GENUINE REALITY: A Life of William James. By Linda Simon . Harcourt Brace: 468 pp., $35

Every biographer must cope with the problem of which sources to use in telling a life story, and that problem is seriously compounded when the subject of the biography is a thinker or writer. If we knew more about Shakespeare's later years, would that help us to better understand "King Lear"? Conversely, is it legitimate to treat "King Lear" and the other plays as a database for the biography of the playwright?

That fundamental problem of literary biography--so carefully analyzed in a little book titled "Literary Biography" by Leon Edel, biographer and editor of Henry James--becomes in some respects even more complicated in the biography of an intellectual (which may or may not belong to the genre of intellectual biography). As historian of science Gerald Holton argues in his learned and delightful book "Einstein, History, and Other Passions," the relation of the life to the thought of a scientist or scholar is a subtle one, despite the efforts of various kinds of romanticism to reduce it to a simple correlation. Or, to stay with some of the thinkers whose systems I have studied most carefully, an intellectual historian can read hundreds of pages of St. Thomas Aquinas without finding out very much about his inner life, whereas the student of St. Augustine has to toggle back and forth constantly between his life and his works looking for explicit and implicit cross-references, as Peter Brown has done in his magisterial biography.

The life and works of certain 19th century philosophical thinkers demand that the biographer and historian be on the lookout for such cross-references. These thinkers deliberately eschewed the philosophical abstractions behind which so many of their predecessors and contemporaries had been able to conceal their real selves and instead emulated Augustine, for whom Augustine-as-person became a primary source of ideas to Augustine-as-thinker (or even sometimes the primary source). Prominent among these 19th century philosophers are Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche--and William James.

James was convinced that psychology was "the antechamber to metaphysics" and that philosophy "could not be separated from an individual's temperament." He carried out that conviction when, as Linda Simon writes in "Genuine Reality," "he incorporated his own autobiography in his books." "Principles of Psychology," the most celebrated of his works during his lifetime, was "grounded in autobiography [and] was illuminated by the experiences of a vivid and heroic personality, William James himself"; and his Gifford Lectures, "Varieties of Religious Experience," perhaps the one book of his that is read most often now and which "he called his 'very objective study,' " was in fact "intensely subjective," for in it "he mined his own life and experiences for anecdotes and conclusions."

Those qualities of his life, his thought and his literary output make James a prime candidate for the method of "toggling," which is what Simon seems to have had in mind with "Genuine Reality." Having previously edited "William James Remembered," a sprightly collection of memoirs by students, colleagues, relatives and friends (including Gertrude Stein, George Santayana and James Rowland Angell, later the president of Yale), she has worked through the published and unpublished sources with diligence and care, even investigating, though without reaching conclusive results, whether James ever checked himself into "the McLean Hospital, a mental asylum then located in Somerville, Massachusetts." There have been at least three previous attempts at a full-scale biography of James, all of them listed in her bibliography but not cited very often in her notes: one by his junior colleague in the philosophy department at Harvard, Ralph Barton Perry, "The Thought and Character of William James" (1935), which is also something of a personal memoir; another published in 1967 by Gay Wilson Allen, who went on to write a biography of Ralph Waldo Emerson; and the more recent work of Gerald Myers, "William James: His Life and Thought" (1986). In addition, my Yale colleague R.W.B. Lewis has written a fascinating tour de force of collective biography, "The Jameses: A Family Narrative" (1991).

Having depended on all of these works, especially those of Perry and Lewis, for my own reading of James, I came to Simon's book with the unavoidable question of just what she would be able to add to this wealth of biographical material. Part of the answer comes two pages before the end of the book, with the observation that when James died on Aug. 26, 1910, "to [his] friends, the loss had little to do with the books he published or the lectures he gave." That sense that his greatness lay apart from his work would seem to be shared by Simon as well, as her "William James Remembered" had already made clear in its introductory materials and selections. Among his books and lectures, moreover, she seems to have devoted herself more to James' psychology than to his philosophy, at any rate as philosophy is practiced by professional philosophers (which is, arguably, true of James himself, both of his books and of his mind). It is in that context that this biography makes one of its major contributions.

