His Glassy Essence:
An Autobiography of Charles Sanders Peirce
A mystery from Boston unfolds
DEAR READER: My identity is insignificant, but ultimately of no importance. You need to understand a bit about me. I’m known as a mystery writer by trade, but I’m an amateur by inclination and instinct. I mean that I thrive on some childlike
qualities in my mind, and it gives me a way to live one day after another. Because of those instincts and habits, I can see things, little bits of life, that most people overlook. In that respect, my amateur lifestyle helps me write. But my dilettante ways, now that I reflect are more important to me than writing. My reasonably capable detective novels are the means to finance my status as a lifelong novice in a number of other pursuits. Writing also gives me freedom for dabbling, because, thank God, it isn’t a nine-to-five job. I can make up a new story when I feel like doing it. I get enough royalty checks to live as a member of the comfortable middle class in old Boston with Elizabeth and our poodle; I haven’t written the great American mystery novel yet, but hope eternal springs. I might get lucky. But I’m not breaking my neck to do it – that would mean less time for my amateurism....
Today is my birthday—I’m fifty-seven, in case you’re curious. I’m a Harvard man, class of 1961; Betsey is a graduate of Lady Radcliffe’s Hall in the same year. We met in Cambridge. I didn’t select a special field of study, as you might guess. I was interested in almost everything. I’ve always been that way, even as a child in Stillwater, Oklahoma, where I was “born and raised,” as my family would say. From my father I received the name Louis Elisha Eisenstaat, but everyone has always called me Ike. I’m proud of my Harvard education, but I’m an Okie at bottom. I could never adopt the Cambridge ways, but I admire the folks in this region, and I live in Boston because it’s a rich hunting ground for my neophytism.
One of my nonprofessional interests in the past several years in fact began to possess my life. This book, taken up at Betsey’s suggestion, has been an exorcism, my way as an amateur psychologist to avoid becoming a professional—which is to say, continuing to be neurotically obsessed and mildly meglomaniacal—about the topic of this volume. Physician heal thyself! That principle applies equally well to amateur physicians, otherwise known as hypochondriacs, especially those fortunate enough to live with a community health nurse.
While I’m speaking of Betsey, the growth of my preoccupation began be- cause of her relatives. She is from Milford, a small town in Pike County within northeastern Pennsylvania on the Delaware River, near the New York border. Port Jervis, New York, is the closest larger town. It’s a beautiful spot that’s now for the most part incorporated into the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. Even in Victorian times it was a popular vacation spot, al- though quite rustic. Perhaps that was part of its charm. It’s not as lovely as it once was. Twentieth century blight eventually attacked in the seventies. The federal government bought most of the beautiful old country houses in the re- gion for the Recreation Area. Many of them were torn down or have been converted for park use. Even what was formerly a famous—or infamous— honeymoon motel in the nearby Pocono mountains is now a Ranger station. You can make up your own jokes about that. But the ultimate insult came when a damnable interstate turnpike was laid right against the town. Now the natural beauty is pestered by arrogant diesel smoke and blathering truck air horns. Yet the dawn mist still rises on the river. Is that a sign?
Betsey’s grandfather was William Darbey, who served as the local Episcopal minister in the first years of the second decade of the century. She is the only child of an only child, and was therefore her grandfather’s darling. Shortly before his death from complications of arteriosclerosis, he called her to his bedside to tell her that she was now the owner of a large and uniquely handsome ancient wooden box she would find in a particular hiding place in his study. Because he was weak, he spoke briefly, promising to tell her more later. There was no later—he took a sudden turn for the worse and died a few hours thence.
She was still a youngster, but because the occasion was powerfully solemn, she can clearly recall the exact sounds her grandfather uttered:
In 1934 Madame Purse entrusted it to me on her death bed. Madame Purse said, “There is a fortune in it—now it’s yours.”
Then Grandpa added—presumably his own philosophical sentiment— suddenly in a deep tone which scared her,
“Take care! It has transforming power.”
