willy james and the ‘third style’


Robert Frost once remarked that the poet E. A. Robinson “remained content with the old-fashioned way to be new,” and the same could be said of the intellectual figure Frost admired most as a student at Harvard, William James. Indeed, this willingness to be new in the most old-fashioned of ways no doubt continues to obscure James’s legacy for many modern readers. As with Robinson (and even more so with Frost), James’s modernity is too often lost in the fog of intellectual mannerisms that “read” as late-Victorian: his commitment to experience (as opposed to theory or a theoretical model of experience), his interest in addressing popular audiences, his fascination with and defense of varieties of religious experience, and perhaps above all, his strenuous individualism. Thankfully, James has long had his defenders who have, especially since the mid-1960s, steadily pointed to the singular modernity of the man and his work. Robert D. Richardson’s new intellectual biography is a welcome addition to this body of work. Full of insight and written with impressive command of the astonishingly wide range of materials that went into the peculiar and truly lifelong education of William James, Richardson’s William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism may well provide the best one-stop introduction to James’s life and work we now have. If Richardson’s volume lacks some of the added breadth of R.W.B. Lewis’s magisterial The Jameses, it makes up for that by providing unexpected depth in its tracking of the many sources that fed the Jamesian stream and by offering an impressively detailed account of the fascinating relationship between James’s decidedly unstable emotional life and the zig-zag development of his thought.

more from William James Studies here (via TPM).