William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism
Robert D. Richardson
(also: Thoreau: A Life of the Mind and Emerson: A Mind on Fire.)
Richardson’s biographies of Thoreau and Emerson are two of the best books I’ve encountered in my life of voracious reading and this is one is just as wondrous. I cannot read any of these books in public, because they all make me want to weep and clutch my chest and shout, "At last! Everything has been revealed!"
I wish I could explain why Richardson’s biographies are different from anyone else’s. It’s not just an artful piling up of delightful and distressing facts. Instead it’s like the doorbell rings and you have a new best friend: William James. There’s something magical and occult about this. It’s not like he went to the research library, it’s like he drew mystic diagrams on the floor.
Richardson writes that one of James’ gifts was “his uncanny ability to pick up redemptive ideas from his reading.” And it is Richardson’s gift too, to fill each page with life-giving ideas. These biographies are as purely inspirational as a strong Lao coffee with sweetened condensed milk. Reading them makes me prone to fits of euphoria.
Richardson points toward the sources of James’ genius— one of the most important of which was James’ own depression and heartbreak. He writes, “James had a remarkable capacity to convert misery and unhappiness into intellectual and emotional openness and growth. It is almost as though trouble was for him a precondition for insight.” How hopeful that is!
Richardson’s compassion for his subject spills out, somehow, to the reader, and makes one feel that one’s own nonsense and bleakness do not render one disqualified for a whole human life. What more can I ask for?