Brazil through the Eyes of William James: Diaries, Letters, and Drawings, 1865-1866. Edited by Maria Helena P.T. Machado

Book Review

Brazil through the Eyes of William James: Diaries, Letters, and Drawings, 1865-1866. Bilingual Edition / Edição Bilíngüe. Edited by Maria Helena P.T. Machado. Translated by John M. Monteiro. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2006. Pp. 230.  $29.95.
    On April Fool’s Day in 1865, the steamship Colorado left New York with a strange cargo: the Brazil-bound Thayer Expedition, led by renowned Harvard naturalist Louis Agassiz.  Accompanying Agassiz was a motley crew of assistants and specimen collectors, one of whom was a gung-ho student volunteer named William James. 1
    During his eight months in Brazil, James kept a diary, wrote letters home, made numerous sketches, and even composed a brief travel narrative (“A Month on the Solimoens”). Thanks to the efforts of Maria Helena P.T. Machado, these documents have now been gathered together in one handsome, slim, and scrupulously edited volume: Brazil Through the Eyes of William James: Letters, Diaries, and Drawings 1865-1866.  As this is a bilingual edition, moreover, the entire text—introduction, letters, diary, narrative, captions, references, lists, acknowledgments—is printed twice: first in English (pp. 5-110), then in Portuguese (pp. 111-230). 2
    Brazil Through the Eyes of William James says precious little about philosophy, psychology, or religious studies. Nevertheless, I strongly suspect that James enthusiasts will find it a stimulating and intriguing read. Why? Here are four reasons. (1) To begin with, the editor’s superb introduction (“An American Adam in the Amazonian Garden of Eden”) puts the Thayer Expedition into its historical and cultural context (pp. 9-48). Among other things, Machado argues that the Expedition “was not exactly an innocent voyage of exploration” (p. 38) inasmuch as its agenda was shaped by sinister assumptions about race repugnant to James (pp. 38-39, 44-48). (2) The eighteen letters which James wrote to his family—specifically, to his father, his mother, and his siblings Henry and Alice—are minor masterpieces of the epistolary genre (pp. 51-85). Immensely readable and revealing, these missives range widely in tone: now fact-laden and full of reportage, now heartfelt and affectionate; now wry and urbane, now deliciously silly and whimsical. They will be savoured not only by aficionados of James’s style, but also by anyone interested in the climate of sentiment in which the James clan dwelt. (3) Then there are James’s sharp-eyed observations and splendidly vivid descriptions.  Melancholy spider monkeys (pp. 99-100), marauding mosquitoes (pp. 57, 74, 89, 91), “the vile Sea” (p. 53), the virtues of hammocks (p. 68), the dangers of bananas (p. 56), pineapples “as big as a beaver hat” (p. 83), “lovely Indian maidens” (p. 74), “this expensive and dirty Rio” (p. 63), sublime Corcovado (p. 59), “the affluence of Nature” (p. 59), the enigmatic Agassiz  (pp. 56,  58, 59, 75, 76), the appearance and manners of “polite and obliging” locals (pp. 54, 90, 92)—all these things, and many more, are made concrete and real for the reader. Young James, it is plain, was “a person on whom nothing is lost” (to quote his brother Henry’s well-known advice to aspiring writers). (4) Another virtue of the volume is its artful use of arresting images—photographs, paintings, sketches, doodles, manuscripts—to complement James’s written accounts of his Brazilian sojourn. Especially noteworthy in this collection are James’s own drawings (pp. 13, 14, 25, 34, 52, 55, 67, 69, 70, 79, 82, 86, 89, 99), several of which are indisputable proof of artistic talent. His subjects are varied: his fellow explorers, the women of Rio, the indigenous people of the Amazon, Agassiz, monkeys, dug-out canoes, river-side scenery, and his beloved sister Alice. 3
    By the time James left Brazil, he was weary of fieldwork—”I am thoroughly sick of collecting” (p. 84)—and had decided not to follow in Agassiz’s professional footsteps (pp. 80, 84, 85). He completed his degree at Harvard Medical School, but grew disenchanted with medicine—just as he had with natural history and (before that) with painting. With plenty of talent but no vocation, James started to drift, rudderless, through life. To comprehend the agonizing personal crisis he faced—a crisis which lasted into the 1870s—we need to understand his mind from the inside; that is, we need to understand how he saw the world.  Brazil Through the Eyes of William James helps us do just that. For this reason, among others, Machado’s many-sided volume is an excellent example of scholarship undertaken in the service of the imagination. A rich and provocative work, it deserves a wide audience—on both sides of the equator. 4
Douglas McDermid
Department of Philosophy
Trent University

loved that

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.