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William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism Paperback – September 14, 2007

4.8 out of 5 stars 32 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

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).
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

*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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 656 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books; Reprint edition (September 14, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618919899
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618919895
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #526,026 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
"When a thing is new, people say: 'It is not true'.
Later, when its truth becomes obvious, they say: 'It's not important.'
Finally, when its importance cannot be denied, they say 'Anyway, it's not new.'"
William James

Well, I admit to being completely fascinated with great early experimental psychologists like William James and Gustav Fechner. While modern psychology honors these thinkers, they usually neglect to look deeply into their great experimental and non-experimental ideas.

I hope that this remarkable and important book gets the attention it deserves, and I hope that my generation will discover the brilliance of William James. Richardson has brought James, his world, and his genius to life, along with the fascinating origins of modern psychological and metaphysical thought. Today, psychological science, philosophy, and the science of consciousness have come full circle, so James is as relevant today as 100 years ago.

In the preface of "William James; In the Maelstrom of American Modernism," Robert D. Richardson states that "This is an intellectual biography of William James. That is to say, it seeks to understand his life through his work, not the other way around. It is primarily narrative, aiming more to present his life than to analyze or explain it." With this humble thesis statement, Richardson understates one of the crowning achievements of his book. The book succeeds in portraying James' multifaceted, vibrant, and strong personality, thus explaining the great and passionate ideas that emanated from this source.

Toward the end of the book (p. 473; California Dreaming), Richardson discusses James' 4-part personality, referring to Barton Perry's (1935) analysis of James.
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Format: Hardcover
This is a wonderfully written biography of a giant in American intellectual history, a book (and a life) that really can't be adequately summarized in a short review. Richardson has a comprehensive view of the historical era in which William James emerged, having previously published biographies of Emerson and Thoreau. The book is filled with interesting historical tidbits, such as the fact that Harvard had no separate Psychology Department until 1934, and a sketch of the miserable state of medical education in the late 19th Century, when not even a high school diploma was required. We see the brilliant Charles Peirce unable to make a living, and finally rescued by James and other of his friends from near starvation. Richardson frequently gives us the current value of dollar amounts from the earlier time, which adds valuable perspective. It is worth knowing that James's $5,000 Harvard salary, an amount that sounds puny, was the equivalent of $100,000 today.

William James was a famously late bloomer, but during that casting-about time he was hardly idle. He read very widely, was a talented artist, traveled constantly (including up the Amazon with Agassiz), became fluent in French and German, and got an MD degree among much else. His interest and training in physiology made him sensitive to the continuities between animals and human beings, and receptive to Darwin's evolutionary theory. But he also put great emphasis on the discontinuities; the example of a dog listening to a symphony was a favorite analogy to suggest the limits of our possible human understanding of the universe.

When William James died from heart failure in his late 60s, it was said that he had literally worn himself out. Santayana described James's personal vitality as "similar to nobody else.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
William James (1842-1910) made major contributions in the areas of philosophy, psychology, and the study of religion--yet we don't hear too much about him these days. Of course, the discussion of his more famous brother, Henry James, the novelist, is on-going. This book (along with Linda Simon's earlier "Genuine Reality: A Life of WJ") should do much to reintroduce this astoundingly talented figure to the current generation.
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).
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