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William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism

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  • Posted June 29, 2010

    A superb biography of William James

    The third volume of the incredibly rewarding trilogy on the intellectual giants of American literature of the 19th century, written by Robert D. Richardson,is about William James, philosopher and psychologist and elder brother of Henry James, the exceptionally renowned novelist, who envied his brother's intellectual gifts and scientific reputation but, since then, has turned out to be the great celebrity of this remarkable family of inner American aristocracy, Bostonians but mostly cosmopolitans.
    With his eminent skill in combining pure biographical material with a history of personal intellectual development in readings and writings, Richardson gives us a most fascinating portrait of Willima J., this thinker and researcher, maybe the greatest philosopher in American culture, whose Principles of Psychology, Essays in Religion and Morality, and Pragmatism all belong to American literature as well as to its cultural heritage, due to the verbal talents and the inner depths he had as well. Richardson confines himself to attaining only 90 chapters in this book, and not 100 as in the earlier studies, but with the enormous material he has been able to make use of, the book is still most of all like a sea of facts and persons and ideas, giving you a slight feeling of incessant disorientation, although reading it is as much a delight as taking a swim in a beautiful seascape. Sometimes, however, you may call in question whether such an abundance of pure biographical details are necessary in an intellectual biography, fascinating though they may be.
    This is also very much a substantial study in the Harvard history of the middle and late 19th century days and a grandiose picture of the intellectual milieu growing there, the "maelstrom", the large whirlpool of American modernism . Personally, I found a lot of pleasure viewing Henry James from this big brother angle too. Though the great advantage of the reading of this book is no doubt the widening esteem of the intellectual capacity of this great thinker that it gives you.
    In other words, a great biography, indispensable for all knowledge of the intellectual history of the U.S.A.

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