According to Henry James, William set standards of intelligence, confidence, and common sense which daunted his siblings. Resisting his father’s strong desire that he become a scientist, he pursued painting until adolescent study convinced him of his mediocrity. He next studied chemistry, and then anatomy and physiology under Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz. Still dissatisfied, he shifted to Harvard Medical School in 1864. During a collecting expedition to Brazil with Agassiz in 1865-66, he contracted smallpox, which temporarily blinded him.

Dear Harry,
     It may be, may very well be,
to you, to you alone, I can confide this:
this blindness is not wholly to be dreaded,
though I suspect—and you shall understand this—
the reasons will have less to do with me,
most likely, and more to do with Brazil.
You, I daresay, would flourish here, would read
into this richness, no doubt, equal richness,
would find, at the least seek, a metaphor
which, to the last detail, might match the scene,
would take this lushness, this profusion, this
extravagance of color, scent, heat, light,
and make of it much more than most would make,
more than your brother Willie knows or cares to.

Cares to: that may state the truth of it best.
This loveliness (I am not blind enough
not to have seen it was that when I saw)
seems to serve only to confuse me further,
cause dizziness, unsettle me, distract me
from what I thought my purpose was to be here.
(I came not for adventure, you remember,
not for diversion, not for the romance—
spurious, self-induced, in my belief—
with which travel, for others, seems imbued.)
The truth is I am unable to work,
unable to grasp the enormity
of this landscape, the life forms, dawns, the dusks,
unable to distinguish the horizon
from the sky, or the sky from the horizon.
Whatever forces (I cannot yet name them;
they resist, seem to resist, all attempts
at categorization) are at work here,
whatever factors (even clues seem lacking)
conspire to meet here to yield this “Brazil,”
all seems past my capacity to fathom,
to delve into, to wish to delve into.
Whatever definitions, I assure you,
the scientific mind arrives equipped with,
whatever, in the past, one may have known,
or thought one knew, whatever mere degree
of insight one possessed (marginal, brief),
is, or has been, or shall be, unavailing.
(I have, I must admit, some difficulty
even shaping its sound: Brazil, Brazil.)

You, with your taste for ambiguity,
symbol, drama of the interior,
nuance, half-tones, half-lights, glint of refractions,
private experience; you, with your passion
(misplaced passion, according to my view)
for layer upon layer, your insistence
on context, context, context, would quite thrive here,
would find wholly appropriate this setting,
this welter of extremes, of influences,
this disorder, this unremitting chaos.
The possibilities, the combinations,
possible combinations, seem unending,
their infiniteness very much the cause
of this disquiet which has settled on me
(“disquiet” does small justice to it, Harry;
it is an affliction as yet unnamed,
as yet, for that matter, unnamable).
There is nothing here, nothing in this climate,
which is simply itself, not something more,
which does not stand for something else, cannot stand:
the light, fierce, fierce, is more, I swear, than light
(even before this other blindness set in,
that was enough, more than enough, to blind me);
this heat punishes more than mere heat would,
falls, each day, like a curse, and not like weather,
rises from the fields like a visitation,
all dust-enshrouded, all vapor and shimmer;
and in the evening (nights are the worst of it),
when one might expect cooling, shade, reprieve,
when, at last, one might stand out in the open,
it is more than the dark that comes down, Harry:
nothing ceases, retreats, nothing relents,
all of it is much as it was, but more so;
mystery, rather than dissipating, deepens
(and when it does come down, even now, now,
I feel myself, even blind, almost shudder;
though I can see none of it, none, I shudder).

