“Pajamas from Spirit Land” Searching for William James
After the passing of William James — philosopher, early psychologist, and investigator of psychic phenomena — mediums across the US began receiving messages from the late Harvard professor. Channelling these fragmentary voices, Alicia Puglionesi considers the relationship between communication, reputation, and survival after death.
February 23, 2022
I’ve been writing a book about a failed and forgotten science, poring over the testimony of people who saw and heard impossible things, for years now. I joke that it will make me crazy. People ask if I believe in ghosts, and I can always tell if they’re asking because they experience reality as haunted in some way, or because they think I’ve fixed on a wrong idea. Walking out of the icy American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR) library into the sunset-saturated clamor of evening on the Upper West Side, I feel like a shade among the living. I have my feet in other people’s inner worlds, their yearnings and anxieties are mine. Traffic, bodegas, the cartoon animals on children’s backpacks wash over me, meaning obscured by a curtain of sheer sensory noise. Unmoored, I take my cell phone out of my pocket and call whoever will answer. It’s as simple as trading gossip with my high school best friend or an old roommate. Unbeknownst to them, they’re talking me back into our common reality. But where am I when I’m drifting? What if no one answers the call? Over time, the people we love slip out of range.
It was hard for his friends to let William James go. “I always thought that [he] would continue forever”, declared the irascible editor John Jay Chapman, “and I relied upon his sanctity as if it were sunlight.”1 James’ death in August of 1910 came on quickly, though he had long suffered from ill health. The fact that he was so often sick, and the causes of his illness so obscure, made even James doubt that his heart would finally fail. Perhaps he could still think his way out of it. If only he could overcome the growing anxiety that his major contributions to philosophy, 1907’s Pragmatism and 1909’s A Pluralistic Universe, were being misinterpreted and poorly received. His gasping for breath was “partly a spasmodic phenomenon”, he insisted, something in the mind. Yet, as his brother and wife rushed him across the Atlantic after another failed Alpine rest cure, it became clear to all of them that it would be his last return to New England. In constant pain, he could no longer walk and had to be carried on a litter. Sixty-eight years of chaotic comings and goings, restless transmissions, had come to an end. This ending left Henry James “in darkness . . . abandoned and afraid”.2 The elder brother was a pillar shoring up Henry’s unstable emotions. “His death changes and blights everything for me”, Henry wrote, staggering under the weight and finality of loss.
Two decades before William James’ death, the ASPR — which was meant to serve as a public archive of psychical experiences, an extended recording device for the nation’s liminal states — had tallied 6,311 responses to the Census of Hallucinations that he launched in the United States. Fortunately for James, 5,459 people answered no to the question, “Have you ever, when believing yourself to be completely awake, had the vivid impression of seeing or being touched by a living being . . . or of hearing a voice . . . not due to any external cause?” It was the remaining 852 cases that would bog him down for years in what he called a “terribly slouchy piece of work”: trying to coax names, dates, corroborating testimony, or any response at all from the yeses. Never a data hound, he admitted to letting the correspondence “get into arrears”, while the correspondents themselves “obstinately refused to reply in a great many cases”.3 A regular attendee of séances, James learned that contact with the living could be more difficult than contacting the dead. The American public knew the Harvard philosopher well through his influential lectures, textbooks, and newspaper appearances, forums in which he defined the emerging science of psychology and weighed in on ethics and politics. Towards the end of his career, James risked trading his reputation as “the greatest thinker since Emerson” for that of “a man best known for his investigations of psychic phenomena” due to his support for the controversial medium Leonora Piper. This left him uneasy, as he rushed to complete a final work that would defend pragmatism against its critics.
Indeed, after his death, the philosopher’s worst fears about the cheapening of his intellectual legacy unfolded in the pages of American newspapers from Hartford to Portland to Miami. Within a month of his passing, headlines announced a secret pact between William James and James Hervey Hyslop, the president of the ASPR. Supposedly, James had left a sealed letter in a safe. If a medium could channel the text of the letter, this would prove the reality of the spirit world. Hyslop denied any such plan. Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Psychical Society, an ASPR splinter group led by vehement debunker Joseph Rinn, announced a $10,000 prize for the contents of the apocryphal letter. This bounty provoked fifty mediums to answer Rinn’s call. “The expressions [they] used are similar to those of professional mediums since the days of the Fox sisters”, Rinn scoffed, referencing the founding figures of modern American Spiritualism. Of course, they could never match James’ letter, since no such letter existed — rather, Rinn’s stunt proved the duplicity of mediums.4
While the sealed-letter story was a fabrication from top to bottom, the tidal wave of mediumship had been unleashed. The press ran regular updates on the latest James rappings. The usual suspects, well-known Spiritualists like M. S. Ayer and the Reverend Frederick A. Wiggin, formed the crest of the wave, but beneath them rose scores of amateur mediums and chance experimenters who claimed that they had little knowledge of or interest in the works of the dead Harvard professor.
