Opinions & Views

Pragmatic Problems

Jacques Barzun: A Stroll With William James; Harper & Row; New York.

William James is the nearest thing to a thoroughly American philosopher this nation has produced. George Santayana complained that James felt compelled to play the part of a home-spun American­ a role enjoyed by our intellectuals from Ben Franklin to Ezra Pound. Santayana found the compulsion to be American difficult to understand, but Santayana was a Spaniard. Being Spanish–or Italian or Irish, for that matter–is an unambigu­ous identity. It is as much a fact of life as being a woman. But America is different. To be an American is more like being a man, in that no one is quite sure what either means, just that it is important to play the part. However, some find the burden of being an American too heavy to bear. William's brother Henry, like T. S. Eliot, turned into an Englishman–or at least a caricature of one.

As Jacques Barzun makes clear in his Stroll, William and Henry were much closer in spirit than most critics have been willing to admit. Both spent much of their earlier life rambling, first with their eccentric father, later on their own. Nearly half of William's first 25 years were spent out of the country. It is not inconceivable that his Americanism came no easier to him than English manners did to Henry. Neither attitude was, precisely speaking, affected, but neither was quite real. A philosopher's...

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