As a lover and student of philosophy, I have a prediliction toward pragmatism. And as I have a prediliction toward pragmatism, I have a fondness for James. And as I have a fondness for James, I found this fictionalized account of a 'missing period' of James's life interesting (if not a bit strange and obviously fabricated).
In this novel, John Boorstin is envisioning James in his thirtieth year. This is when he experienced his mental breakdown leaving him an inch from suicide and in complete emotional paralysis. He had spent quite a few months, we know, in a mental institution, but here, the diary stops - the pages referring to this few-month period have been cut out of his diary, leaving the period a complete mystery.
Boorstin imagines a scenario that as far-fetched as it is (and the author acknowledges that) is interesting and at very least entertaining. James goes to New York with little money where, in fascination with Horatio Alger, volunteers to instruct children at a Lodging House for orphaned kids. It is there he meets a 9-year-old boy called Jemmie and becomes determined to save this child (who James is convinced is good at heart, but slipping into street-life) from the cold and hard world of the streets. Therein, James finds himself ensnared in quite a few 'plots' that gradually help him become his own person (as we know that when the 'missing period' was over, James was remarkably more directed and focused).
As I do not know how many people reading this will be as familiar with William James as us philosopher types, there is one part of the novel I think that may get lost on those not as familiar with James. Though one need not at all be a philosopher to like this novel, the story very much ties into the meaning of James' philosophy of pragmatism wherein 'truth' is said to be dictated sometimes by the 'facts' and sometimes by 'what we personally need to believe'. So as not to get too philosophical here, I will copy one paragraph from the novel that beautifully explains:
"Until this moment, I had thought true belief to be absolute and beyond one's control, the inevitable expression of one's fundamental knowledge of the workings of the world. Now I saw that we created our beliefs even as we cherished their eternal permanence. All of us are bound up in beliefs which express not only our deepest truths but our deepest needs."
This is very much a part of James (both as a psychologist and a philosopher, James being equally adept at both). Boorstin's goal, in this fantastic but quite engrossing tale, is in part to give us a 'real live shot' of what James' pragmatism looks like in practice through James' very own eyes. The result is a very good novel that will at once entrhall you and capture your philosophic imagination.