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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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Top Customer Reviews
The author previously produced probably the definitive studies of Emerson and Thoreau. He spent a decade on this volume, and its shows. His approach is to understand James' "life through his work, not the other way around." What this means is that the book continually manifests a dual focus: WJ's life and WJ's intellectual pursuits and writings. The analysis is extremely detailed and comprehensive, the research phenomenal--and given the nearly 600 pages of text and notes, Richardson obviously was in no hurry to tell WJ's story.
However, a prospective reader should be warned that James dealt with and developed a number of complex and challenging ideas and areas. And Richardson is just as determined to analyze these topics as he is to do justice to WJ's life. Or, put differently, unless the reader is well versed in this subject matter, it can be difficult going at times. However, given the author's clarity of exposition, I found it easy to skim through these difficult passages and concentrate on the areas more familiar to me, and still reap the full benefits of Richardson's insights. So this fine book is there to provide as much detail and depth as to WJ's professional interests and writings as the reader is desirous of probing. In short, it is all there in this one book, for those who really want to get into WJ (including his interest in spiritualism). I found it helpful to keep handy the outstanding two volume Library of America collection of WJ's writings. A truly monumental contribution by Richardson and absolute "must reading" for anyone seriously interested in William James.
I won't rate it harshly since it was my expectations that were the problem plus still found it useful. It's good work but not the kind I wanted. I didn't need as much detail as given. A mix between "A Stroll with William James" and this book was something I was looking for.
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.