Betsey told me about it during the Christmas season of 1957, when we were freshmen, after we had become more than friends. We met in Professor Putnam’s introductory philosophy class, somehow landing in adjoining desks. At the time I was exceptionally naive regarding interpersonal relations and matters of the heart. Betsey, on the other hand, was quite the opposite—she had experience. As a matter of fact, it would be right to say that she seduced me. In the middle of October, after we had be- come fairly well acquainted, she asked me if I could come over to her place to help with the assignment on William James that was due in about a week. We walked from Sever Hall, past the Divinity School, and into her apartment on the second floor of an old clapboard on the edge of Somerville. Before we began our studies, Betsey asked if I would like to hear a couple of tunes from her collection of Big Band records. She put on Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood,” saying that the true connoisseur listened to swing music only while dancing. So we danced. One thing led to another. After considerable lovemaking, you might say that the . . . uh . . . earth moved for her, and in such an intense man- ner that without willing it she screamed like a banshee. This completely startled both of us, the effect being, in my case, that I fell backwards toward the floor, knocking myself unconscious on an edge of the ancient box, which she had placed near her bed as a makeshift nightstand. Had it not been covered with scattered clothing, I might have been seriously injured—as it was, the laundry softened the blow, and Betsey’s emergency common-sense nursing brought me around with no permanent harm done. However, I had made an unbreakable connection with Betsey and had been introduced to Grandfather Darbey’s box in a direct manner, although I took no time for examination when first my head gained an acquaintance with it.
Later I had many an opportunity to expand my musical knowledge of the swing era, all of which was facilitated by a cherished Christmas present from Betsey: permanent ear plugs in a small but sturdy gold-plated box, en- graved “property of sweet betsey from pike.”
I moved into the Somerville flat within a week. In that day we were ahead of our time socially, although perhaps now that would not be so. I introduced her to what is called women’s liberation, something which I never doubted because it always seemed logical to me, and she introduced me to true marriage without ceremony, which is how we faithfully live to this day. Typically folks signify the start of a lifelong relationship by exchanging rings in a church ceremony. In our case, on the eve of Christ’s Mass, Betsey put on Benny Goodman’s “Let’s Dance,” and about halfway through the number she presented me with that special gift. Sometimes one doesn’t need to speak actual words for a vow to be in effect; one simply discovers that it is present.
Betsey is quite religious, but not in the sense of rituals or ceremonies. She dislikes organized religion because her grandfather was an Episcopal priest, and her mother, William’s daughter, married a hardshell Baptist minister— she was overexposed, in other words. That is also one reason she took up community health as her speciality in nursing; and there were other reasons. It’s a profession that requires a finely honed spiritual sense; otherwise you burn out and die from the neck up.
Once we were settled in, our conversation inevitably returned to the fateful ersatz nightstand. She explained to me that her mother, Margaret, could tell her little about the box; she knew that he had it, but when asked, Grandpa would usually say, “I haven’t decided what to do with it.” It seems he never took anyone into his confidence on that topic. She did know, as do most per- sons who live in or near Milford, that the previous owners of the box, “Old Professor Peirce and his wife Madame Juliette Peirce,” lived a couple of miles east of Milford on the Port Jervis Road in a rather large house which was later bought for a song by the Phillipses in a Sheriff’s tax sale after Madame died. The Professor had expired in 1914 and his wife in 1934—both events, as it would happen, occurring when Grandpa William was the Episcopal minister in Milford. He had been in the Milford vicarage in 1914, then went to other stations but had come back to stay and to retire by 1934. Margaret could recite several local legends about the Professor and Madame, but supposedly not too much in the way of solid information was known about them.
All of this was interesting chit-chat as I learned it from Betsey on various occasions in the happy little flat in Somerville, within an easy walk to Harvard Yard from around behind. Yet with all the cares and joys of student life, somehow it didn’t make complete contact with me. For instance, I didn’t think to ask my teachers if they had heard of Professor Peirce—the correct spelling, by the way, but the sound is exactly like “purse,” which vindicates Betsey’s childhood memory. Since my studies were as general as I could arrange for them to be, I didn’t really specialize in anything. So the name of Peirce never came my way, or if it did, it didn’t connect. Which is ironical, since he was born a few blocks from where Betsey and I were living, and grew up in a house that was located in the heart of the Yard where Sever Hall now stands, the site of many of our classes.