I suppose you might think of me as haunted,
which is most uncharacteristic of me,
as you well know. There are few facts to grasp,
or none, no statistics, no measurements,
which might anchor one to the world one lived in.
I am, perhaps for the first time, adrift,
cut from my moorings, like one of those creatures
in a story you have written, or shall write
(over and over, to my keen dismay),
one of those drab souls, bloodless, wholly juiceless,
from whom whatever life it—he?—possessed
has been squeezed, someone, Harry, whose existence
is thin, or beyond thin, thinner than thin,
his hold quite tenuous on solid objects
(and solidity need not be regarded,
as, I fear, you regard it—even by those,
like yourself, who address themselves, or would,
to not quite visible manifestations,
auras, to the not readily apparent—
as an enemy). There are worse fates, Harry,
than to live in a world not of one’s making.

I think you know what it is I most want:
to have done with the work here, to return
to a life, to a self, known to me. I need
to have Brazil behind me, much behind,
so that one cannot view it short of turning,
short of looking back. (I assure you, nothing
could induce me to turn, then, to look back,
nothing, nothing whatever). “When I get home,
I’m going to study philosophy all my days.”
I know that now. Why I could not have known it
earlier quite defies my understanding
(I have, I feel, squandered too much, too much,
dallied too long with what seems not essential),
though it may have to do with being blind now,
with living in these parts, trying to live,
where whatever I touch eludes me, floats off,
vaporizes at a touch, the mere touch.

In the next letter I will send to you
the photographic portrait taken of me
by a man, a Brazilian here, who travels
through the back-country photographing native
tribes never seen before by other men—
wearing a trimmer beard, the little, round,
dark glasses, and the hat, your favorite hat
(plantation hat, you christened it), its wide brim
sweeping upward at both sides of the head
at, I daresay, a quite dramatic angle.
Agassiz claims it came out rather well;
distinctly South American, he calls it.

I wished to say a word about those chapters
from the novella sent a fortnight ago
and read to me the very week they came,
but the details must wait until next time.
Agassiz’ secretary reads your letters
as well as whatever else you may send me,
writes my letters, as well, just as I speak them.
Already I may have (though I try not to)
taxed him, this afternoon, beyond all fairness.
Briefly, I say what I have said before,
which, as before, you must not hear too harshly:
I know no one your characters resemble,
by which I mean they seem, each, not quite human,
not sufficiently lifelike to quite warrant
such relentless speculation about them—
thoughts, motives, gestures, what lies past the words
they speak, beneath the words, beneath the text
you have provided for your readers, Harry.
I am unable to persuade myself
others exist on the exalted plane
where you insist, it seems, on placing them,
locations, to your loss, found on no map.
Possibly too much emphasis is put
on what they feel, and think, not what they do
(your characters, quite simply, do not do).
I have never known men and women like that,
nor would I care to. Have you? Would you wish to?
I state this with acute concern: you travel
too much into your own imagination,
too far into those areas unknown
to most of us, of moment to too few.
Might you not see your way to take a step back,
several steps, in the other direction,
devising characters not so obscure,
whose minds one finds accessible, less murky,
people whose reality one believes in,
for whom to be discrete (oh, your discretion)
is least of their concerns, preoccupations,
their motives, if not understandable,
explainable, made palpable, fleshed out?
You must, I beg you, no longer be tempted,
as you have been tempted, to undertake
exploration of that whole realm of shadows
you have been drawn to in such

I break off here.
Night has fallen; the old unease returns,
keeping quite scrupulously to its schedule.
(More, much more, than the dark comes down here, Harry).
Agassiz’ secretary has, I fear,
grown weary, after all he has been put through
this afternoon. Nothing I might have said here
diminishes, I hasten to assure you,
the high regard in which I hold you nor
the considerable importance to me
of your gift of solicitude, a rare gift,
and my sense of its presence in my life,
this for now sightless life. You might spare Mother
and Father the details of which I write.
They know simply (simply!) I have been blinded,
a blindness free, or so they trust, of pain.
(Would that I could believe, or claim, the same.)
That is enough. (Discretion, as I said,
is what you were born to.) Convey to Alice
her brother’s deep, deepest, affection,


A Message from the Editors

Your donation sustains our efforts to inspire joyous rediscoveries.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 4 Number 6, on page 37
Copyright © 2023 The New Criterion |