The Exceptional William James

A Stroll with William James

by Jacques Barzun
Harper and Row, 344 pp., $19.95

William James, dead these seventy-three years, is a living and much-cherished figure to Jacques Barzun, whose sparkling appreciation honors his “mentor,” a man and thinker without a describable lapse who “knows better than anyone else the material and spiritual country I am traveling through.” Unlike all other philosophers Barzun likes to “read in,” James’s

ideas, his words, his temperament speak to me with intimacy as well as force. Communication is direct;…he “does me good.” I find him visibly and testably right—right in intuition, range of considerations, sequence of reasons, and fully rounded power of expression. He is for me the most inclusive mind. I can listen to, the most concrete and the least hampered by trifles.

Barzun does not have to say that his love and homage owe much to one overriding fact. William James is a figure impossible to imagine in contemporary America. With James as his herald and shield, Barzun makes a point of this whenever he comes anywhere near today’s “half-educated” citizens, our age that “cries out for all the freedoms,” our “politics, which after all is only hasty management under stress.” He notes with pursed lips that nowadays “all deficiencies from idleness to cheating invite interested care—so much, that none is left to bestow on those who perversely perform and stay out of trouble.”

One can see why Barzun has taken this “stroll” not only with William James but out of the hateful 1960s—and 1970s and 1980s—into the nineteenth-century Cambridge where the stroll begins. The most memorable chapter in his book, stirring in its way as Freud’s account of the stroll with James in 1909, when James asked Freud to walk on ahead while he lay on the ground recovering from an angina attack, is Barzun’s account of the founding of modernism in the cultural rebellion of the 1890s. James appears here as a modernist with the élan of Barzun’s other culture heroes Shaw and Nietzsche. But, Barzun goes on to lament, modernism, so often mistakenly relegated to the 1920s, was (as we can see now) done in by World War I.

Whether or not James was a “modernist,” he is certainly not our contemporary. Years ago I started collecting reminiscences of James by his last surviving Harvard students, old neighbors in Cambridge, auditors at Columbia and Stanford. What most stood out in the memories of these very old people was James’s dependable unconventionality, his freshness and love of novelty in all things. Even in 1890 and 1904 he had nothing in common with “the age.” The iconoclastic educator and libertarian Alexander Meiklejohn, a man always in trouble with authority and the established, remembered with astonishment James (in the frock coat of the period) lecturing at Teachers College while perched on the edge of the stage.

Without seeming unworldly, James appeared to family, friends, and even detractors (such as Santayana) wholly removed from the commonplaces of society, the pettiness of academe, the grasping, at another’s expense, which James in a famous letter to…

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