Recently, while going through George Santayana’s letters for the Letters in Limbo section featured daily on our home page, I found an ambiguously dated letter that, to my eyes, seemed suspect. The letter was to Santayana’s longtime friend Charles Augustus Strong, and it mentioned one of their mutual acquaintances. It’s a fairly typical, brief Santayana letter to which the original editors of The Letters of George Santayana had assigned a tentative date of “Before 1889,” proposing that the letter may have been written while Santayana was in Roxbury, Massachusetts. I can say with certainty that the suggested date cannot be correct.
A little background is necessary here. For the past year, I’ve been working with Santayana’s unfinished translation of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, preparing it for presentation on this site. Part of that process involved researching the background of the manuscript to understand when, why, and how Santayana went about working through the translation. During this process, I became aware of a student and eventual colleague of Santayana’s, Benjamin Apthorp Gould Fuller, who’d been a member of Santayana’s Aristotle study group, translating and comparing notes on the Metaphysics. He went on to join the faculty at Harvard with Santayana’s recommendation.
Why is all this important? Fuller is the acquaintance Santayana describes to Strong. This immediately throws off the “before 1889” dating, as Santayana wasn’t even aware of Fuller until at least 1896, when he began his studies at Harvard. Moreover, and this is where things are particularly puzzling, the published letter includes a footnote identifying Fuller, noting his birth year as 1879. Santayana is unlikely to have been commenting on the life of a ten year old.
The misdating is stranger yet given the letter’s content. Santayana comments that Fuller always seems to be distracted; he notes that Fuller was recently in the company of a young French professor, who discussed Albert Einstein and argued he was an absolutist, saying “that his theory should have been called Théorie de l’Invariance!” Einstein, also identified in a footnote to the letter, was born in 1879, and while certainly a brilliant mind, he was far from a well-recognized physicist as a pre-teen.
Fortunately, all of these facts can help us to home in on a more precise date for this letter. Fuller completed his PhD at Harvard in 1906 and began teaching there in the same year. Einstein’s paper on Special Relativity was published in September of 1905, igniting a firestorm of opinions in the intellectual world and almost certainly causing the French professor’s quip about relativistic theories. And finally, Santayana left Harvard permanently in 1911. So the letter must have been written between October of 1905 and April of 1911. Additionally, the letter was almost certainly written in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as Santayana says he saw Fuller yesterday, implying the latter had just recently been on Harvard’s campus.
More than anything else, I think this oversight points to the real-world difficulties associated with the work of a scholarly edition. A publication like The Letters of George Santayana requires years of preparation, the collaboration of several editors, and frequently the help of numerous interns. With so many hands and minds working on a project, mistakes are bound to happen, and sometimes they slip through the cracks and find their way into a published volume. The task of curating this sort of project never really ends. In the future, new information might be discovered, scholars might find other mistakes, and revisions can always be made.
To Charles Augustus Strong
[Before 1889?] • [Roxbury, Massachusetts?] (MS: Rockefeller)
Thank you for this. I am pleased with that the reviewer takes us1 seriously; but he seems to be exclusively occupied with one point.
I see Fuller2 now and then—unsatisfactory mind: always seems to be really thinking of something else, like a woman. Yesterday he had a young French professor3 in tow who said Einstein4 was an absolutist, and that his theory should have been called Théorie de l’Invariance!
2 Benjamin Apthorp Gould “Bags” Fuller (1879–1956) was a member of the Harvard class of 1900. He pursued graduate study (Ph.D., 1906) with Santayana and later was appointed to the Harvard faculty.
4 Albert Einstein (1879–1955), born in Germany, was an American theoretical physi- cist (known for his theory of relativity) who won the 1921 Nobel Prize.
George Santayana,The Letters of George Santayana: Book One, -1909. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2001. 99.
Austen Hurt is a graduate student in Philosophy, and an intern at the Santayana Edition.