cover image William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernity

William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernity

Robert D. Richardson, . . Houghton Mifflin, $30 (622pp) ISBN 978-0-618-43325-4


Reviewed by Justin Kaplan

In 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).