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Genre Analysis

kjmason's picture



So for my final paper I wanted to play with the idea of genre as a factor in how ideas are perceived. It was interesting to me that people were turned off by the diary style of The Diary of Alice James while finding the short stories of Henry James more accessible though one could argue both the diary and the turn of the screw were narratives of mental illness. In an effort to explore the role that various genres play in the communication of the same idea, I chose to take William James’s essay “What Pragmatism Means” and translate it into a short story, a diary entry and then compare the three with the hope of discerning which form is more accessible.



To Know what I know


“So last Friday night” he said, “I was walking by this man coming out of this bar and he was falling all over himself in a drunken stupor unwilling to listen to anyone around him, he just kept rambling slurred descriptions about this ‘revelation’ he had”

“ I thought nothing of it until I saw the same man, about a week later dressed very well (I presume for work) on the subway reading the paper. It was such a sharp contrast to the drunken moron I had seen the week before, and I doubt I would’ve recognized him, had he not made such a disturbance and caught my attention previously”

“But I did and I was curious about what kind of ‘revelation’ could take this clearly well-paid and serious business man to a publicly drunk spectacle. I also knew I couldn’t just walk up and ask ‘hey man… so why did u make such an ass of yourself last Friday night?’ I know enough to know that a prideful business man would not respond well to a stranger’s seemingly random and nosy critisism.”

“So I sat next to him Monday and as I settled into my seat I said something kinda overly broad and profound ‘All this is fake, isn’t it’. The business man just looked at me and was like, ‘sure…’ and went back to his paper. Now I know that wasn’t his revelation. So I began to prod some more… ‘Sometimes I just don’t know what the meaning of it all is… what determines what’s good, what’s bad, what’s in between?’ He continued to give me one word replies and go back to his paper. As we near the stop he gets off on everyday (yes I have became a bit of a stalker) he scribbles something on his paper and hands it to me as he dashes off the train with his Wallstreet stride. Looking down at the bottom of the Business Page I saw,




11pm Tuesday February 4th



Pap’s Tavern

It felt just a little bit like this man was hitting on me, but I hoped to get the answer to my question regardless of his intentions. Curiosity is a bitch, indeed.

Pap’s Tavern is at the very most a hole in the wall in a dingy part of town. I’m thinking, ‘oh great. His revelation was probably that he likes murdering innocent men he meets on the subway.’ Just then the businessman walked in. Still in work clothes and still submitting to his wallstreet stride. He slumped into a chair next to me, finally shedding his character and ordered a ‘rusty nail’. I ordered a simple gin and tonic and we sat there waiting for our drinks to come in silence until he said ‘What’s your deal? Talking philosophy on a train?’ To which I replied, ‘What’s your deal? Inviting me to a dive bar?’ ‘Fair.’ He said then went on, ‘On the train you said something that made me think that you may be interested in something I have come across in my work’. The drinks came. We made some small talk about his job. He lives on the upper-east side and works for a stock broking company. (I was right about the wallstreet walk. Small victory) He politely asked me about all the things that don’t matter. Where do I work? Live? Hobbies? Family? Etc. So there we sat, talking about nothing, getting drunk and not connecting on any level. I drink more and I become more frank. He drinks more and he becomes more talkative. Perfect. I ask him casually, ‘What is it you invited me here to talk about, that idea you had because of your work or whatever’ ‘Yeh.’ He said, ‘So with stocks…. Hmm well I guess I mean to say, a man, Mr. Briggs came into my office over a year ago asking about investment advice and so on. He seemed very new to the game. Not savy or business smart…I could have completely fucked his life up by giving him exactly what he wanted. He wanted to invest in his son’s moderately large but struggling business. He had over 35 grand to invest. Plainly as he was dressed I almost had a mind to ask him where he had gotten the dough, but I didn’t. He looks at me and says, ‘Mr. Seaver, what do you think’. That was the moment I could have fucked all his shit up. It would have been so easy. And he would have walked away entirely ignorant and content. However, I chose to give him my best professional advice. I asked him ‘what is most advantageous to you? All emotions and family connections aside, what will give you the best result?’ He looked at me like some sort of animal, then his expression changed to one of deep thought. I continued ‘Sir. This is your money, but that’s just it. This is not an emotional investment this is a business transaction.’ He ended up investing in a growing computer company and to my knowledge his money has doubled.’