We graduated in 1961. I wanted no additional formal schooling. Except for a few exceptional classes—very few—college was boring, just an exercise in lecture remembering at which any good tape recorder would excel. It had dawned upon me that my amateurism could provide a lifelong continuing education. I simply required a way to finance it. I cried “Eureka” when I sold my first detective piece for a fee that paid the bills for six months. Meanwhile Betsey had a scholarship for the Nursing School at Massachusetts General Hospital. After she graduated in 1963, we decided to move to our present apartment in old Boston. We had an opportunity to buy it. It was a wreck when we moved in, but it had character and potential that we developed over the years. Naturally, this was one of its attractions, for I’m an amateur electrician-painter-plumber-decorator-restorer.
When we moved our stuff from Somerville, the beautiful old box surprised us by reappearing from under a neglected pile of clutter in a large closet. I do recall demanding earlier that it be moved away from the bed. I had a curious experience when it came to sight again. I was able to see it in a way I never had before; it seemed to attach itself to me. I felt that it permanently connected with my psyche. Strange. It now occupies a place of honor in my study. It’s out of the closet.
Once we were settled in Boston, Betsey (who now reads my mind with ease) noticed my sudden interest. I had never opened it, although she had inspected it before I came along. So one day before leaving for work she encouraged me to look it over thoroughly. I cleared space on the big table in my writer’s den. The first thing I noticed: the box was convenient to hand when placed next to my Cambridge-style reading chair. It’s smaller than a steamer trunk, designed somewhat like a Vargueno† but without legs, of the most elegant construction in mahogany, impeccably finished in Japanese lacquer, with spectacular Moorish-style wood inlays in various subtle colors and kinds of wood.
“Spectacular Moorish-style wood inlays” The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia.
I checked with some experts, who tell me that it was constructed by a famous custom builder in Alexandria Egypt in the 1890s. Every expert who examined it has immediately offered a fancy price, and each one assured me that its purchase price would have been extravagant even in 1890.
When I opened it, the intimate yet assertive aroma of cedarwood awakened my nose. There’s a small compartment containing Lebanese cedar chips, to prevent insect infestation, or maybe for some other reason. Ingenious, and exquisitely tasteful. I began to tingle with attention. Just under the main lid, suspended above the larger compartments below by two side rails, was a lovely removable lap board for writing, complete with an elegant inset brass inkwell and in a handy groove a well-used pen of ebony with a fine gold-covered steel tip. Obviously, here is the elegant equipment of a master writer. The inkwell was half full of dried and caked ink. On the well was affixed a little label like the kind chemists use for samples in their analytical laboratories. In what I later discovered to be Peirce’s hand were the simple words “Batch nr. 3.” Maybe my subconscious had switched into a chemical context, because without warning—nearly as if someone had spoken it—”When the box is opened and prepared for the writer’s hand, incense of Lebanon announces readiness to the subconscious seat of creative action.” I mouthed half-silently: Damn—it’s an invocation of the Holy Spirit! Those are the words Grandpa Darbey would have used. I accept the principle, but not in that language. All this reduced me to a long, musing, vacant silence. Apparently, I had been possessed by something—some character or relationship exemplified in the box and its appointments.
Finally—how much later I cannot say—I shook my head, somehow re- stored myself to my self, and continued the examination with an effort-free clinical eye. Below the lapboard were several sections, as in a file drawer, neatly loaded with manuscript sheets inscribed in fine black ink on an ex- pensive and elegant high-quality laid rag paper, watermarked with “Crane’s Superfine” and an image of a crane standing on one leg just above the year of manufacture. I checked the watermark instantly—another of my dilletante interests. The paper was manufactured by a well-known New England house in various years in the 1890s or early 1900s, and was in wonderful condition. Another section contained a number of photographs and illustrations, again from the nineteenth century judging by the dress.
