Elsie Clews Parsons: Inventing Modern Life

By Desley Deacon | Go to book overview
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The Voyage Out

WEAKENED physically and mentally by continuing reproductive problems, and silenced by concern for Herbert's congressional career and the social obligations it imposed on her, Elsie wrote almost nothing between 1907 and 1912. But throughout this difficult period, as she began to question the success of her "experimental" marriage, she strenuously resisted her decline in physical, mental, and moral strength. Attempting to combat her obsessive "fear-thoughts," she found particularly helpful William James's 1906 presidential address to the American Philosophical Association, which she read soon after her baby died in February 1907. Drawing on the doctrine of action formulated by the young Italian pragmatist and later Futurist Giovanni Papini, James asked the question that haunted Elsie over the next few years: How can we break down "the barriers which life's routine [has] concreted round the deeper strata of the will?" We are all victims of habit-neurosis, he argued, and the line between the "normal" and the "morbid" is thin: "The human individual lives usually far within his limits; he possesses powers of various sorts which he habitually fails to use. He energizes below his maximum, and he behaves below his optimum. In elementary faculty, in coordination, in power of inhibition and control, in every conceivable way, his life is contracted like the field of vision of an hysteric subject--but with less excuse, for the poor hysteric is diseased, while in the rest of us it is only an inveterate habit--the habit of inferiority to our full self--that is bad." James's recipe for breaking out of this "psychasthenia" and bringing "unused energies into action" was thoroughly modernist: through deliberate exposure to excitements, to new ideas, and to mental and physical challenges.1

Arduous Travel and Challenging Work

During the stressful Washington years, which ended in 1911 after Herbert's electoral defeat in November 1910, Elsie took James's


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