junctions, which does not culminate in a global synthesis (73). Or, something close to what the poet Édouard Glissant, referring to the Caribbean and Amazonian cauldron, calls “créolisation”: the unpredictable result of the shock between different cultures that leads to an ever new, difficult and ambiguous experience (37).

  • 25 Letter to Alice James, August 31st, 1865.
  • 26 Letter to Mary Walsh James, December 9th, 1865.

41In James’s case, this experience of the South ended up producing a radical self-transformation. In a letter to his sister, Alice James, he described the state of physical ruin in which he found himself: the unshaven beard, the very short hair, the sunburnt feet, the injured hands, the face still scarred by smallpox and three months without contact with any book (Machado, 2006 71).25 In his last letter sent from Brazil, on the banks of the Amazon River, he said he was absorbed by a sort of monotony that permeates all Amazon life. Gradually, not only the physical aspect, but existence itself began to change profoundly: “strange to say, it is the old existence that has already begun to seem to me like a dream.” And with the new existence, a new perception of the cultural life of his distant New England also emerged: the idea of people “killing themselves with thinking about things that have no connection with their merely external circumstances, studying themselves into fevers, going mad about religion, philosophy, love & such [...], seems almost incredible and imaginary, and yet I only left it 8 months ago” (85).26

42Transformed by the contact with a South that opened itself up to multiple experiences, James realized more clearly the consequences of dogmatism and pure abstract thinking in his original culture. He seemed to have already in mind the claim that any dispute be evaluated for its practical consequences. It is this sensitivity that would be mobilized, decades later, in his critique of American Imperialism, when a “war fever” turned to the South again, bringing back the Manifest Destiny of Herndon, Maury and others (Cotkin; Livingston).

43However, between 1864 and 1865, James was still looking for his first theoretical tools to build his idea of pluralism. Just before embarking for Brazil, he began a series of scientific reviews that pointed to a singular and complex position: on the one hand, a critique of the creationist tradition of which Agassiz was part; on the other hand, a fear that the new evolutionist view of science would turn into another dogmatism or determinism (W. James 205-221).

44In his first published review, Lectures on the Elements of Comparative Anatomy by Thomas Huxley (1865), James reconstructs the debate between the theories of Georges Cuvier, Agassiz’s notorious mentor, and those of the young Thomas Huxley. James retraces Huxley’s passionate defense of Darwin’s theories observing that other naturalists of his time—Asa Gray, Lyell, Owen, etc. —were already leaning towards their general acceptance. This theory would inevitably provoke a revision of Cuvier’s conceptions about the unique and closed character of each species and the specific and harmonic role it plays in nature (“un tout unique et clos” [qtd in W. James 201]). For Cuvier, animals essentially differ from each other and any resemblance between them would be accidental and explained by the similarity of purpose for which they were created. So, any law or necessary relation thought beyond these barriers would represent a violation of the “Creator’s freedom,” leaving the naturalist simply to analyze and record the differences between the species.

45These classificatory barriers erected by Cuvier derived, according to James, from his affiliation with an analytical intellectual tendency. These barriers could not contain the advance of a new scientific synthesis represented by the idea that all organic forms come from common properties of matter. This synthesis, launching the basis of modern materialism, easily opposes the assertion that the natural world is ruled by a transcendent and divine organizing principle, and therefore declares the “Self-Competency of Nature.” James is quite aware that the new evolutionary theories are atheistic in their tendency, “causing alarm to many excellent people” (W. James 202). It will no longer be possible to say that God somehow rivals nature to adapt it to his designs and purposes. Consequently, the idea that species are a closed “tout” harmonized within a divine plan falls apart.

46This specific moment of young James’s review—a kind of digression distinct from a simple theoretical commentary—exposes a concern that will follow the future philosopher in his reflections on the relationship between the material world and the “Supernatural.” James claims that Huxley’s conclusions could only lead to a partial synthesis as it does not encompass much of our moral experience and reflection on this non-materialistic dimension. The young student of medicine wonders if the introduction of an order into the Natural would not be a necessary step towards a “purer” and more comprehensive conception of it. James asks whether, in this new conception, we could not recognize the existence of ultimate meanings embedding a kind of deeper plane of nature.

47Paul Croce, in his relatively recent book Young William James Thinking (2018), commenting on this specific passage, claims that James allows himself a sort of “speculative prophecy” on the relation between the natural and the Supernatural, a glimpse of a pantheistic idea which was very in tune with his father’s spiritualist empiricism (70). According to Croce, James sends a first draft to the North American Review editor, Charles Eliot Norton, as part of a broader “Program of the Future of Science” (71). This program aimed at an adoption of scientific naturalism, opposed to traditional religion, but without the reductionism of the new materialist approach. Furthermore, James would include a critique of the hasty conclusions driven by the new science. Hence, in the published version, James does not spare criticism of Huxley’s uniformly rude and virulent tone directed at his opponents. James concludes that this tone ends up discrediting science, transforming a lecture hall into something akin to a boxing audience (W. James 205).