“I looked at him understanding his story, but questioning the relevance and said ‘And…’

To which he continued ‘So I began to think. What if we applied this method to other aspects of life? Relationships, religion, politics, social service, etc. Think about it. Instead of thinking which religion or non-religion fits you best spiritually, you could just choose which fits you best pragmatically. So many disputes would be solved. War would decrease because so much of what we fight about it worthless and the pragmatic thought says that since the numerous lives taken in war out-value what we are fighting over, the war would have to stop, or not even begin.’

“I sat there knowing why he drank. It’s heavy to have the solution to world peace and not be able to communicate it because society would label you as a crazy man. He looked at me sighed heavily and said ‘I just needed someone to know what I know.’ He got up from the table, paying for all of both his and my drinks and sauntered out the door as if he was Atlas and the world had been lifted off him for an hour. I kept sitting. My curiosity having taken the world from Atlas and placed it upon my shoulders, I lifted my glass to my lips and swallowed the last. Somehow despite my thoughts blinding me from any memory of the evening, I made it back to my bed and I lay there for a few hours. Then I woke up and went to Wednesday work. Surrounded by my cubicle, decorated with my life as I have lived it. I processed for hours, and hours and hours, not really “processing” anything but the circuitous caverns the previous night’s talk had carved into my brain, like scars on a beautiful face, the tortured me and took to the forefront of every thought I could muster. I called my mother at lunch time and talked about even less than usual and then my girlfriend during my smoke break. She had a bad day…something about ruining her shoes. I tried to pretend like I cared. I was sure she hadn’t taken the world onto her shoulders though, even if she thought she had. Then I processed for several more hours, letting the weight of my knowledge slouch on my back and neck. Then you came by my cubicle. Thanks for that by the way. Wearing that black shirt and khaki pants you didn’t know what I was going to lay on you when you invited me to drinks after work. I asked if you wanted to go to Pap’s Tavern and not knowing the curse I would put on you, you said yes. We took a cab. We talked. And here we are now. I just needed someone to know what I know.”




May 20, 1869


Dear Journal,


Today I awoke to the sound of Margaret cleaning the bedroom. I would have the mind to fire her. She can be so loud and truly seems to have absolutely no regard for my sleep. Then Ronald brought me my breakfast. The eggs were underdone and I do believe my unfortunate bathroom experience was because of this. My stomach is quite sensitive you know. Sometimes I’ll have some meat that is just slightly old or undercooked at I’m sent into some sort of a digestive fit for days at a time. Then from the sickness comes another and next I know I’m sick for a month. I still work and keep up with my life as an academic, but never-the-less it does make life harder for me. My brother Henry visited me today. It was quite the lovely surprise. He just happened upon my new home while he was doing some explorations of the countryside in regard to his new short story and next thing I know we are sitting in the drawing room talking about old times when our parents were alive and we were strapping young lads. We began to muse on how Bob and Wilki are doing these days. But mostly we were concerned with talking of our dearest and most frail sister, Alice. It is a pity she is such a frail thing. Henry and I go about our normal lives when we are sick. In bed for maybe only a day. But she has been in bed for years and is seeming to make no effort to remove herself from this lesser state that she has subscribed to. Though women by nature are weaker then men, and they do succumb to illness with more frequency, it is very distressing to see hysteria at work on a dear, only sister. I suppose it would be hard to deal with such an illness as hysteria. It’s almost a fashion amongst women today. Stomach pains, headaches, faining in public. But they are kept inside so much and given so little sunlight and fresh air. It’s a wonder why they are not sicker. Poor things. As for Bob and Wilki, joining the army and the mental sickness that that experience has given to them that they can not seem to exorcise from themselves is tragic. Having had this thought, Henry and I just sat in the drawing room, smoking our pipes and thinking about sanity as a concept. After some thought on that Henry arose and said he had to leave to go write on something he had thought about. As a fellow writer I respected his moment of inspiration and decided it would be best if I retired to my room to get more rest since I had been awoken early and had been experiencing poor digestion. So I went to my bed, drew my curtains and drifted off to a peaceful slumber. I remember having some dreams but they had no pattern: merely my mind wandering, as it can’t with its daily leash. I woke up mid afternoon and went for a walk on my grounds with my two dogs. As we were out the grass began to get to my legs and make them itch horribly, but I did not want to go inside at that time so I continued to walk through the high grass trying to ignore my legs. Beside the field, we eventually made it to a stream that I sat along for a long while thinking about how I live my life. I’m supposed to give a talk soon on a topic of great interest to most of the academic world called “pragmatism” but I am reluctant to write it because I feel like I have not formulated the idea entirely and I would be writing aimlessly. Though some of the greatest truths can be found in the unaltered stream of thought, it is oftentimes not the best method to create a logical and well-written essay that is to be delivered to a room of highly educated people. I continued to the fence where my land meets Mr. Fitzpatrick’s land and walked along the fence for a while. All this time I allowed the dogs to run free. They mostly chose to stay with me unless they were chasing some sort of game that they found more interesting for the moment. The grey one has a soul like mine: too curious for his own good. I remember one time he was chasing some small rodent he had found in a field and happened upon a great bear. I saw this all happen from a distance but felt quite frightened by the bear’s presence myself. The dog ended up getting scratched on the nose and came back to the house whimpering. I had Margaret take care of the curious animal and the matter was resolved. I need to sleep now.




