December 2006

JC Hallman


An Interview with Robert D. Richardson

A couple years ago, well into The Devil is a Gentleman, my own book about William James and modern religious groups that expressed aspects of his thinking, I learned that Robert D. Richardson was working on an intellectual biography of James. My heart sank a little. Richardson was the author of the award-winning biographies Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind and Emerson: The Mind on Fire. His book on James would complete a hat trick that was something like Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club, though on a larger scale.

Or maybe even better than that. After Henry Thoreau, Richardson married Annie Dillard, which makes perfect sense. Richardson has a strategy tailor-made for the literary reader: he finds everything that his subjects have read, and reads it all himself. When I went on to mow through his books, Richardson was always present in the background, huddled behind the narrative, paging through the dusty tomes. The result is an eminently readable biographical style, story driven by image and idea in equal parts. Richardson is so familiar with the nineteenth century that some passages read like memoir with a tense shift.

I first contacted Richardson to make sure our books were more complementary than competitive. Our correspondence touched on the theory of biography, and on William James’s “pragmatism,” the philosophy which holds that the validity of ideas should be measured by results. When William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism appeared, I sent Richardson a few questions via e-mail, and then (actually) drove to Key West for some follow-up and a little Cuban coffee.

In the first lines of your preface you claim that yours is an intellectual biography that seeks to understand James’s life “through his work, not the other way around.” What exactly is the danger of understanding someone’s work through their life?

The danger -- maybe that's too strong a word -- in explaining a writer's work through his or her outer life is only that you may miss the element of imagination. The people I've chosen to write about had powerful imaginative inner lives that were fueled by lots and lots of reading. It's just one way of approaching biography, of course, but I think it can work, especially if you combine it with details from the outer life.

You describe five fields in which James made major contributions: psychology, religious studies, philosophy, teaching, and literature. Beyond offering the “stream of consciousness” as a metaphor for how the brain works, how would you describe James’s contribution to literature?

Robert Stone once said that The Varieties of Religious Experience is the greatest American work of nonfiction of the twentieth century. That’s a pretty big contribution to literature.

You appear, briefly, in Phyllis Rose’s memoir The Year of Reading Proust, in which she claims that you were working on nineteen projects at once, after finishing Emerson: The Mind on Fire. What were some of the other projects you were considering, and how did you decide on James?

I was thinking of writing a life of Schleiermacher. Another possibility was an intellectual biography of Jefferson. I thought of doing a book on the 1840s along the lines of Walter Lord’s The Good Years. I’d wanted to do William James since the early 1970s when I first turned to biography. But I simply didn’t know enough about James’s world or about biography. Reading something by James not long after finishing my book on Emerson, I thought I just might be able to do it. I was sixty-one and I thought well it’s now or never.

Does that mean writing about James was more daunting than writing about Thoreau or Emerson?

He was more daunting than Thoreau or Emerson because of what he knew about science, physiology, what he came to know about medicine, and physiological psychology. These were fields in which I knew nothing at all in the '70s. I gradually read up on them over time. I still wouldn’t call myself an expert, but I decided I was still interested in the life -- really interested -- and I’d try to do as much as I could.

What was the James piece you read after finishing the Emerson book?

It was A Pluralistic Universe, which Annie had in mind as the really great James. I hadn’t read it in a long time. So from the beginning, in a way, I was aiming past pragmatism, past James’s psychology, aiming for A Pluralistic Universe.

William James pops up as an epigraph to a late chapter of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. What kind of effect did marrying Annie Dillard have on the later Emerson and James books?

Unimaginably huge.

I imagine future biographers will be particularly frustrated by that answer.  Care to elaborate?


You write: “Any biography [of James] that undertakes to locate or exhibit the central James, the real James, the essential James, or that tries to make a shapely five-act play our of his life, runs the risk of imposing more order than existed.” To what extent is it possible to extrapolate James’s thought from this observation?

Just because you can’t reach final conclusions about important things doesn’t mean you’re excused from acting your part. Pretending that life is neater and cleaner than it is doesn’t help in the long run. I’d like to think there’s at least a little James in that view.

James himself was interested in biography -- you argue that biographies informed his own sense of narrative. Given the difficulty of making a narrative out of James’s life, what kind of criteria did you use for figuring out how to convey his life?