48In two other reviews on the theory of the naturalist Alfred Wallace in 1865 (W. James 206-208) and the anthropologist Armand de Quatrefages in 1867 (216-221), James refuted the theory of polygenism and the “hybrid types” degeneration thesis. Perhaps thinking about his experience in the Amazon, James considers that one of the most interesting chapters in the book is the one in which Quatrefages analyzes the problems of the “acclimatization” of species and the polygenist theses about the existence of a natural habitat for each “race.” What is at stake is precisely the effect of the tropics for the “races” that would not originate in these regions of the planet. James points out that Quatrefages has gathered a broad sample of statistics, based on French colonization, showing that if there is a “loss of vitality,” this could be simply due to the social habits of the colonizers (220).

49In the same chapter, James comments on the anthropologist’s positions on miscegenation, recognizing that the trend for the future is for hybridization to happen all over the world and that, for this reason: “the hottest parts of our continent are the great laboratories.” For Quatrefages, although many catastrophists have prophesied the end of humanity through the amalgamation that occurred in the tropics, it could only have positive and salutary effects. It would even be a case of thinking that only when the maximum mix is reached, humanity could advance. Despite criticizing its stylistic exaggerations, James believes that Quatrefages’s book presents enough evidence to dispel the pessimism that marks the origins of anthropology in its relationship with the South, considering it a pioneering contribution to the emerging discipline (221).

50James, therefore, is theoretically prepared to question the three pillars of Agassiz’s omniscient naturalism: (i) nature is not structured by a divine plan that assigns species a unique and static role; (ii) polygenism seems unlikely given the evidence presented by Darwin and his followers; (iii) the thesis of the degeneration of “hybrid types” does not find the necessary support in statistical and anthropological data.

Conclusion: The Green Darkness and the Transatlantic Winds

51In the years after his trip to Brazil, James still seemed immersed in profound doubts and almost insoluble impasses. Paul Croce states that, in this period, James decided to dive into his own ambivalence, conducting from Germany empirical studies of physiology along the lines of positivism and, at the same time, favoring an existential immersion in the art and literature of Ancient Greece and German Romantics, such as Goethe and Schiller. The question concerns the possibility of reconciliation between the characteristics of post-Darwinian natural sciences and a worldview that considers the presence of invisible forces in life and nature.

52This ambivalence was shared with his brother in a letter sent from Dresden on April 5th, 1868 (qtd in Perry 102-103). James dove into Homer’s books, the Iliad and the Odyssey, surprised by the ability of the Greeks to “accept the universe” without attributing any drastic and imposing sense to it. Not only do good and evil seem temporary and perishable, but existence finds a justification in life itself, and nothing more. Three years after boarding the Colorado, James reported a curious appearance in his reading of the Greeks: “My South American Indians continue to appear before me now while I read the Odyssey.” For him, the “health, brightness and freshness” of an Amerindian existence, radically alien to the dogmatic weight of modern beliefs, seem to inspire a new search, even if the horizon remains uncertain (qtd in Perry 103).

  • 27 Letter to Thomas Ward, October 9th, 1868 (qtd in Perry 111-112).

53In a letter to his expedition colleague, Thomas Ward, written in the same period (1868), James felt again the imminence of a deep personal crisis.27 He revealed the impression of not being able to accomplish anything, while the world, seen in its fermentations and chemical reactions, seemed to make no sense to him. He felt totally unfit for scientific work, at the exact moment his only ideal of life had become, paradoxically, the full dedication to science. When his doubt reached the point in which he asked if he would ever be useful in something, he wondered: “why not take a walk in the green darkness?” On the threshold of absolute despair, nonetheless, a thread of hope arose, reminding him that “fragments of beauty” were released, resisting long enough to produce something significant. These forces, although precarious and ephemeral, were “worth more to the world” than any chemical reaction analyzed by science (qtd in Perry 112).

54Surrounded by a double constraint—on the one hand, the world encompassed by a willful divine plan; on the other hand, the world left to the blindness of the “properties of matter” —James tried to establish another starting point. But he could only be successful if he found in fragments and unfinished paths a new terrain to be explored. It is in this insistence—in which relation itself becomes a difficult and necessary experience—that James’s plural South can be found. We can condense it in one formula: a disturbing green darkness, always on the prowl, but also some possibilities brought by transatlantic winds. From ongoing youth crisis to the conception of a multiverse, this is the enigma that had, since the beginning, followed James in his pluralistic effort.

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1 Letter to Henry James Sr. and Mary Robertson Walsh James, April 21st-22nd, 1865 (Machado, 2006 53).

2 See Melville. About the relation between Herman Melville and Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), see Heflin ch. 9.

3 Letter to Alice James, April 27th, 1865 (Machado, 2006 57). About the international audience and commerce related to tropical representations in the 19th century, see Stepan 31-56.

4 See Irmscher, 2013 and 2017, ch. 2 and introduction.

5 Letter to Henry James Sr., May 3rd, 1865.

6 Letter to Henry James Sr., June 3rd, 1865.

7 Machado is currently Full Professor at the University of São Paulo’s Department of History and a specialist in slavery, abolition and post-emancipation studies, with researches that connect the social history of Brazil and the United States. My contact with her extensive research was an important starting point for this paper.

