Thursday, November 3, 2011

"For now I see what is the matter with you, John Dewey": Dispatches from the Scudder Klyce files

One of the little known facts about Dewey is that he had an intense, frequent correspondence with a very strange ex-Navy man, Scudder Klyce (the image above is a postcard sent by Klyce in 1907, when he was on a naval posting in Nicaragua).

Outside of the world of Dewey scholarship, Klyce is perhaps best known his book, Universe, to which Dewey wrote a forward. The opening lines of the book describe Klyce's ambitious project clearly:
1. a. This book is a brief description, and rigorous proof of the truth of the description, of the universe and all that appertains to it, both "spiritual" and "material." Hence, the book is religion, science, and philosophy. 
Since Universe is (as one would expect) rather heavy going, I will make no judgment here as to whether Klyce succeeded in this difficult task.

At any rate, Klyce was a bright man, but he was also an odd duck, as virtually all of his (extremely lengthy) letters to Dewey make clear.

Consider, for example, Klyce's comments in a letter to Dewey, dated July 31, 1927. Klyce has recently found out that Dewey's wife had died, and he takes the time to send the following sympathetic missive:
I am very sorry that your wife has died. And I thank you for telling me the circumstances. For now I can see what is and has been the matter with you. I am sorry that I have been bothering you when your mind was thus preoccupied. This letter of yours which I have just received (yesterday afternoon) is so confused and contradictory as to be substantially incoherent. And I state that simple fact without implying any sort of adverse criticism—I am rather inclined to consider it a positive merit on your part that you should have written such intellectuallly defective stuff.
And the letter does not stop here!
Klyce continues:
Possibly even under the circumstances you will still require the specific citation of fact, to indicate that you are actually confused. So I shall briefly give it.
Brief, in Klyce's terms, implies a 2200 word discourse, which then follows. But don't think that Klyce is finished his letter just yet! He has been talking to some of his friends, who have had a lot to say about Dewey's value as an intellectual:
Now, while I am about it, I think I had better give you another hard blow—and I assure you that I regret the necessity, and am deeply sure that it is for your own final advantage. Some time ago I managed to get a young professor who is informed on such matters, to tell me in confidence how your professional work is regarded by probably the majority of young professors. He was quite positive that the consensus of opinion is that you are remarkably good in many details; that your intentions were certainly fine and inspiring, as was your personality to those who had had the advantage of your personal teaching; but that almost unuanimously the younger men who hadn't come into personal contact with you considered that your books were so excruciatingly hard to read that they weren't often read in whole; and that it was impossible to determine what you meant to be your general or fundamental teaching or doctrine, and that many questioned whether you had any real knowledge yourself of what real idea you intended or wanted to teach.
Even after this letter, the Dewey/Klyce correspondence continues for almost another year, right up until Klyce decided to publish all of the private letters that Dewey had written to him as Dewey's Suppressed Psychology. Such was Dewey's reward for his dedicated, decade-long correspondence with this difficult individual.

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