William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism. By Robert D. Richardson

Book Review

William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism. By Robert D. Richardson. New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 2006. Pp. xiii, 622. $30.00.
    Robert Frost once remarked that the poet E. A. Robinson “remained content with the old-fashioned way to be new,” and the same could be said of the intellectual figure Frost admired most as a student at Harvard, William James. Indeed, this willingness to be new in the most old-fashioned of ways no doubt continues to obscure James’s legacy for many modern readers. As with Robinson (and even more so with Frost), James’s modernity is too often lost in the fog of intellectual mannerisms that “read” as late-Victorian: his commitment to experience (as opposed to theory or a theoretical model of experience), his interest in addressing popular audiences, his fascination with and defense of varieties of religious experience, and perhaps above all, his strenuous individualism.
    Thankfully, James has long had his defenders who have, especially since the mid-1960s, steadily pointed to the singular modernity of the man and his work. Robert D. Richardson’s new intellectual biography is a welcome addition to this body of work. Full of insight and written with impressive command of the astonishingly wide range of materials that went into the peculiar and truly lifelong education of William James, Richardson’s William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism may well provide the best one-stop introduction to James’s life and work we now have. If Richardson’s volume lacks some of the added breadth of R.W.B. Lewis’s magisterial The Jameses, it makes up for that by providing unexpected depth in its tracking of the many sources that fed the Jamesian stream and by offering an impressively detailed account of the fascinating relationship between James’s decidedly unstable emotional life and the zig-zag development of his thought.
     The book is probably best suited for the kind of audience that James addressed in what Richardson describes as James’s “third style,” written for a broad but informed audience in a style “at once vivid, personal, comprehensible, and without a shred of condescension.” While Richardson does often offer new insight into dynamics that have been recognized by others (he is especially good, for example, on James’s relationship with Pauline Goldmark and other similarly fascinating women), much of the story of James’s life told here will be familiar to those who have read one or more of the major biographies. Still, Richardson interweaves his narrative of the life with that of the emerging work as skillfully and engagingly as any before him. His short summaries of James’s major themes are always concise, accurate, and well-proportioned. As in his equally superb biographies of Emerson and Thoreau, Richardson offers capsule accounts of what James was reading and who he was most directly engaged with at any given time, showing how the work emerged in a kind of ongoing dialogue with teachers, colleagues, family, friends, and others whose work he encountered along the way, both allies and adversaries (some of them, like his Harvard colleague Josiah Royce, both). While he is careful to delineate between the different aspects of James’s thought, he is also very perceptive about the ways in which the various parts form a whole (if still a decidedly pluralistic whole). He does not much engage with later scholarship on James, but if the reader does not come away with much sense of the ensuing debates surrounding James’s work, that reader does get an unusually clear and focused sense of how that work was immediately received.
    Building on his previous biographies of Emerson and Thoreau, Richardson’s James is another singularly idiosyncratic American voice, dancing on the precipice of a profoundly unnerving modernity. Richardson’s James steered an often precarious middle course between many polar opposites: science and belief, skepticism and faith, popular and technical modes of inquiry, an emphasis on the individual will and an attraction to marginal states that transcend or otherwise obviate that will, faith in the individual and fascination with the trans-personal, a patriot’s love of America and a sense that his ideal America has gone astray. No doubt such vacillation helps explain why James could seem old-fashioned. His most daring innovations were often cast in home-spun cloth, and his unwavering defense of ordinary experience and forms of expression set him apart from most leading champions of the modern, especially as the twentieth century wore on. 4
    James walked a very fine line in this regard, and Richardson recognizes the challenge James faced in attempting to mount a full-scale critique, grounded in ordinary experience, of leading work in psychology, religion, and philosophical method. He effectively captures the many ironies and tensions of James’s career, underscoring throughout those aspects of James’s life at odds with the popular myth of the man: his frequent sense of inadequacy and failure, his constant physical ailments, his occasional bad temper and emotional philandering. Still, the story he tells is largely triumphant. The James presented in these pages stands against the encroaching empire of system, state, industry, science, professionalism, and the like, champion of the marginal, individual, eccentric, even esoteric, all of the latter harbingers of a pluralistic multiverse that will not be contained or otherwise limited. While Richardson links James to the fully emergent modernisms of psychology, physics, and new forms of social analysis represented by the likes of such students as W.E.B. DuBois, Gertrude Stein, and Horace Kallen, what is perhaps most convincingly modern about James is the sense that even as he greeted the new century with a psychology and philosophical method appropriate to it, the new century was already poised to pass him by. Reading through the last pages of this volume, with the sad tale of leading philosophers’ opposition to James’s late work (the story of which runs parallel here to that of his brother’s failure to find an audience for his painstakingly assembled New York Edition), one senses that the forces unleashed by the new century had at once nurtured these great figures and abandoned them. William did achieve popular success with his late lectures and publications, but apart from the support of his close allies and friends, professional resistance set the tone for his reception over the next half century. Both Henry and William pointed the way forward as forcefully as anyone born, as they were, in the early/mid-nineteenth century, as this book and others like it have amply documented, but at the same time, one can’t help but feel that once this new modernism emerged from the maelstrom, its partisans would immediately seek to reinvent everything in forms that bore less resemblance to the products of an earlier age than Henry’s novels or William’s lectures and books. 5
    Of course, Richardson’s intellectual biography is itself testimony to James’s enduring appeal (as well as to that of his brother Henry, who is well represented in its pages). Ours is a moment of renewed interest in James and pragmatism, at least in some quarters, as well as in the kind of physiological approach to cognition that James pioneered in the Principles of Psychology. And perhaps the revolution James believed he had worked in philosophy, or at least in philosophical method, has become so commonly accepted as no longer to bear the clear sign of its partial origins in James: who today does not believe that knowledge is necessarily wed to experience, or, whatever one believes about “truth” in the abstract, that ideas are ultimately measured by their visible effects in the world? Admittedly, there does remain significant controversy in these claims (especially among those professionally vested in these controversies), but these attitudes are nevertheless now so commonly held that they hardly need to be traced to any point of origin, whether in James or anyone else, and James himself might well regard that as a kind of victory.
    Full of keen insight into both the making of William James and the ultimate significance of the works he in turn made, Richardson’s intellectual biography should find a broad and various audience. He brilliantly captures the perversely wide range of influences that shaped the Jamesian imagination, as well as the intensely generous curiosity on display throughout James’s public and private writings. We take the pluralism of our world for granted, and this exceptionally well-researched, well-written volume offers an invaluable reminder that our ability to do so was historically won, in no small measure thanks to the inspired labors of this distinctive American genius.
Jonathan Levin
School of Humanities
Purchase College, SUNY

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