C.S. Peirce: "My Life: written for the Class-Book"

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In May of 1859, Charles Sanders Peirce was 19 years old, and graduating from Harvard College. Graduates were invited to describe their life for the "Class-Book" — and what Peirce wrote in response stands as the first entry in Volume 1 of the Writings of Charles S. Peirce: A Chronological Edition:

September 10. Tuesday. Born.
Made a visit to Salem which I distinctly remember.
July 31. Went to church for the first time.
Attended a marriage.
Fell violently in love with Miss W. and commenced my education.
Moved into new house on Quincy St.
Stopped going to Ma'am Sessions and began to go to Miss Wares — a very pleasant school where I learnt much and fell violently in love with another Miss W. whom for distinction's sake I will designate as Miss W'.
Began to be most seriously and hopelessly in love. Sought to drown my care by taking up the subject of Chemistry —
an antidote which long experience enables me to recommend as sovereign.
Went to dwell in town with my uncle C. H. Mills and went to school to the Rev. T. R. Sullivan, where I received my first lessons in elocution.
In consequence of playing truant and laving in the frog-pond, was taken ill. On my recovery , I was recalled to Cambridge and admitted a member of the Cambridge High School.
Wrote a "History of Chemistry."
Established a printing-press.
Joined a debating society.
Set up for a fast man and became a bad schoolboy.
Left the High School with honor after having been turned out several times. Worked at Mathematics for about six months and then Joined Mr. Dixwell's school in town.
Graduated at Dixwell's and entered College.
Read Schiller's Aesthetic Letters and began the study of Kant.
SOPHOMORE. Gave up the idea of being a fast man and undertook the pursuit of pleasure.
JUNIOR. Gave up the pursuit of pleasure and undertook to enjoy life.
SENIOR. Gave up enjoying life and exclaimed "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!"
Wondered what I would do in life.

A couple of years later, he added:

Appointed Aid on the Coast Survey. Went to Maine and then to Louisiana.
Came back from Louisiana and took a Proctorship in Harvard. Studied Natural History and Natural Philosophy.
No longer wondered what I would do in life but defined my object.


  1. Vance Maverick said,

    May 16, 2017 @ 12:28 pm

    Typo near the end — should probably be 1860 rather than 1800.

    There's a certain bathos in that transition….

  2. Rubrick said,

    May 16, 2017 @ 2:49 pm

    Stopped going to Ma’am Sessions and began to go to Miss Wares — a very pleasant school where I learnt much and fell violently in love with another Miss W. whom for distinction’s sake I will designate as Miss W’.

    Magnificent. And remarkably modern-sounding, "whom" notwithstanding.

  3. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 16, 2017 @ 2:59 pm

    Fortunately I grew up in a less formal age when teenage boys were expected to be on first name terms with their girlfriends, meaning my fall-of-sophomore-year-in-college love interest did not need to be called Miss C.' to distinguish her from the Miss C. with whom I had been involved two semesters previously, not to mention the Miss C." who many years later became my wife.

    [(myl) The formality of Peirce's naming in this case is explained not so much by 19th century Boston-area upper middle class culture, as by the fact that Miss W was his teacher when he was 5 years old, and Miss W' was his teacher when he was 7.]

  4. zbs said,

    May 16, 2017 @ 3:25 pm

    Reminds me of Robert Frost's joke course description “True Story of My Life,” written in 1916:

    Stealing pigs from the stockyards in San Francisco. Learn to whistle at five. Abandon senatorial ambitions to come to New York but settle in New Hampshire by mistake on account of the high rents in both places. Invention of cotton gin. Supersedes potato whiskey on the market. A bobbin boy in the mills of Lawrence. Nailing shanks. Preadamite honors. Rose Marie. La Gioconda. Astrolabe. Novum Organum. David Harum. Cosmogony versus Cosmography. Visit General Electric Company, Synecdoche, N.Y. Advance theory of matter (whats the matter) that becomes obsession. Try to stop thinking by immersing myself in White Wyandottes. Monograph on the “Multiplication in Biela’s Comet by Scission.” “North of Boston.” Address Great Poetry Meal. Decline. Later works. Don’t seem to die. Attempt to write “Crossing the Bar.” International copyright. Chief occupation (according to Who’s Who) pursuit of glory; most noticeable trait, patience in the pursuit of glory. Time three hours. Very intimate and baffling.

  5. Ryan said,

    May 16, 2017 @ 11:31 pm

    Yes, but what day of the week was he born/Christened/taken ill?

  6. Jen in Edinburgh said,

    May 17, 2017 @ 3:33 am

    J.W. Brewer: But that wouldn't stop you (to take the example of one of my friends) falling in love with two Lindas in succession, or even a Linda and a Louise if you were using initials!

  7. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 17, 2017 @ 9:43 am

    @Jen: Sure, and because at least in the US given names are more heavily concentrated in their distribution than surnames (although they've been becoming less so in recent decades) you have factors such as that a higher percentage of US-born females my age have the first name "Lisa" than were, before any change in marital status, "Miss Smith," thus increasing the odds of repetition. I suppose what I found most noteworthy about Pierce was the mathematical notation. If I had in my youth dated at different times two girls named Lisa I'm not quite sure how I would have disambiguated them, but I am pretty sure that, despite having been on a state-champion math league team I would *not* have gone with Lisa-Prime for the second in the series.

  8. mg said,

    May 17, 2017 @ 10:55 am

    @JW Brewer – but what if Lisa-Prime was the prime love of your life? :)

  9. D.O. said,

    May 18, 2017 @ 9:37 am

    Apart from a pressing question of how to refer to one's girlfriends and schoolboy crushes, I would like to know the history of expression "recommend as sovereign". My one stop Google search turned up LL, Mr. Peirce, and this fragment
    In this connection it is enough to hint at the many brands of little liver pills which the different crammers recommend as sovereign specifics for the mental indigestion of those whom the said crammers are preparing to be served as intellectual pâté du fois gras at the tables of guzzling examiners

    [(myl) As far as I can see, "recommend as sovereign" is a syntactically and semantically composition combination of the verb recommend and the adjective sovereign in the OED's sense 3: "Of remedies, etc.: Efficacious or potent in a superlative degree. Freq. in fig. use."]

  10. D.O. said,

    May 18, 2017 @ 4:41 pm

    Oh, right! Thank you. I did not know this sense and went for the wrong hypothesis that the sovereign is a recommender. Something akin to what Merriam-Webster online defines as "an acknowledged leader".

  11. Kuroda said,

    May 21, 2017 @ 7:01 am

    CSP pre-created hipsters so he could out-hipster them, six+ generations ahead! The greatest American liek evvar!!!

    But seriously, his life is a great and fascinating slice of 19th century intellectual and social history; even if you dismiss his 'semiotic' in favor of 'semiotics'.

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