December 11, 1869


Dear Journal,


Today I must prepare my thoughts and write them down for this talk on pragmatism I keep getting persuaded I must write and give. The ideas are still loose like soil and they are asking me to make a stirdy home out of this. I will try my best to collect my thoughts and then organize them. I intend to use the squirrel metaphysical dispute that I witnessed during that camping party some years ago. I must explain how science and mtaphysics would work better together, instead of against oneanother, if the pragmatic method were employed properly. To make it most relevant to my audience I should give my ideas on its application to the experience of religion. I liked the way I put pragmatism the other day in almost economic terms referring to “cash value”. Yes I believe I must include this to make the idea seem less distant and more like something most people are familiar with. I also think that the abstract concept of truth is relevant to this presentation so I will probably say something truth’s prescription as I have been calling it of late. Yes. I do believe this is quite adequate. Now I must sit down to write this. I will let you know if my talk goes well or if I am booed off stage as Henry was at his “play”






Now that I have taken “What Pragmatism Means” by William James and put it into diary and short story form I hope that it becomes clear to the reader from her own experience which is more communicative. The biggest problem I found in writing the diary entry is probably the same one that anyone who reads it will have: I got bored. But I was trying to emulate (to some extent) Alice James’s style of diary writing. I find in diaries one has to read a lot of fluff about social and personal problems to get to the gritty substance that is a person’s actual ideas on life. In trying to do this I tried to make it as realistic as possible, telling a short anecdote about how the dog got scratched, but that’s just the type of thing one writes in a diary, and there are about 100 pages of this sort of fluff prior to maybe 3 pages of academic intelligent thought, and even then oftentimes it’s scattered and unformulated. It is due to this scatteredness that I find the essay form to be more effective (in terms of communicating theories such as “What Pragmatism Means”) to a wide audience. A diary is better equipped to communicate cultural experience or some sort of personal narrative rather than an metaphysical theory. I was surprised to find how easy it was for me to write the short story and incorporate James’s thoughts from his essay. I feel torn as to what is a better medium when comparing the short story and the academic essay/lecture. It is obvious that to the general public the short story would not only be a more enjoyable read, but also more accessible to the common man who is not familiar with academic jargon. However, I do acknowledge that in changing the essay into short story form, it lost a lot of substance. It’s possible that I just didn’t approach the task from the proper angle, but I wrote several versions of this story before continuing and I believed “To Know What I Know” was the one that best communicated James’s meaning. And in analysing “What Pragmatism Means” further in order to write the best renditions of the text I could, I found that even in his essays James does do a bit of story telling through giving examples. Though it is probable that the highbrow language used by James would turn off the majority of average thinkers, it is equally probable that were they given the examples alone, they would find the idea accessible. This is the quandary that is making saying that either an essay form or a story form is “more” or “less” effective than the other, because they are both effective and defective for different reasons. It was a much more clean-cut thought process in determining that it was an ineffective form through which to communicate academic concepts. I would be interested in seeing how this essay could be turned into yet another form that I think would create a bridge between the disadvantages of both the essay and short story form: the documentary. This would make the essay and academic language more accessible to the common man through the images and actions of paid actors depicting or enhancing what is being said. Since the average documentary is at the very least 30 minutes, there would be plenty of time to depict the ideas expressed in the essay fully without having to cheapen them by trying to make them fit some sort of plot.


It is interesting that thus far a lot of historical documentaries have been made about war, government, tragedies and biographies, but so few about the stuff real philosophy is made of.  I believe that even though I didn’t have an opportunity to explore and retell Jame’s “What Pragmatism Means” in this way it would be a worthwhile investment of time to see the advantages and disadvantages of this form of communication.