Sharing Josiah Royce’s story |

Sharing Josiah Royce’s story

Tom Kellar
Special to The Union

He was arguably the most historically important person ever born in Nevada County, but ask someone on the street about Josiah Royce and you can expect to hear a quick “I don’t know” or be met by a blank stare.

The only trace of him within the Grass Valley city limits, the town of his birth, is a plaque in front of the Grass Valley Library on Mill Street.

It reads: “Josiah Royce. Born in Grass Valley. Alumnus of the University of California. Renowned Harvard teacher and eminent American philosopher.”

Serendipitously, the library is located on the exact spot where Royce was born.

Given his stature as one of the great minds of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the plaque’s brief description of Royce is accurate, but woefully short on details.

A brief bio would read something like this: Born in 1855, Royce was the son of Josiah and Sarah Eleanor Royce, English immigrants who traveled west during the Gold Rush.

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Royce spent the first 12 years of his life in Grass Valley, before moving with his family to the San Francisco area.

He graduated from the University of California in 1875, and began teaching English composition, literature and rhetoric there soon after.

He would go on to receive a doctorate from John Hopkins University, study abroad in Germany, and eventually land at Harvard, where initially he served as a sabbatical replacement for famous philosopher and psychologist William James.

He and James became close friends, with Royce receiving a permanent position at Harvard in 1884 until his death in 1916.

According to the Britannica Concise Encyclopedia, his many books include “The Religious Aspect of Philosophy” (1885), “The Spirit of Modern Philosophy” (1892), “Studies of Good and Evil” (1898), “The World and the Individual” (1900-01), and “The Philosophy of Loyalty” (1908).

His emphasis on individuality and will over intellect strongly influenced 20th-century American philosophy.”

The legacy of Royce includes having one of the first four buildings constructed at UCLA named after him (Royce Hall) and an organization dedicated to the study of his life and work.

Founded in 2003, and called The Josiah Royce Society, the group has tentative plans for hosting an academic conference in this area next summer.

If local artist and playwright Robin Wallace has her way; Royce will not be a stranger to the great bulk of Nevada County residents much longer.

She has studied his early life extensively and is busy writing a play about Royce that she hopes can be performed via a stage reading next August during the Royce Society academic conference.

“I used to live in Los Angeles and worked at UCLA as a nurse in the medical center,” Wallace said. “I was always going to Royce Hall for different events, but had no idea who it was named for.”

That would change after Wallace came north.

“I moved to Nevada City about 21 years ago and 15 years ago a classmate of mine from nursing school in Montreal came to visit me,” Wallace said. “She told me, ‘I have a famous relative that was born here. His name was Josiah Royce.'”

Wallace says she and her former roommate spent the next few days trying to find out everything they could about Royce. They hoped to be able to co-write a children’s book that would introduce young people to the philosopher, but Wallace says “life got in the way,”

While watching last spring’s inaugural address by Gov. Jerry Brown, during which he referenced Royce, her passion for the subject of Royce was rekindled.

“That made me go into my files and get my notes, and I felt reinvigorated,” Wallace said. “I began work on a scene that takes place in 1862 in Grass Valley. Real events were taking place. The National Hotel was being rebuilt after a fire.

“The gas works had just opened and they had started lighting up the downtown area at night. I found I could use all of these little elements in the play.”

According to Wallace, the play will focus on the events surrounding a three-year period, when Royce’s father left the family behind on a farm near Grass Valley to pursue commerce in Nevada.

She believes the timing is right for a play about Royce.

“Recently there has been a resurgence of interest in Royce,” Wallace said. “He was extremely articulate and interested in everything.”

Wallace encourages anyone with information on Royce to contact her at

Tom Kellar is a freelance writer who lives in Cedar Ridge. He can be reached at

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