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Sunday, November 26, 2006

Wednesday: Richardson on new William James bio.

'William James' by Robert D. RichardsonFans of Robert D. Richardson's literary biographies — Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind and Emerson: The Mind on Fire — will undoubtedly share my interest in his latest project, a biography of the psychologist (and religious liberal) William James. For readers in the Boston area: Richardson will discuss William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism at the Harvard Bookstore in Harvard Square, Cambridge, on Wednesday, November 29, at 6:30 p.m. No ticket required.

Copyright © 2006 by Philocrites | Posted 26 November 2006 at 9:39 PM

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Colin Bossen:

November 27, 2006 08:21 PM | Permalink for this comment

Does James have Unitarian roots? I have heard that before from several sources but have never seen it confirmed in print. I am not a James historian or even enthusiast, to date I've read 0 of his books... I just know he's a major philosophical figure and am curious about his Unitarian connections...


November 27, 2006 10:31 PM | Permalink for this comment

Does James "have Unitarian roots"?

Yes and no. His father was a Swedenborgian theologian, but his godfather was Unitarian minister and lecturer Ralph Waldo Emerson, and one of his closest college chums at (then-)Unitarian Harvard was the prominent Unitarian scion Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and he went on to spend his career on the Harvard faculty writing innovative things about religion.

So either he must not have been Unitarian, because in spite of many Unitarian formative influences he apparently chose not to participate actively in the Unitarian church; or else he qualifies for the Famous UUs list, because he hung out with a lot of Unitarians, and he said a lot of Unitarian-sounding things, and he couldn't pry himself away from that Unitarian school, and his car (well, buggy) was spotted at least once parked on the same block as a Unitarian church, and, dammit, he just looks so swell in a Unitarian suit.


November 28, 2006 07:50 AM | Permalink for this comment

Unitarianism represented "the religion of healthy-mindedness" to James -- which, in his classic study, The Varieties of Religious Experience, is actually a bit of a slap. The Unitarianism he had in mind was the faith of cheerful mystics and Transcendentalists, the late-19th century Unitarianism often called "lyrical theism."

"It is to be hoped that we all have some friend," James writes, "perhaps more often feminine than masculine, and young than old, whose soul is of this sky-blue tint, whose affinities are rather with flowers and birds and all enchanting innocencies than with dark human passions, who can think no ill of man or God, and in whom religious gladness, being in possession from the outset, needs no deliverance from any antecedent burden." (IV-V) Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, and Edward Everett Hale are exemplars he names. (He also seems to have had his father's Swedenborgian mysticism very much in mind.)

Against "once-born" and "congenitally happy" varieties of religion, James arranged the religious experiences of the "twice-born" -- the sick souls who experienced themselves as divided, and who needed the experience of salvation or self-reintegration in order to be made whole. Personally, James sympathized with this second class of religious people. He suffered greatly from depression, and even though he never embraced orthodox Christianity, he seems to have recognized a broader and truer reflection of human experience in it than in the Unitarianism of his day.

Incidentally, his brother Henry James also loved to mock the Transcendentalists for their shallowness. Read The Bostonians for a great send-up of the post-Civil War Boston temperament.

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