Thursday August 26th, 2010

A Stroll with William James by Jacques Barzun

barzunCultural historian Barzun, now 102 years old, published A Stroll with William James in 1983 to acknowledge “an intellectual debt.” In an introductory note, he wrote, “[W]hile telling here at what a high rate I have benefited from keeping an open account with William James, I know I cannot hope to do justice to the man or to the fullness of his thought.” His goal was to “simply show what [James'] works have meant to me and can mean to others.” He continued:

The tone and temper of his thought, aside from its purport and contents, is a prop to independence of mind, an antidote to the opium of modern ideologies, a tonic in the resistance to the sludge of “modern communications,” popular and advanced. His resolving lucidity in analysis, his hard-won freedom that frees others (a rare consequence of liberation movements) enables me better to endure or enjoy whatever befalls me—and all this in the simplest way of making actual and unmistakable what I would otherwise grope toward or dimly sense.

Reviewing the book in the New York Times, Robert Coles wrote: “The point of the exercise is an engagement of two congenial human beings. [Barzun’s approach is] an edifying act of affection toward a man who loved frank and animated intellectual exchanges and mocked pedantry. . . . Somewhere in the universe the ardent, robust walker William James must be quietly delighted at receiving this eloquent and wise testimonial from a longtime traveling companion.”

In the Virginia Quarterly Review, Martin Lebowitz called the book Barzun’s best since 1941 (as many as 25 books ago, depending on how you count them). He concluded that Stroll is, “in itself, an education in the liberal arts.”

A Stroll with William James by Jacques Barzun
University of Chicago Press, 352 pp., $20.00