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Check It Out

Courier Article by David Locker
Sunday, January 11, 2004

Giants of the 19th Century Make an Adventure of Ideas

In 1865, Cambridge, Mass., was only a village nestled close to Boston and centered on Harvard College. But intellectually, it was the hub of the United States. Residing there were William and Henry James, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. and Jr., Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell and their publisher, James T. Fields.

It was the habit of these eminent men to meet in clubs to discuss ideas. Two of these clubs were the Dante Club and the Metaphysical Club.

The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl (Random House, 2003).

The Dante Club consisted of Holmes Sr., Longfellow, Lowell, Fields and George Washington Greene, a retired clergyman and Longfellow's friend.

They met each Wednesday night to review Longfellow's ongoing translation of Dante's The Divine Comedy. Not only was Longfellow the country's most famous poet at the time, he was also the retired chair of the Modern Languages Department at Harvard.

In Pearl's soundly researched, elegantly written first novel of historical suspense, a serial killer loose in Cambridge is patterning his crimes on the torments of sinners in Dante's The Inferno. Before they become suspects themselves, the members of the Dante Club risk their own lives to bring the killer to justice.

The erudite Pearl has also edited the new edition of Longfellow's translation of Dante's The Inferno for Modern Library.

The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001).

The younger generation of Cambridge intellectuals, reacting to the publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859, was more oriented toward philosophy than literature. The exception to this rule was novelist Henry James, who fled to Europe.

The Metaphysical Club counted among its members the eccentric loner Chauncy Wright, the equally singular Charles Peirce, William James and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. Out of this club emerged the philosophy of pragmatism.

The scope of Menand's book extends beyond philosophy, however, to include science, mathematics and the issue of race. As well as official club members, he covers the thought of natural scientist Louis Agassiz, reformer Jane Addams and philosopher John Dewey.

To read more about the vital contributions of Peirce, I recommend Joseph Brent's popular biography, Charles Sanders Peirce: A Life (Indiana University Press, 1998).

Like James and Holmes, Peirce was the son of a scholar. However, his arrogance, drug addiction and untidy personal life doomed his academic career and saddened his life.

Genuine Reality: A Life of William James by Linda Simon (Harcourt, Brace, 1998).

The sign of a good book is that it inspires you to read other books on the same subject.

I am so glad I chose this biography of William James.

Though a popularized account, it does not shy away from grappling with James' ideas. And the idea that was central to James was the power of the individual will.

James knew firsthand the importance of this idea because he could have easily turned out like his extraordinary sister, Alice James, whose journal is well worth reading. She was a semi-invalid all her short life, paralyzed by nervous disorders. James himself trod the same course until his early 30s. He conquered his condition by a heroic exertion of will, as well as a steady job at Harvard and a loving wife.

Henry James: The Young Master by Sheldon M. Novick (Random House, 1996).

The James family is the American literary parallel of the English Brontes. William's brother, Henry, of course, is arguably America's finest novelist, and I urge any of his admirers to read this wonderful biography.

The people behind the achievements of the Brontes, the Jameses or even the Kennedys were their fathers. Henry Sr. was a second-rate philosopher who concentrated most of his energies on his eldest son, William. Henry Jr. was able to quietly nurture a life of his own.

Surely this was the happiest period of Henry's truly cosmopolitan and disciplined life, filled with cultivated friendships, art, travel and profound values, too. The best of his early works, Washington Square and A Portrait of a Lady, reflect these qualities.

Novick has also written a biography of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Civil War hero, Supreme Court justice, profound legal scholar and Metaphysical Club member.

David Locker is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.