- Hardcover: 622 pages
- Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (November 9, 2006)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0618433252
- ISBN-13: 978-0618433254
- Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.5 x 9.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 39 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #442,154 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism Hardcover – November 9, 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. [Signature]Reviewed by Justin KaplanIn William James, Robert D. Richardson, biographer of Thoreau and Emerson, has chosen as his subject one of the most radiant of American lives. Author, philosopher, scientist, psychologist, longtime Harvard professor, James (1842–1910) had set out to be a painter, but discouraged from this by his father, instead followed a wandering but ultimately consistent career path. He trained as a medical doctor but never practiced medicine; served as a naturalist and accompanied Louis Agassiz on an expedition to the upper reaches of the Amazon; broke new ground as a physiologist and psychologist; studied religion and psychic phenomena; lectured extensively; and wrote three classic books, Principles of Psychology, The Varieties of Religious Experience and Pragmatism. Richardson's book opens in April 1906, with the 64-year-old James, then a visiting professor at Stanford, shaken from his bed by the 48-second shock of the San Francisco earthquake. His immediate response typified his lifelong openness to experience and risk taking (including, we're told, personal encounters with previously untested drugs and gases). Instead of fear he experienced "glee," "admiration," "delight" and an exhilarating sense of "welcome." For James, Richardson writes, this was a moment of "unhesitating, fierce, joyful embrace of the awful force of nature... of contact with elemental reality." William James was the dutiful but often resistant son of a mercurial Swedenborgian philosopher who, on either whim or principled decision but always supported by more than ample money, moved the members of his large family from place to place on both sides of the Atlantic, virtually transforming them into a tribe of nomads and hotel children. William's sister was the diarist Alice, fully as remarkable but not so publicly fulfilled as her famous elder siblings. William and the novelist Henry coexisted on often competitive but ultimately affectionate terms. One of the most poignant of the 32 pages of illustrations shows the brothers, both in their 60s, standing side by side, with William's arm around the younger Henry's shoulder in a gesture of protection and intimacy. Previous biographers of William James have focused on his thought and character, others on the events of his life, which was often marked by doubt, depression and physical ailments. But no one has managed, as Richardson does so brilliantly, to intertwine the two and account for each with equal authority, penetration and narrative coherence. James's progression from the gently idealizing intellectual climate of Ralph Waldo Emerson to what Richardson calls "the maelstrom of American modernism" makes for a gripping and often inspiring story of intellectual and spiritual adventure. Richardson's enthusiasm for what he calls "the matchless incandescent spirit" of William James is contagious. (Nov. 9)Justin Kaplan is the author of When the Astors Owned New York (Viking, 2006).
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*Starred Review* "All that the human heart wants," declared William James, "is its chance." In a biography of exceptional insight, Richardson recounts how James seized his historic chance to establish American psychology as a scientific pursuit freed from metaphysical encumbrance. Scholars and general readers alike will value the lucid narrative revealing how James erased the traditional boundary between thought and thinker, defying both Platonic idealism and materialistic determinism as he probed the powers of the human will to shape the universe it experiences. Richardson investigates with particular care James' foray into the complex psychology of belief in The Varieties of Religious Experience, detailing how James affirmed the human capacity for faith as a prerequisite for fruitful action. Readers thus see how James harmonized religious hope with his own formulation of pragmatism as the dynamic process that defines modernity. Readers visit the academic settings in which James worked, alternately clashing and collaborating with Harvard titans such as Royce and Santayana. But readers also see how fiercely the great psychologist resisted lecture-room formulas in his quest for direct experience. And in that quest, the vicissitudes he shared with his wife, close friends, and family counted--as Richardson shows--for more than the doctrines of theoreticians. A landmark study, certain to endure. Bryce Christensen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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How much background in philosophy does a reader need for this book? A little but not much. Richardson lays out as clearly as anyone can the positions that James accepts or does not accept. What strikes the reader constantly in the book is James’s openness to “experience,” including experiences many educated people today would consider illusions or emotional assertions taken as facts. James had (and has) many good critics. The problem of conceptualizing our experience which, as James notes, leads people from mystical experiences to culture-dominated dogmatic religions, also applies to one’s personal judgment of truth. A sudden rush of positive insight or total oneness may not be as self-evidently true as we might like. Are such experiences completely self-verifying? Many say James is far too lenient in what he allows as “evidence.” But what I have always admired about William James, and what comes out clearly throughout his life and in this book, is his ability to push us past our preset ideas and our human arrogance to where we crack open our concepts to at least try to be open to new or unorthodox experiences. In the metaphor James uses more than once, we may well be like our pet dog who wanders around a library without the vaguest idea of the larger world it is in and only the most minimal and most limited idea of the world outside its consciousness. We may be only pecking away at the margins of what the universe holds and human consciousness could well be analogous to the dog’s when it comes to what is out there. Still, our best developed and best functioning concepts are all we have in practice. As James says in so many ways, these are stepping stones for our understanding of ourselves and the universe. We can stand on them – for a while – as long as they are productive and bear themselves out in practice.
This is a mind-opening and heartfelt tribute to James’s life. His relationship to his famous brother Henry is laid out in detail as well as his marriage to Alice Gibbens. The English is clear and well-organized with excellent chapter divisions. The transitions are smooth and this is especially important when mixing the life and the ideas of an academic figure. I recommend this biography in the strongest terms as one of the finest examples around of engaging the reader in the life story of an original American thinker.
I had not read James for many years but, since reading this biography, have purchased a collection of his writings and am re-reading many of his works. You will come away from "In the Maelstrom of American Modernism" with a better understanding of both American values and ideals, and the history of U.S. higher education. Most importantly, however, you will come away with enormous admiration for the radiant personality that was William James, or as Richardson exclaims (using italics, not caps) at the end of this great work, for "the SPIRIT the man." When I finished reading, I not only wanted to read William James; I was sorry that I had not known him or had him as a teacher. That's how good this book is -- for every reader.
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