At each step of this journey through American cultural history, Louis Menand has an original point to make: he explains the real significance of William James's nervous breakdown, and of the anti-Semitism in T. S. Eliot's writing. He reveals the reasons for the remarkable commercial successes of William Shawn's New Yorker and William Paley's CBS. He uncovers the connection between Larry Flynt's Hustler and Jerry Falwell's evangelism, between the atom bomb and the Scholastic Aptitude Test. He locates the importance of Richard Wright, Norman Mailer, Pauline Kael, Christopher Lasch, and Rolling Stone magazine. And he lends an ear to Al Gore in the White House as the Starr Report is
The success of The Metaphysical Club, which won last year's Pulitzer Prize for History, surprised few regular readers of the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, where Menand has contributed many of the most thoughtful review-essays of the last decade. This book collects some of the most cogent and clearly articulated of those pieces, and reaffirms Menand's position as a preeminent historian of American liberalism's cultural incarnations. The opening pieces, on William James's depression (or "sadness") and Oliver Wendell Holmes's "bettabilitarianism," further the brilliant profile of pragmatism developed by Menand in The Metaphysical Club. The review-essay "T.S. Eliot and the Jews" is a sharp extension of the debate surrounding Anthony Julius's T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form (and it might just entice someone to bring Menand's Eliot monograph, Discovering Modernism, back into print). Considerations of Richard Wright and Pauline Kael offer assessments of their achievements, showing why they still matter. The long New Yorker pieces on Al Gore and architect Maya Lin show Menand's rigorous disinterestedness working less well in the context of interview journalism, but essays that portray Hustler's Larry Flynt and evangelist Jerry Falwell as "working opposite sides of the same street," or exploring Christopher Lasch's flirtations with populism, throw that technique's power, and Menand's mastery of it, into bold relief. (Nov. 13) Forecast: Even though all these pieces have seen print before, expect extensive review coverage, some of which will occasion reflections on the success of The Metaphysical Club, which was released in paperback last April. The result should be spurred sales for Club, and solid numbers for this collection. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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Farrar, Straus and Giroux
November 01, 2003
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Excerpt from American Studies by Louis Menand
William James and the Case of the Epileptic Patient
In 1901, when he was fifty-nine, William James delivered the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh. James was an international academic celebrity. The Principles of Psychology, which appeared in 1890 and which had taken him twelve years to write, had been quickly recognized as the leading summation of developments in a field transformed by the introduction of laboratory methods and by the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin. An abridged edition for students, Psychology: Briefer Course, popularly known as "Jimmy," appeared in 1892; by the time of the Gifford Lectures, it had sold nearly fifty thousand copies.
The Gifford lectureship was a two-year appointment. James returned to Edinburgh for the second set of lectures in 1902, and that year the lectures were published as The Varieties of Religious Experience. The Varieties has probably been, over the years, James's most popular book, read even when his functionalist psychology had been superseded by Freudianism and behaviorism, and his pragmatist philosophy was in eclipse. It is composed primarily of case histories, collected from all around the world and organized by category -- "Conversion," "Saintliness," "Mysticism," and so on. It looks, in other words, like a psychology textbook, and that is because it is a psychology textbook. The Varieties is not a study of religion; it is, as the subtitle states, "a study in human nature."
James regarded the investigation of religious experience as a branch of abnormal psychology. He did not think that by treating the subject in this manner he was debunking religion; he thought that by treating it in this manner he was taking religion seriously. His approach reflected the holistic empiricism of which he was possibly the greatest nineteenth-century exponent: people have religious experiences, just as people have the experience of seeing tables or feeling cold. We assume that having the experience of seeing tables has something to do with there being tables in the world, and that feeling cold has something to do with a change in the temperature. Not everyone has visions or receives mystical revelations; but some human beings do. Those experiences are as psychologically real as any other state of consciousness, and since consciousness has evolved for the purpose of helping us to cope with our environment -- since consciousness is not epiphenomenal, but is an active player in life -- there must be something in the universe to which the religious feeling "belongs." "God is real," as James put it, summing up what he took to be the common-sense intuition about religion, "since he produces real effects."