I tried to use material that would allow me to keep the narrative moving and I tried to be selective in telling stories or giving anecdotes. Physical details matter more than one might at first imagine.

Is there a specific detail from James’s life that stands out for you?

Well, one of the little things that caught my attention -- in a funny way meaningless, but I knew that I had to use it so I don’t think it is meaningless -- was that until he was well past fifty James used to take stairs two- and even three-at-a-time. The physical image of the man -- in a hurry to get up or down. And that helps. Anything that touches taste, smell, touch. These details may not seem like they belong in an intellectual biography, but in fact they do. Then you can talk about abstractions and the ideal and all this kind of thing.

Thoreau, Emerson, James. Is there a consistent arc described among these three?

They are the basic, central American writers. None is read, understood or respected abroad (with a few wonderful brave exceptions). They share a belief that, as James puts it, “the inmost nature of... reality is congenial to powers which you possess.” It is difficult to overstate the importance of this.

You quote Whitehead’s claim that William James belonged in the same list with Plato, Aristotle, and Leibniz. Yet my experience has been that even though James was a popularizer in his own time and his books bestsellers, he’s a figure whose popularity is more waning that waxing. Why is that?

My own impression, and it’s only an impression, is that if James doesn’t have a popular following now, he has a very considerable following among intellectuals. Our era seems to be hungry for absolutism, certitude and strong leaders. People who don’t yearn for these things still hold up William James as the spokesman for another way.

Wittgenstein acknowledged a debt to James. Robert Pirsig once claimed that Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was an attempt to carry on James’s work. Max Oelschlaeger’s The Idea of Wilderness returns again and again to James’s “radical empiricism.” What other modern figures have a debt to James?

Richard Rorty -- all of that school of neo-pragmatists obviously do. Husserl and phenomenology comes out of James because they’re always reading James’s Principles of Psychology. James has a long and honored pedigree among black leaders. Not just W.E.B. Du Bois, but Alain Locke, Learned Hand, Paule Marshall. The list of people he influenced became so daunting that I decided to leave it out or the whole book would just be James’s influence. You find him quoted all the time. He pops up in the first line of books on neurobiology. Any book on emotion. Pragmatism has had enormous acceptance among professional philosophy -- so much so that it’s become one of those tag lines. Whenever you’re doing things that have a practical result-oriented intellectual basis and call it pragmatism, you’re kind of drawing on James. 

In the last few weeks, I’ve heard a number of Republicans calling for a more “pragmatic” approach in Iraq. This is pretty far removed from the origin of the word. What happened to it?

I’m not always sure exactly what political people mean now by pragmatism, but if it means evaluating something by its consequences or fruits rather than by its good intentions or original impulses, then maybe it’s not all that far from what James was thinking about. That word keeps popping up in what field commanders and others are saying. “We’ve got to take a pragmatic approach to this.”

I’m really annoyed by this. Because it seems like pragmatism has become a Republican word. And I think of James as being very much a Democrat.

I’m always running into this with Emerson, and everyone assuming that self-reliance is a Republican word, too. Because what it doesn’t mean is government reliance. Democrats can be Emersonian, too, because what self-reliance is really talking about is not self-sufficiency but just self-trust. You can’t use self-reliance as an anti-community or anti-government thing. And I’m starting to think the same sort of thing is happening with pragmatism. The right can use the word to mean anything they want, but only if by it they mean that we should stop talking about our good intentions in Iraq. You said you were going to take a pragmatic approach. Which means that you can’t say we’re going to liberate the country, we’re going to do this, do that. Doesn’t matter. What matters is what we’ve done. That’s pragmatism -- and that can be used against the whole neocon drive to war. That was not pragmatism. That was idealism and absolutism.

In The Metaphysical Club, Louis Menand wonders whether pragmatism, after the interruptions of WWI, WWII and the Cold War, will surge again. Now, three books about James have appeared in the last few months -- yours, mine, and Deborah Blum’s Ghost Hunters. Is it time for a James revival?

Menand’s terrific book really created a new and far wider audience for James, Holmes, Dewey, and their ideas, than had existed before. We all owe him a very great deal. If there’s going to be a bandwagon, he’ll be the driver.

Have you taken on a new subject?

I’m hesitating between a group biography of Omar Khayyam and his friends, and a volume which would present what Emerson might have wanted to say in an essay on How to Write.