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How a Philosophy Professor Found Love in a Hidden Library

Archival photo of philosopher Henry David Thoreau Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Henry David Thoreau

11/03/2016
New York Times
By Mark Greif

In 2008, a young University of Massachusetts Lowell philosophy professor named John Kaag set out on a fateful road trip. He was driving to Chocorua, N.H., to help organize a conference on William James, who had owned a home in the nearby White Mountains. Stopping for coffee in town, he admitted to a 93-year-old local what he did for a living.

This old man had grown up on the estate of another philosophy professor, William Ernest Hocking, a once powerful and wealthy pillar of Harvard in the early 20th century. On Hocking’s property still stood his private library, a custom-built free-standing pile. Kaag, invited to look in, instantly recognized the early publications of the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, on whom Kaag had written his doctoral dissertation — books inscribed by Peirce himself. He found William James’s reading in preparation for “The Varieties of Religious Experience,” with James’s marginalia and annotations. He found signed gift copies from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman and Robert Frost, which had ended up in Hocking’s hands. Then there were the masterpieces of European philosophy since the 17th century: Descartes’s “Discourse on Method” in a first edition; the first English translation of Hobbes’s “De Cive”; and first editions of significant works by Kant. The books were moldering under inches of dust in an unheated, uncooled limbo.

All this would be a wonderful event in the life of any professor, especially one as gifted and skilled as Kaag in the history of 19th-century philosophy. (One of his previous works concerns Ella Lyman Cabot, “one of the few women of classical American philosophy.”) It would not seem to make for a popular book. But Kaag used the discovery of the library as an excuse to transform his own life. The son of an alcoholic father who had abandoned his family and recently died — and now stuck in a too-early marriage to his freshman-year college girlfriend, even though “I, at least, didn’t have a clue how to be in erotic love” — Kaag had sought a guiding light. He had followed an “ancestor cult” for years, digging through Emerson’s and William James’s and Thoreau’s papers at Harvard, visiting the tourist traps of Concord and Cambridge, to no profound effect. But West Wind, the familiar name for Hocking’s estate, swept all before it. It pushed Kaag finally into rebellion. “In the following months I started cheating on my wife with a roomful of books.”

Kaag sneaks back and forth to New Hampshire. His wife catches him with out-of-state gas station charges on their credit card bill. As she offers to come along on future trips, he resists. He works up the nerve to sell his wedding ring for $278 at “a pawnshop outside of Derry,” and separates from his wife on the eve of his 30th birthday. (She remarried and moved to North Dakota.) Kaag is left alone with his hopeless plan to archive and catalog the books and find a university to rescue them. He is also left, he slowly realizes, in unrequited love with a married colleague, Carol, who will ultimately be competing with him for tenure. He invites her to visit him up at the library.

This is the dramatic plot of “American Philosophy: A Love Story.” The pleasure of this unusual work, however, and the bulk of its pages, belong to short biographical accounts and reflections on the philosophers, poets, novelists and even bygone political figures whose volumes Kaag finds on the Hocking library shelves. He gives us compelling glimpses of William James, Thoreau, Descartes, Dante, Plato, Coleridge, T.H. Huxley, Peirce, Whitehead, Josiah Royce, Schelling, Hegel, Lydia Maria Child, Jane Addams, May Sarton, Pearl Buck, Gabriel Marcel and others. These mini-lectures are often comically connected to evocations of where Kaag finds and reads each person’s book. He reads Cudworth and Peirce in the kitchen, and unfolds the mysteries of free will over breakfast: “I’d spent more than enough time thinking about determinism. I finished my toast.”

Kaag’s accounts are accurate, engaging and scrupulous. They show profound learning. They’re also genuinely entertaining, recapturing lost details of thinkers’ personal lives without sensationalism. The further you go on in the book, and the more of Kaag’s skillful miniatures you take in, the deeper it becomes. You realize he is also making an unconventional argument for who was right, and who was wrong, in the classical tradition of American philosophy from about 1830 to 1930, in Transcendentalism and Pragmatism and Idealism and beyond. It is an argument strikingly suited to our time.

The first transfer of allegiance Kaag makes is from the ethos of “self-reliance” in Ralph Waldo Emerson to a subtler notion of “self-cultivation” from his disciple, Henry David Thoreau. “My life would become an experiment in Thoreauvian self-cultivation, a project that had always struck me as more manageable and realistic than trying to embody Emerson’s ‘self-reliance.’ ” Kaag then goes further with Thoreau, to a cultivation of the world beyond the self called “husbandry.” “Thoreau never became a husband, in the usual sense of the word, but he maintained that husbandry — the simple act of tending one’s own garden — was the proper alternative to a life of modern alienation.”

Far beyond “cultivating one’s garden,” à la Voltaire, this husbandry demands a shared and mutual cultivation with others. Kaag relocates it to the metaphorical power of Charles Sanders Peirce and his wife joyfully “gardening . . . together on their estate in Milford, Pa.,” as “Peirce’s favorite example of loving care” — a cultivation, now, for couples. For Kaag, it is “Peirce’s belief in the generative force of love” that “carried the torch of American philosophy into the 20th century.” “Husbandry,” it becomes clear, will also mean being a literal husband — a good partner, worthy of another person’s love — as he and Carol start to work together archiving books, to save Hocking’s fallow library. (They improve and modernize the archive, too, moving excluded female thinkers from the attic to the heart of the collection.)

“For someone like me, brought up on the philosophical ideal of rugged individualism,” Kaag writes, this turn to an ethic of love and couples isn’t easy. It does bear surprising intellectual fruit. (True happiness, too — but I won’t ruin the ending.) By gently probing philosophers’ biographies for love affairs, Kaag gives a surprising perspective on their familiar writings. Once he unfolds William James’s chaste love at 54 for a 24-year-old Pauline Goldmark, you must hear a different resonance in dry lines Kaag quotes from James’s great essay “The Will to Believe” on the tie of will to results — when James asks: “Do you like me or not? . . . The previous faith on my part in your liking’s existence is in such cases what makes your liking come.”

And after Kaag’s elegant portrait of the marriage of William Ernest Hocking and his wife Agnes, then Hocking’s bereavement of her, then his new love at age 87 with the 68-year-old Nobel Prize-winning novelist Pearl Buck, Kaag teaches us to hear the philosopher’s lines about “communion with others” with the ears of love: “How would it seem if my mind could but once be within thine; and we could meet and without barrier be with each other?”

In its celebration of romantic love (in an egalitarian, improved family) as the apex of American philosophical commitments, Kaag’s book is extremely contemporary. It does somewhat evade how the key philosophers it addresses — Emerson, James, Royce, Hocking — sought their solitude or love in further relations to the supernatural, God or some godhead, and moved from imminence to transcendence, not the other way around. Kaag doesn’t hide this, and anyway, how would or could he champion family love today in other than a this-worldly frame? Yet the weight of transcendent meaning and mysticism which gets transferred from divinity to companionate marriage here (as everywhere else in our world) seems a cruelly heavy burden upon intimate life. Perhaps it’s just a first step. “American Philosophy” succeeds, not as a textbook or survey, but a spirited lover’s quarrel with the individualism and solipsism in our national thought.