Typical of these was a young woman from Washington, DC, who claimed that James contacted her only four days after he died. “She did not know Professor James”, the press reported, “and had not read any of his writings”. A constant refrain with female mediums — investigators assumed, or the mediums cannily attested, that they’d never entertained a thought about public matters or glanced at a newspaper (where James’ work was frequently discussed). While riding a train in September of 1910, the woman received a rambling message in which James explained the difficulties of communicating without a body: “The spirit must work out its more or less gradual emancipation from the labyrinth of the earth conditions.” An underwhelmed Hyslop read the text and “failed to find anything which suggests the style of Professor James”.5
Despite such flippant remarks, Hyslop did not actually believe that literary style could prove a spirit’s identity. He shared the standard Spiritualist explanation for gibberish from the beyond: in their transcendent new state of consciousness, spirits no longer thought in mortal language, and struggled to translate their ideas and transmit them along unreliable channels. In the same interview where he condemned the chorus of James channelers, Hyslop waxed philosophical on the very nature of communication: “There are enormous difficulties associated with the communication of ideas normally”, he reflected, “and only a laboriously-constructed process of artificial symbols ever enables us to establish intellectual relations between minds at all. What we suppose to be an easy and natural means of ascertaining each other’s thoughts is an exceedingly difficult one.”6 All speech is an elaborate translation, in which meaning and intent are often misconstrued. So much more with speech across the unfathomable abyss of death. The real terror is not dissolution, but the flimsiness of our superficial solidity.
Rather than a spot-on imitation of James’ prose style, Hyslop had quietly begun searching for “the little, trivial incidents” — intimate details known only to family and close friends of the public philosopher. He proposed that the scientific way to confirm spirit identity was to trace these bits of unconscious flotsam.7 To find such clues, he consulted two mediums who had earned his personal trust, Minnie Soule of Boston (known as “Mrs. Chenoweth”) and Mrs. Willis M. Cleaveland of Virginia (known as “Mrs. Smead”). Around September 5, 1910, Smead contacted Hyslop claiming that she saw James’ apparition on the night of his death and had been receiving transmissions ever since. Smead seems no less opportunistic than any of the psychics duped by the Metropolitan Society contest, but Hyslop took her seriously based on her previous cooperation with the ASPR. Moreover, she lived in “in one of the southern states in the mountains, 13 miles from a railway”.8 Naturally she claimed to know nothing about James. Hyslop rushed to rural Virginia to sit at the séance table with the Smeads. For someone who believed in telepathy, he found it surprisingly hard to imagine how information might reach women by ordinary means.
Meanwhile, the spirit-James cavalcade was rapidly coming to resemble “the most farcical [of] vaudeville skits”.9 On November 14, a New York man produced a spirit photograph of James, along with a gushing, sentimental message; the reporter bemoaned “a marked change in the literary style of the late Professor of Psychology and a falling off of logical faculty as well”.10 By January, James reached the West Coast, appearing in the automatic writing of Los Angeles psychologist Herbert Luzon. While Hyslop publicly decried these reports as “nothing but cases of hysteria” or “fakers pure and simple”, maintaining that he was not investigating any James appearances, he had already established a series of cross-correspondences between the mediums Smead and Chenoweth.11 Hyslop believed that clues repeated independently by both mediums could verify James’ identity.
It took almost two years for Hyslop to go public with his investigation. By that time the media frenzy had subsided, but reporters happily picked up where they left off. From Hyslop’s exhaustive explanation of the Smead and Chenoweth cross-correspondences in the ASPR’s Journal, they extracted the money headline: “Pajamas from Spirit Land”, the papers declared, “Pink Pajamas Talked of by Spirit”. Indeed, the clue that persuaded Hyslop was a recurring reference to James’ pink pajamas, the trivial detail known to no one else. “Was that the most characteristic thing about himself the philosopher could think of?” jeered the New York Tribune. “He might have told the world whether or not he found his theory of pragmatism true.”12 And there it was — in the crucial years when students and followers could have secured James’ intellectual legacy, this drawn-out survival debate reduced the philosopher and his ideas to a laughingstock. In a 1913 incident, James’ spirit reportedly ordered Hyslop to “write a paper against woman suffrage. It is my desire that you do this . . . PS: Don’t let your wife see it.”13
Jesting headlines also obscured the larger problem of how identity, writing, and translation connect the living and the dead. Hyslop believed he’d solved it with the cross-correspondence method, but this represented another retreat into the familiar, a projection of the map onto the territory. Hyslop and his fellow investigators, communing with their dead colleagues, conceived of the afterlife as a site of systematic science parallel to the systematic science of psychical research. In their view, the spirits were leading the way, making advances in scientific methodology and sending data from the furthest periphery back to the imagined center. Hyslop extolled “the detail, the large and comprehensive way in which [the spirit control] worked as by a chart”.14 With efforts to know and channel the dead leading down these solipsistic blind alleys, newspaper satirists weren’t the only ones wishing that inquiring minds would leave the dearly departed alone.
