Possibly More James Than James

A Tribute from Eugene Taylor to the Distinguished Centenarian, Prof. Jacques Barzun

There is a pantheon of deities in the life of every intellectual. They are like the 84 siddhas of the Tibetan tradition. They represent every combination and type, defined not by their commonalities but by their radical differences — by their absolutely incomparable uniqueness. One might be our teacher, another our most important author, another a pioneer in one’s field, yet another the venerable continuer of a tradition, yet another who said a particular thing that has been a constant guiding light. In Prof. Barzun’s case, he was my agent-editor, the man who helped to guide my reconstruction of William James’s 1896 Lowell Lectures on “Exceptional Mental States” through to a contract with Charles Scribner’s Sons, after which he saw the manuscript through the same press. The work was based on 125 pages of James’s handwritten lecture notes found in the James Papers at Harvard, newspaper accounts of the talks, and extensive annotations that James left on the manuscript outline cross-referencing his ideas to books from his personal library and volumes that he had Harvard purchase from College Library funds and that only he ever he checked out, which he then kept for several years, annotated extensively, and finally returned to the library shelves. Many had not been disturbed until I tracked them down almost one hundred years later.

Prof. Barzun’s neighbor down on Cape Cod, a former student of the personality-social psychologist Gordon Allport, introduced us. Prof. Barzun was an editor for Scribner’s Sons, just at a time when it was being swallowed up by Macmillan. This was a trade publisher, not an academic one. My reconstruction was scholarly, based on historical methods from comparative religions which I had applied to archival investigation in the history of American psychology and psychiatry. But my subject matter was on topics forbidden in the academy, such as psychical research, multiple personality, and mystical states of consciousness. James’s titles were Dreams and Hypnotism, Automatism, Hysteria, Multiple Personality, Demoniacal Possession, Witchcraft, Degeneration, and Genius. The first half was about a dynamic psychology of the subconscious within the interior life of the individual, while the second half was the working of subconscious states in the social sphere. James had presented the talks as public lectures, so to the academic world, my book was neither fish nor fowl. The academics said it was a trade book and the trade publishers said it was academic. Nonetheless, Prof. Barzun shepherded the work through a trade press, desiring, as I have always believed, to keep the project close.

I say this because there was a prelude. Psychologists and James scholars were well aware that he was writing a James book. He had been invited to speak at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association on James as an artist, but cancelled. We understood there was a family tragedy that had intervened and that the James project was on hold.

Then, when he received my manuscript on the 1896 Lowell Lectures, Prof. Barzun saw immediately what it was (if you will pardon my own wording) — the missing link, or bridge, between James’s emphasis on a cognitive psychology of consciousness in his Principles of Psychology (1890) and James’s emphasis on mystical states of consciousness in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). In The Varieties, James had declared that mystical states were possibly the source of the discursive intellect, and that, at least, active exploration of the subconscious was the road to the awakening of these ultimately transforming experiences. Prof. Barzun thereafter devoted an entire chapter to the Exceptional Mental States Lectures in his own work, went on to finish his manuscript on James, and produced for the world his inimitable and enduring A Stroll with William James. His editorial endeavors bringing my manuscript to press then followed.

In his book, Prof. Barzun pointed out that James’s ideas were peppered throughout all his own works, that A Stroll with William James was a gesture pointing to the depth and profundity of James’s thought, and that, indeed, James’s work deserved a place among Western civilization’s great books. There are passages where Barzun describes William James in which we could just substitute Barzun’s name and you would think we were talking about the same person. But he was no mere channel for the great American philosopher-psychologist. He was much more. As James himself did in his own time, he spoke for Western civilization in the language of a world philosopher.

I, myself, knew that Barzun was great. Henry A. Murray, personality theorist and ardent Melvillian whom I had worked for during the last eight years of his long life, once proposed Barzun for the presidency at Harvard. But the capstone came when I called my mother (today she is 83 years old), and told her Prof. Barzun was going to be my editor. Over the years she and my father had read all his books as they came out, so, she said, she heartily approved. And what higher authority was needed than one’s own mother?

Eugene Taylor, PhD, is Executive Faculty at Saybrook Graduate School in San Francisco, Lecturer on Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and Senior Psychologist on the Psychiatry Service at the Massachusetts General Hospital. He is author of, among other works, William James on Exceptional Mental States (1982); with Robert Wozniak (eds) Pure Experience: The response to William James (1996); William James on Consciousness beyond the Margin (1996), and forthcoming, William James and the Spiritual Roots of American Pragmatism.

The Jacques Barzun Centennial