Louis Menand’s portrait of four American intellectuals and pragmatism’s origins in the wake of the Civil War won a Pulitzer Prize in 2002. The book’s central figures are William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Charles Sanders Peirce, and John Dewey. The first three were members of the titular conversational club, which met in Cambridge, Massachusetts, throughout 1872.
Reviewing the book upon its publication, George Scialabba wrote that the book is, “full of color, incident, and personality. . . . What is enthralling and illuminating about The Metaphysical Club is its portraits of individuals and their milieus. Menand is wonderfully deft at evoking a climate of ideas or a cultural sensibility, embodying it in a character, and moving his characters into and out of one another’s lives.” Jean Strouse, biographer of William James’ sister, Alice, wrote, “Menand brings rare common sense and graceful, witty prose to his richly nuanced reading of American intellectual history.”
Kenneth Baker noted Menand’s rare talent for holding readers’ attention through complex material: “Menand goes on long digressions into such topics as the rise of statistical thinking, 19th century debates over Darwin and evolutionary theory, the fateful Pullman strike in Chicago and the so-called Howland Will case, the era’s most famous lawsuit. The clarity and energy of his writing never fail. Nor is the reader ever left wondering about the relevance of Menand’s side trips into theory and anecdote.” Baker concluded: “The Metaphysical Club sets a new standard for anyone who would write, or read, the human story of a progress of ideas.”
An essay about William James also leads off American Studies, a collection of Menand’s work.
The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America by Louis Menand
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 568 pp., $16.00