Drifting in his grief from Boston to New York to London, and finally back to his retreat in Rye, Henry James ignored the tabloid headlines from America for months. Inevitably, though, his brother’s ventriloquized spirit penetrated Henry’s intimate circles. In 1912, his close friend Theodate Pope, one of the first female architects in America and an ASPR trustee, sent Henry a transcript of a séance in which William appeared. Henry referred to it as “the dreadful document . . . without hesitation the most abject and impudent, the hollowest, vulgarest, and basest rubbish I could possibly conceive.” Clearly, he took deep personal offense at the tone-deaf Spiritualist maneuver of countering grief with a piece of spirit-writing, which he dismissed as a “tissue of trash”.15
Henry was the wrong person to ply with the Spiritualist reanimation trick; he knew his brother’s voice inside and out. For four decades they had bared their souls to each other in written exchanges, so that William’s identity was his letters, his words — language was not a mere tool, but the substance of their relationship. If the conditions of spirit life reduced William James to something “utterly empty and illiterate . . . a mere babble of platitudinous phrases”, then immortality was worse than the abyss.16
Henry consoled himself by editing the unfinished work that William left behind, organizing his brother’s correspondence, and building the intellectual monuments that keep the thoughts of the dead on the tongues of the living. For the literary- and literal-minded Henry, this was the only survival that mattered, a corpus fixed as its author intended, safe from the bizarre, degrading whims of mediumship. To this end, somewhat ironically, Henry acted as a medium upon his brother’s literary remains, channeling an illustrious image of William shorn of its darkest doubts and terrors, as well as of its indulgence in what Henry believed to be false Spiritualist hopes.
A realist novelist of meticulous psychological insight, Henry James stood at the precipice of modernism. The more obsessively he captured his characters’ fragmentary memories, contradictory desires, and unconscious motives, the closer he came to dissolving the unitary Enlightenment self that made novels possible to begin with. Whether this tendency is related to William’s psychological theories or not, the brothers were in constant communication. They both struggled throughout their lives with episodes of paralyzing despair; one could suggest, as a causal factor, the suspicion that we are nothing more than a fleeting, unstable bundle of impressions and influences. Henry especially worried over the feminine valence of sensitivity, that receiving too much of others could unmake and unman. Yet through sheer force of authorship — persuasive, dazzling authorship — both brothers tried to assert a unified self that persists. Even in this lonely masculine project, each was necessary to the other.
Many things shattered in the interval between Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and a text like Joyce’s Ulysses. William James explored the precarious nature of the self, but he denied the inevitability of despair — he asserted the nineteenth-century ideal of constant, disciplined self-making as a bulwark against the void. As modernist and postmodern poets adopted channeling as a writing technique, it became a discipline of dissolution, a poetics of confused, layered, fragmentary voices coming through from the far reaches of time and space. The poet taking dictation was the “tissue of trash” that Henry decried, a doomed explorer, a linguist translating from nonsense to nonsense, and ultimately, a specter. However, the channeling practice of poets like Jack Spicer was not easy or for show; Spicer was wholly consumed by the duty to take dictation. At some point, his determination to produce good art elided into a perilous responsibility to the dead.
Mediumistic texts make the tragicomedy of communication palpable. They dramatize the medium’s struggle against projection, mere echoing, and the spirits’ struggle to make themselves known with only shreds of a shared language. Though I’m uneasy about how this practice traveled from the lips of nineteenth-century women to poetry MFA programs, in any case it’s what I want out of poetry: many voices trying and failing to communicate, and still trying. The idea that, no matter where we drift, there will always be someone to pick up the call on the other end. That art is not a map of an individual, but of what we mean to each other.
October 14, 1912: “William James will not Prof. James for there are no professor here. God * * but will W James Prof Jam . . . [ran off paper] James * * Jams James William James.”
October 15, 1912: “William James Mind better Mind better the law the law . . . Mind the law as [?] of the trees. the [y] fall no matter how beautiful or how strong or large the trees . . . but we live again like the sturdy oak in life made perfect.”17
Hyslop investigated Ritchie and found that the “alleged messages from Professor James do not present evidence of identity in any form that is scientifically recognizable.”18 No pink pajamas, that is. But Hyslop didn’t really know James. James, in fact, harbored mild personal dislike towards his ASPR successor, who he saw as blunt and unempathetic. The idea that Hyslop would be the target of James’ efforts at communication, out of mere professional courtesy, is somewhat absurd.
In Ritchie’s trance she mingled the initials W. J. and H. J. Supposedly unaware of either individual’s work, she scrawled William—Henry— James—Henry—William across the page. Said the dead one to the one who survived: “James lives my brother lives lives. Asking brother where my pen is.” Said the surviving brother of the dead one: “He is a possession, of real magnitude, and I shall find myself still living upon him to the end.”19
Excerpted and adapted from Common Phantoms: An American History of Psychic Science by Alicia Puglionesi published by Stanford University Press, ©2021 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. All Rights Reserved.
Alicia Puglionesi is a writer and historian. She holds a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology from Johns Hopkins University. Her first book, Common Phantoms: An American History of Psychic Science (2020), explores how the practices of seances, clairvoyance, and telepathy both questioned and reinscribed social boundaries. Her second book, In Whose Ruins: Power, Possession, and the Landscapes of American Empire (2022), examines four sites of resource extraction that also yielded scientific and spiritual narratives core to US settler-colonialism. Her essays from various corners of the web can be found here.