One area on the right side, just under the lapboard, was considerably wider than the opposite supporting rail on the left. Originally I thought that was a mere construction anomaly. Yet as I began to be a friend to the box, one day it struck me that there might be a reason for the extra width. I asked an acquaintance, who is an expert on Chinese puzzle boxes, to look at it, and within an hour he opened a secret compartment that contained a smaller box. Every time I hold it in my hands, that tune my mother sang to me as a child runs through my head: “A tiskit a tasket, a little yellow casket. . . .” This box is the size of a casket, or small table-top box for storing knick-knacks. It is entirely different in style from the large box and maybe half a century or more older, according to the jewel-box expert I consulted. He thinks it was manufactured in Cordova. Certainly he regards it as in the style of master crafts- men of that city. He rates it as being of the utmost in quality of materials and artful workmanship. Basically it is a rectangle in shape flexed across one long side by means of a silver piano hinge. It is covered in tan leather, with four bands of darker leather encircling the box parallel to its short axis. On these bands, alternating two-five-five-two, are carved silver studs. Inside, the base is lined with brown velvet, with one compartment apparently intended for jewelry. This was empty when we first removed the box from its secret hiding place. There is a second compartment that contained a well-used pack of playing cards in a fascinating design unknown to me at that time. These cards were nestled in a pocket specially prepared to hold them, complete with a tooled leather flap cover. On an exquisitely hand-engraved, small, solid-gold plate fastened with silver pins, the flap protecting the cards bears a crest over a name:
As the years went by, mystery writing became reliable, the Boston apartment became livable, so I gained more and more time for pursuits. Among these would always be the box and its contents. In the past few years, the box has approached a monopoly on my interest. I devoted a great deal of study to the manuscript. As I dug into it, I was led to many clues which I carefully ran to ground. I visited a number of sites—libraries, rare book rooms, manuscript collections—and traipsed through uncountable attics in search of materials that would illuminate. You could say the manuscript in the box led me on a merry chase through the nineteenth century. Here my experience as a detective novelist was invaluable. I’m now quite a good scholar about old Professor Peirce, his life and times; in fact I’m in mortal danger of becoming an expert on the subject, and this is causing me considerable discomfort and even neglect of Betsey, about which she has begun to fret. I really don’t want to ruin my amateur standing, because I despise professionalism.
In the course of exploring the elegant box, I came to admire a way of liv- ing that was prominent in the nineteenth century but is almost gone now: the life of a gentleman scholar. Maybe I’m the last member of that nearly ex- tinct race. And maybe this is why at the start I connected so strongly with the box and its contents. Gentleman Scholar is just another name for my dilletante proclivities. Nowadays many academics and other high priests of professionalism look down their noses at amateurs, another reason to hate this century.
I discovered that the manuscript from the file sections of the box is an in- complete draft, pretty rough in some places, of an autobiography of Charles Sanders Peirce, 1839-1914. It bears the title, His Glassy Essence.
That was the first puzzle I solved: an understanding of that odd title and its literary nimbus. It’s an allusion to† Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, act 2, scene 2:
ISABELLA. Could great men thunder
As Jove himself does, Jove would ne’er be quiet, For every pelting, petty officer
Would use his heaven for thunder;
Nothing but thunder.—Merciful heaven!
Thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt Splitt’st the unwedgeable and gnarled oak,
Than the soft myrtle; but man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority, —
Most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d
His glassy essence,—like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven,
As make the angels weep; who, with our spleens, Would all themselves laugh mortal.
Betsey says I shouldn’t forget that in the play this is a speech by Isabella. Excellent suggestion. Moreover, it’s helpful to know that the plot of the play appears to have been taken from Whetstone’s play of 1578 entitled “The right excellent Historye of Promos and Cassandra”; here is the hook of that work, taken from Whetstone’s† Argument:
In the cyttie of Julio (sometimes vnder the dominion of Coruinus Kinge of Hungarie and Boemia) there was a law, that what man so euer committed adultery should lose his head, and the woman of- fender should weare some disguised apparel during her life, to make her infamouslye noted. This seuere lawe, by the fauour of some mer- cifull magistrate, became little regarded vntill the time of Lord Pro- mos auctority; who conuicting a yong gentleman named Andrugio of incontinency, condemned both him and his minion to the execu- tion of this statute. Andrugio had a very vertuous and beawtiful gen- tlewoman to his sister, named Cassandra: Cassandra to enlarge her brothers life, submitted an humble petition to the Lord Promos.
