Parkman Prize–winner Richardson takes a vivid look at a pioneering American intellectual.
The biographer has previously tackled with aplomb such challenging thinkers as Thoreau (1995) and Emerson (1988), and here, too, the breadth and depth of his research is evident. William James (1842–1910) profoundly influenced modern philosophy and psychology, including the way these and other subjects are taught. His body of work and his life were so rich and colorful that distilling them to their essence is a daunting task. Richardson, however, strikes a careful balance between substantive fact and thoughtful commentary. He draws on James’s notebooks, diaries and published works, in addition to dozens of other sources, to accent his overview with carefully chosen quotations. This high degree of detail brings the romantic spirit of James to life in passages that convey his delight in a young woman who caught his eye, his exuberance upon first seeing the Amazon River, the humility he felt standing in the mountains at night surrounded by stars. The narrative is sometimes thrilling, sometimes arduous, much as James’s own life was slowed by illness and buoyed by love. A zealous reader from an early age, James attended Harvard Medical School as a prelude to his continuing career as a scholar. While in Cambridge, around 1871, he joined a small number of forward-thinking men who called themselves the Metaphysical Club. This group became the core of modern American intellectualism. Referring to “the sense of the amount of effort which we can put forth,” James wrote in Principles of Psychology, “He who can make none is but a shadow; he who can make much is a hero.” James accomplished much with his work, and the same can be said here of Richardson.
An illuminating portrait.