William James (1842-1910) was a seminal thinker and author whose life and work as a philosopher, psychologist and teacher with a deep interest in both science and religion put him in the vanguard of the intellectual currents of his time. Though he taught at Harvard, his influence extended far beyond academia, through his public lectures and books especially The Varieties of Religious Experience, Principles of Psychology, The Will to Believe and Pragmatism. James' books sold well to the general public in his day and continue to be read today. In his luminous new biography, William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism, Robert D. Richardson superbly captures both the fascinating life and groundbreaking thought of the man described by A.N. Whitehead as an adorable genius. James grew up as part of a remarkable family and once wrote that his famous younger brother, the novelist Henry James, was a native of the James family and has no other country. Dominated by Henry Sr., his religion-obsessed father, the family also included Alice, his perceptive and gifted invalid sister. Richardson shows how close the family bond remained throughout their lives. For example, although Henry lived abroad for much of his life, the brothers corresponded frequently and Henry was in the main William's closest confidant, with the important exception of his wife. Though William James enjoyed socializing and was keenly interested in other people, he had numerous health problems and suffered from crippling depression. Richardson identifies resilience as a key factor in James' life, a quality apparent when he abandoned plans to be an artist and decided to earn a medical degree, after which he began a long teaching career. Among former students who remembered him fondly were Gertrude Stein and W.E.B. DuBois.

Richardson writes that James' life was exhausting; just tracing it is exhausting. But his life was so rich and his biographer so skilled that reading about it is exhilarating.

 

comments powered by Disqus