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Alfred Kazin: A Biography
Richard M. Cook
Yale University Press, 2008
464 pp., $74.00
by Roger Lundin
Near the close of his exceptional intellectual biography of William James, Robert D. Richardson pauses briefly to sing the praises of the great man. The occasion for his encomium happens to be a letter that James wrote, only months before he died, to Henry Adams, the curmudgeonly historian who was the grandson and great-grandson of presidents.
James had just finished reading Adams' "Letter to American Teachers of History," a 125-page lamentation over the implications for the study of history of Lord Kelvin's second law of thermodynamics. The dyspeptic Adams read the physics of entropy directly into the philosophy of history, and as he peered into the future, he spied not Al Gore's global warming fires but Lord Kelvin's "terminal ice." Adams envisioned "the last tribe" of humankind dying of hunger in the cold, camping at the equator, "on the shores of the last sea in the rays of a pale sun which will henceforward illumine an earth that is only a wandering tomb, turning around a useless light and a barren heat."
We can only imagine what a typical history teacher might have made of such a letter a century ago, but we know for certain that James didn't think much of it. Although he was dying of heart disease, he rallied sufficiently, in Richardson's words, "to rise in protest against the urbane and learned pessimism of his friend Adams's book-length funk." The philosopher told the historian he had forgotten a crucial fact about history, which is that all that matters is what men and women do with the powers they have. A dinosaur's brain may have "as much intensity of energy-exchange as a man's," James wrote, but it can do little more than unlock that creature's muscles, whereas the human brain, "by unlocking far feebler muscles, indirectly can by their means issue proclamations, write books, describe Chartres Cathedral etc. and guide the energies of the shrinking sun into channels which never would have been entered otherwise—in short make history." So it is, that "the ...