Although anyone who has read much by James or about him already knows about his strong interest in psychic phenomena, I had never fully grasped how enduring and how passionate (indeed, if I may also indulge in some psychobabble, how obsessive) that interest was. In addition to his long association with the Society for Psychical Research here and abroad and its published "Proceedings," James and his family became involved with a series of mediums, even though "he often was suspicious of professional mediums." The most notable of these was Leonora Evelina Piper, whom the Jameses visited for the first time a few months after their young son Herman died in July 1885. Their association with Piper continued for two decades until Piper became, in late 1905 and early 1906, the instrument through whom their recently departed friend Richard Hodgson communicated "messages [that] were so detailed and intimate that James, who chronicled the Hodgson control, had to face squarely the question of their veracity." And after the death of James, his wife, Alice, and his brother Henry remained together, "partly because she hoped, and he encouraged her in the hope, that William would succeed in communicating with them from the spiritual realm in which she knew he was now, profoundly, alive." That hope failed to be realized.

Simon's interest in the psychic and the psychological carries over into her examinations of James' personal relationships. Noting "the disparity between his ebullient performance of friendship and his harsh private judgments," she attends to the qualities of those relationships. His father, Henry James Sr., who had attended Princeton Theological Seminary, was at various times an adherent of the Sandemanian sect, which "threw off the pretense of church rites and hierarchy in favor of simple and more primitive religious rituals," and then of the Swedish visionary Emanuel Swedenborg, under whose spell William Blake also fell. Ultimately no institution or system could domesticate his theological speculations, nor could these speculations convince or convert his son. But at his father's death, William undertook to publish, as his own "first book," the inchoate corpus of his father's writings, as he had promised in a farewell letter to his dying father penned from Boston: "All my intellectual life I derive from you, and though we have often seemed at odds in the expression thereof, I'm sure there's harmony somewhere, & that our strivings will combine."

James' attitude to his mother was also one of hostility with, unlike his relationship with his father, "a lack of warmth" because "James found her controlling, demanding, annoying." Within the family, he was closest by far to his brother Henry: They read and criticized--if they did not always understand or like--each other's writings and found solace in each other's company. In some ways, his deepest affinity had been with their sister Alice, who "would be, eternally, the James family's youngest child" and who suffered "recurring breakdowns and depressions," including a severe collapse when William married Alice Howe Gibbens in 1878. But when she finally died, attended by Henry and her devoted companion, Katharine Loring, William's capacity for "harsh private judgments" expressed itself in comments about her that do seem, at best, insensitive and severe.

With women other than his mother and his sister, William could be gallant, flirtatious and forthcoming. That was true above all with his wife, Alice, a woman "with eyes like a prayer." Marriage to her "was, without doubt, the most crucial event in William's life," and it would sustain him to the very end. While he was racked with skepticism and doubt, she was sustained by a faith that remained strong and serene, a faith that also persuaded her, as she said at his death, that William was "really a religious man." He was the first to admit that she bore the burden of house, home and child rearing, often alone while he was off lecturing to supplement their income or on one of those many trips to Europe.

Among the women he knew before he was married, the most important was Minny Temple, whom he admired for her "moral spontaneity" and who "felt that she knew James more deeply than he thought possible." But she died prematurely, and "Minny would haunt him forever." Later in life, in the summer of 1895, he came to know Pauline Goldmark, then a college senior at Bryn Mawr (whose sisters married Felix Adler and Louis Brandeis): "He was fifty-three, and he was captivated," corresponding with her, hiking with her and sharing confidences with her as with no one else.

When James was about 2 months old, according to a family legend, he was visited in his nursery by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was inspired, Henry James said, "to admire and give his blessing to the lately-born babe," thus establishing an apostolic succession in American philosophy. Although James, the philosopher of a "pluralistic universe," retained a filial piety for Emerson the monist throughout his life, in many ways they could not have been more different. Despite my genuine admiration for Simon's achievement, therefore, I cannot repress the wish that "Genuine Reality" had done more to explain why it is chiefly as a philosopher, rather than as a psychologist (not to say an investigator of psychic phenomena), that James continues to be a dominant figure in the history of ideas.

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