8 For the earlier references of James’s participation in the expedition, see: Perry; Livingston. In Brazil: D. James; Freyre. About this relatively new field of research, see: Menand; Lago; Freire; Machado, 2005 and 2006; Huber and Machado; Rogers; Rattes; Croce.

9 For a similar approach to the concept of “South,” see: Cocco.

10 Original quote in Portuguese: “Neste ponto, o rio, que sobre todos desafia o nosso lirismo patriótico é o menos brasileiro dos rios” [...]; “Antolha-se-lhe um contrassenso pasmoso: à ficção do direito internacional estabelecendo por vezes a exterritorialidade, que é a pátria sem terra, contrapõe-se uma outra, rudemente física: a terra sem pátria” (Da Cunha 47-48, my translation). See also Hardman; Hecht.

11 “Strikingly, as these Euro-Americans were repulsed by the dreadfulness of Brazilian slavery, a number of African-Americans viewed this nation differently, using this South American example as a means to discredit the awfulness in North America they were compelled to endure” (Horne 13).

12 Letter to Henry James Sr., September 12th, 1865 (Machado, 2006 75).

13 Machado, 2006; Cotkin, ch. 1.

14 See Fletcher, ch. XIII. For the relation between D. Pedro II, Agassiz and American transcendentalism, see Freitas 105-119.

15 The exchange of letters between D. Pedro II and Agassiz can be entirely found in D. James.

16 In this letter, written in French to Dom Pedro II, from New York, the naturalist sought: (i) to announce the success of the series of twelve classes taught on aquatic animals in the Amazon, which would be replicated in New York and Washington; (ii) to comment on the post-Civil War American political situation, celebrating the end of slavery; (iii) to defend the opening of the Amazon rivers and the diplomatic exchange between Brazil and the United States. An excerpt, without translation, can be found here: “Deux événements récents vont électriser notre pays, l’affranchissement des esclaves de l’État et l’ouverture des grands fleuves du Brésil. Les États-Unis se sont passionnés de l’abolition de l’esclavage et je suis certain que dès aujourd’hui de nombreuses voix s’elèvent chaque jour dans le secret de bien des coeurs républicains appelant la bénédiction d’en Haut sur la tête de Votre Majesté pour l’initiative qu’Elle a prise dans la régénération d’une race déshéritée. D’un autre coté l’ouverture de l’Amazone va stimuler les intérêts pécuniaires et donner un nouvel élan à cet esprit aventureux qui fait des Américains les pioniers de la civilisation moderne. Puisse le gouvernement des États-Unis être assez sage pour profiter de ces dispositions pour resserrer les liens entre ce pays et le Brésil et faciliter par tous les moyens à sa disposition les relations entre l’Amérique du Nord et l’Amérique du Sud.” Letter from Louis Agassiz to Dom Pedro II, New York, January 18th, 1867 (D. James 147).

17 Letter to Henry James Sr., June 3rd, 1865.

18 See letter to Henry James, July 15th, 1865. James describes the Tijuca Forest in Rio de Janeiro as the “Garden of Eden,” although it is, actually, an example of an urban Atlantic forest and, at that time, recently regenerated by Dom Pedro II (1861) (Machado, 2006 64, 41). For a historical view on the idealization of the tropical forest in Brazil, see Stepan; Araújo.

19 Letter to Henry James, May 3rd, 1865.

20 Letter to Alice James, November 6th, 1865. Brazilian Diary, November 10th, 1865.

21 Letter to Henry James and Mary Walsh James, October 22nd, 1865.

22 Letter to Mary Walsh James, August 3rd, 1865.

23 Letters to Henry James, May 10th, 1865; Mary Walsh James, August 23rd, 1865; Alice James, August 31st, 1865; and Henry James Sr., September 12th, 1865.

24 “Brazilian Diary,” November 10th and November 16th, 1865.

25 Letter to Alice James, August 31st, 1865.

26 Letter to Mary Walsh James, December 9th, 1865.

27 Letter to Thomas Ward, October 9th, 1868 (qtd in Perry 111-112).

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1
Légende “Triumphal Return of Mr. Dexter from Brazil” (caption used in Machado, 2006 34).
Crédits Sketches of William James in the Amazon, 1865, box 1, Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Fichier image/png, 499k
Titre Figure 2
Légende James, William. Profile. Indian Boy and Full-length Sketch of Boy. 1865.
Fichier image/png, 59k
Titre Figure 3
Légende James, William. Man with a Pipe. 1865.
Fichier image/png, 54k
Titre Figure 4
Légende James, William. Portrait of an Indian Man and Two Seated Boys. 1865.
Fichier image/png, 170k
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Alexandre Mendes, « William James and the Deepest South »Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2022, mis en ligne le 30 mai 2022, consulté le 10 août 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Alexandre Mendes

Université d’État de Rio de Janeiro

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