He had not been sleeping well in Palo Alto all semester — he suffered from angina and had recently been much troubled by gout — and so William James was lying awake in bed a few minutes after five in the morning on April 18 when the great earthquake of 1906 struck. James was sixty-four, famous now as a teacher and for his work in psychology, philosophy, and religion. He was spending the year as a visiting professor at Stanford University, twenty- five miles south of San Francisco. His mission was to put Stanford on the map in philosophy.
Jesse Cook, a police sergeant on duty that morning in the San Francisco produce market, first noticed the horses panicking, then saw the earthquake start. “There was a deep rumble, deep and terrible,” said Cook, “and then I could actually see it coming up Washington Street. The whole street was undulating. It was as if the waves of the ocean were coming toward me.” John Barrett, city desk news editor of the Examiner, was already in his office when he heard “a long low moaning sound that set buildings dancing on their foundations.” Barrett and his colleagues suddenly found themselves staggering. “It was as though the earth was slipping . . . away under our feet. There was a sickening sway, and we were all flat on our faces.” Looking up, Barrett saw nearby buildings “caught up in a macabre jig . . .They swayed out into the street, then rocked back, only to repeat the movement with even more determination.” James Hopper, a reporter for the Call, was home in his bed. He rushed to his window. “I heard the roar of bricks coming down,” he wrote, “and at the same time saw a pale crescent moon in the green sky. The St Francis hotel was waving to and fro with a swing as violent and exaggerated as a tree in a tempest. Then the rear of my building, for three stories upward, fell. The mass struck a series of little wooden houses in the alley below. I saw them crash in like emptied eggs, the bricks passing through the roofs as though through tissue paper. I had this feeling of finality. This is death.” Out in the streets, “trolley tracks were twisted, their wires down, wriggling like serpents, flashing blue sparks all the time.” Barrett saw that “the street was gashed in any number of places. From some of the holes water was spurting; from others gas.” Astonished guests in the Palace Hotel looked out one of its few intact windows and saw a woman in a nightgown carrying a baby by its legs, “as if it were a trussed turkey.” In the first moments after the quake there was total silence. “The streets,” Hopper recalled, “were full of people, half clad, disheveled, but silent, absolutely silent.” In San Jose, south of Palo Alto, along the line of the rip, the buildings of the state asylum at Agnews collapsed with a roar heard for miles, killing a hundred people, including eighty-seven inmates. Some of the more violent survivors rushed about, attacking anyone who came near. A doctor suggested that since there was no longer any place to put them, they should be tied up. Attendants brought ropes and tied the inmates hand and foot to those (small) trees that had been left standing.
In Palo Alto the stone quadrangle at Stanford was wrecked. Fourteen buildings fell; the ceiling of the church collapsed. The botanical garden was torn up as if by a giant plow. A statue of Louis Agassiz fell out of its niche and plunged to the pavement below, where it was photographed with its head in the ground and its feet in the air. Stanford was still on Easter vacation. Almost all the students were gone. One, however, was staying on the fourth floor of Encina Hall, a large stone dormitory. He sprang out of bed but was instantly thrown off his feet. “Then, with an awful, sinister, grinding roar, everything gave way, and with chimneys, floorbeams, walls and all, he descended through the three lower stories of the building into the basement.” The student, who later told all this to James, added that he had felt no fear at the time, though he had felt, “This is my end, this is my death.” The first thing William James noticed, as he lay awake in bed in the apartment he shared with his wife, Alice, on the Stanford campus, was that “the bed [began] to waggle.” He sat up, inadvertently, he said, then tried to get on his knees, but was thrown down on his face as the earthquake shook the room, “exactly as a terrier shakes a rat.” In a short piece of writing about the quake, written twenty-three days later, James recalled that “everything that was on anything else slid off to the floor; over went bureau and chiffonier with a crash, as the fortissimo was reached, plaster cracked, an awful roaring noise seemed to fill the outer air, and in an instant all was still again, save the soft babble of human voices from far and near.” The thing was over in forty-eight seconds. James’s firsttttt unthinking response to the quake was, he tells us, one of “glee,” “admiration,” “delight,” and “welcome.” He felt, he said, no sense of fear whatever. “Go it,” I almost cried aloud, “and go it stronger.” The Marcus Aurelius whom James admired, and who had prayed, “O Universe, I want what you want,” could scarcely have improved on James’s unhesitating, fierce, joyful embrace of the awful force of nature. It was for James a moment of contact with elemental reality, like Thoreau’s outburst on top of Mount Katahdin, like Emerson’s opening the coffin of his young dead wife, or like the climax of Robert Browning’s poem “A Grammarian’s Funeral” (one of James’s favorites), in which the funeral procession of the outwardly unremarkable but deeply dedicated scholar — whose patient work has ignited the renaissance of learning — climbs from the valley of commonplace life to the heroic alpine heights where his spirit belongs: “Here — here’s his place, where meteors shoot, clouds form, / Lightnings are loosened, / Stars come and go! Let joy break with the storm.” James’s second response was to run to his wife’s room. Alice was unhurt, and had felt no fear either. Then James went with a young colleague, Lillien Martin, into the devastation of downtown San Francisco to search for her sister, who was also, it turned out, unhurt. James’s active sympathy and quick mobilization were characteristic, as was his third response to the event, which was to question everyone he saw about his or her feelings about the quake. His diary for the next day, April 19, says simply, “Talked earthquake all day.” It was also entirely characteristic that he next wrote up and published a short account of the experience, in which he noted that it was almost impossible to avoid personifying the event, and that the disaster had called out the best energies of a great many people.
James’s care for his wife, his concern for his colleague, and his writing up what he learned seem usual enough; it is his initial, unexamined, unprompted response that opens a door for us. James possessed what has been called a “great experiencing nature”; he was astonishingly, even alarmingly, open to new experiences. A student of his noted that he was at times a reckless experimenter with all sorts of untested drugs and gasses.
This risk-taking, this avidity for the widest possible range of conscious experience, predisposed him to embrace things that many of us might find unsettling. It has been suggested that the earthquake experience was for James the near ...