In Shakespeare’s hands Cassandra becomes a more elaborated character, Is bella, and the play on the whole becomes more complex. A nineteenth-century critic described† it handsomely:
In “Measure for Measure” Shakspeare was compelled, by the nature of the subject, to make his poetry more familiar with criminal justice than is usual with him. All kinds of proceedings connected with the subject, all sorts of active or passive persons, pass in review before us: the hypocritical Lord Deputy, the compassionate Provost, and the hard-hearted Hangman, a young man of quality who is to suffer for the seduction of his mistress before marriage, loose wretches brought in by the police, nay, even a hardened criminal, whom even the preparations for his execution cannot awaken out of his callousness. But yet, notwithstanding this agitating truthfulness, how tender and mild is the pervading tone of the picture! The piece takes improperly its name from punishment; the true significance of the whole is the triumph of mercy over strict justice; no man being himself so free from errors as to be entitled to deal it out to his equals. The most beautiful embellishment of the composition is the character of Isabella, who, on the point of taking the veil, is yet prevailed upon by sisterly affection to tread again the perplexing ways of the world, while, amid the general corruption, the heavenly purity of her mind is not even stained with one unholy thought: in the humble robes of the novice she is a very angel of light.
My solution was complete when I discovered that “glassy” in Shakespearean English meant “mirror-like.” Also, I noted in speeches by several Shakespearean characters that mirrors often appeared as literary images for self-study or self-awareness. I also presumed that “His” was meant as Peirce’s self-reference but was perhaps also meant to convey that he was but a token instance of the more general type we might name as human nature.
To come right to the point, then, the manuscript in the box should be published. You’ll see why as you read it. I couldn’t begin to tell you the reasons in just a few words, other than to say that Peirce was a great man in many ways, yet a mystery-man few of us have known. The manuscript is in- complete and sometimes disconnected as it stands. So I resolved to intervene from time to time—to fill in the gaps, or to provide background information. You should have no trouble discovering which piece of writing you have before you, Peirce or me: Louis E. “Ike” Eisenstaat. If Peirce’s autobiographical words are rolling along in a connected manner, I’ll stay out of the way. But if the passage is broken up, or if something needs explaining, I’ll enter the conversation. I’m going to avoid being formal. The photos and illustrations from the box, obviously intended to accompany the autobiography, will be inserted in places that seem agreeable to my reason.
I don’t want any credit for this effort. I think of my role as that of mediator, a person who stands in the background usually, whose function is to make connections and to lead forth into your attention Peirce’s words and some details of his life and times. That makes me an educator in the ancient sense, for according to my copy of The Century Dictionary, which I routinely consult with pleasure and satisfaction, the Latin root of that word is educare, to lead forth, to draw out, what Socrates called the maieutic function.
After considering this quite a bit, I thought it would be appropriate and helpful to write about what happened just after Peirce’s death. In the autobiography, he chose chapter headings obviously based upon lines from the book of Genesis, so from the same source I created what I hope is an appropriate heading for my introductory chapter.
I began research many years ago by visiting Milford with Betsey. There we rummaged through court house records and family attics, spoke to some persons still living who had known the Peirces, dug through some “morgue” files in the local newspaper to find some obituaries, and naturally scouted his house, which is now owned by the Park Service, complete with a historical plaque in front placed by the admiring Milfordites.
CHARLES S. PEIRCE
The noted philosopher, logician, scientist
and founder of pragmatism
lived in this house from 1887 until his death in 1914. America’s most original philosopher and greatest logician, a great part of his work was written here.
I’ll begin by showing you some of those things we discovered on that trip.
I detected a curious fact in reading these obituaries. Maybe you’ll agree that the significance of a life often becomes fully clear only after it has ended. Let me explain. Herbert Spencer, the Victorian evolutionist, was known by almost everyone at the time, but no one has any interest in him today. Until recently, similar remarks were made about Josiah Royce. Peirce’s case reverses that pattern. So gaining an understanding of his persona seems to require us to discover how his significance began growing shortly after he passed on. There’s another reason for starting this way. It tells, as I tracked it down, why his significance is steadily increasing, which explains his greatness and indirectly why you need to read what he had to say in the hand-written papers from the box.
This is a curious tale, one I have pondered. At times it’s exalting; other times it’s tragic. Be patient. Ænigma Bostoniensis evolvitur, but it unfolds slowly. Stay with me. Betsey says I’ve got to get it out of my system. She claims I have become obsessed by Charley Peirce’s box of papers. If she is right, I have lost my amateur standing and have to get it back. The only way I can see is the direct route, working straight through the problem, then watching quietly as it falls away from me as a devolved† sign. And it’s obvious I need your help. Dis-obsession can’t succeed without an honest witness.
Boston, 10 September 1996
To find out more about His Glassy Essence, or purchase the book, go HERE.