Harvard College Library News: News from around the libraries

Houghton Celebrates William James

public spaces recycling  

William James.  Notman Studio, photographer.  Photograph, undated.  *2006M-44


August 16, 2010 – Artist, scientist, physician, Harvard professor, psychologist, psychic investigator, philosopher—William James explored multiple vocations in his life-long quest for intellectual clarity and spiritual fulfillment. James is widely acknowledged as one of America’s most original and influential thinkers, a man of restless intelligence who championed the new and longed for astonishment.

A new exhibition “’Life is in the transitions’: William James 1842-1910,” opening August 16 at the Houghton Library marks the 100th anniversary of James’ death, and looks back at the transitional moments of his life: his vocational dilemmas, spiritual crises, professional paths, and brave philosophic sallies forward. An online version of the exhibition launched today as well.

Drawn from the vast James family papers at Houghton Library, with loans from Countway Library, Harvard Medical School; Harvard University Archives; and the Ernst Mayr Library, Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, the exhibition includes more than ninety manuscripts, letters, photographs, and drawings that together illuminate the “plural facts” of James’s experiences, his public and private battles, and elements of what he called the “mosaic philosophy” of radical empiricism, pragmatism, and pluralism that he strived to clarify for his contemporaries.

Related Links


  • Facebook
  • Twitter

“That’s what makes James a perennially fascinating and attractive figure,” said Leslie Morris, Curator of Modern Books and Manuscripts at Houghton Library. “He was constantly exploring, as his brother Henry did in his fiction, what it is that defines a person.”

That sense of exploration is captured in the exhibition’s title, which comes from James’s 1904 essay, “A World of Pure Experience.”

“Life is in the transitions as much as in the terms connected; often, indeed, it seems to be there more emphatically, as if our spurts and sallies forward were the real firing-line of the battle, were like the thin line of flame advancing across the dry autumnal field which the farmer proceeds to burn,” he wrote.

Highlights of the exhibition include James’s sketches of animals and people while a member of Louis Agassiz’s expedition to the Amazon; his lecture notes as a Harvard medical student, with his doodles; his earliest diary; the letter proclaiming his love for his future wife; an exchange of letters with his brother, novelist Henry James, in which they critique each others’ work; drafts for The Varieties of Religious Experience, “The Moral Equivalent of War,” Pragmatism, and Some Problems of Philosophy; accounts of séances and examples of automatic writing; and a rich selection of photographs of family and friends. 

The exhibition’s opening coincides with a three-day conference – “In the Footsteps of William James: A Symposium on the Legacy – and the On-Going Uses – of James's Work”. The conference opens August 13 in Chocorua, NH, where James had his summer home, and runs through August 15. The final day of the conference will be held at Harvard on August 16, and will include both morning and afternoon sessions, as well as a walking tour of James’ Cambridge and a closing reception at Houghton Library.

The exhibition is curated by Skidmore College English Professor Linda Simon, author of Genuine Reality: A Life of William James (1998) and General Editor of William James Studies.

“’Life is in the transitions’: William James 1842-1910,” will be on display in the Edison and Newman Room of Houghton Library from August 16 through December 23. Hours, Directions