restricted access William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism (review)
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William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism. Robert D. Richardson. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006. xvi + 621 pp. $17.50 paper.

In this biography of William James, Robert D. Richardson claims that he seeks ". . . to understand his life through his work, not the other way around" (xiii). This he does not do. Rather, where Richardson does excel is in biographical narrative or in his own words, in the aim "to present James' life [rather] than to analyze or explain it" (xiii).

Richardson covers fascinating biographical territory familiar to readers of this journal. He provides an excellent narrative description of James's relation to his father Henry James, Sr. He helpfully accounts for the latter's influence on William as well as their intellectual differences. Richardson's descriptions of the warm relationship between William and his brother Henry and his sister Alice provide rewarding and illuminating reading. Similarly, Richardson documents the relationship to William's less successful brothers Bob and Wilky with a combination of compassion and toughness. More significantly than other biographers of James, Richardson devotes considerable attention to James's relationship to his first cousin, Minnie Temple. Richardson suggests that while James did not believe in first cousin marriages, the two seemed very much to be in love (108–13). Minnie died not long after they had met, and Richardson maintains that "part of William James died with Minnie Temple" (112). Her death became the catalyst for the American philosopher's famous depression and vocational confusion. On this point, it is noteworthy that Richardson does not attribute the kind of significance to reading Renouvier that James himself acknowledges and other biographers grant as having played a role in leading him through his depression. While James and his wife Alice were very close and although he was very loving towards his children, he was at times absent from his family for prolonged periods of time. His letters during these absences illustrate the closeness of the family. Richardson states that these prolonged absences may have strengthened the marriage. He quotes some of William's letters to Alice that evidence a perhaps surprising degree of vulnerability (265–68).

The book's cast of characters offers a veritable "Who's Who" of late nineteenth/early twentieth-century intellectual history. Among others, Louis Agassiz, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Sanders Pierce, Josiah Royce, George Santayana, W. E. B. DuBois, and Theodore Roosevelt are all discussed. Richardson's descriptions of the relationships between James and these figures [End Page 168] provide a fascinating glimpse into their lives and into an important period in American intellectual history. Richardson's descriptions of James's relationship to Henri Bergson and the Italian pragmatist Giovanni Papini may be of special interest to readers of this journal. His claim that Bergson articulated a version of radical empiricism congenial to that of James is insightful (503). Reading this part of the book, one senses the warmth of James's relationship with Bergson. Richardson's description of these thinkers should dispel any notion that the relation between Continental and American philosophers has been a one-way street with all the influence coming from Europe.

One disappointing aspect of Richardson's treatment of James's philosophy is the brevity with which he examines some works. For example, "The Dilemma of Determinism" is summarized in only two pages and alluded to even more briefly in three others, and "Is Life Worth Living?" is also explained in only two pages and mentioned very briefly elsewhere. One could contend that these and other shorter essays are not as significant as James's longer works, but I believe that they are very much a part of the larger coherence of James's work and thus deserve more significant attention.

Richardson offers an excellent account of the intense research and writing that went into The Principles of Psychology and that work's emphasis on experience. His treatments of James's accounts of pluralism and radical empiricism are among the best parts of the book. His interpretation of the preparation that went into the Gifford Lectures, published as Varieties of Religious Experience, as well as his exploration of the book's...