The virtual William James

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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. A new online exhibition launched by Harvard College Library, “ ‘Life is in the transitions’: William James 1842-1910,” offers viewers the chance to trace James’ search through more than 90 manuscripts, letters, photographs, and drawings.

The exhibition marks the 100th anniversary of James’ death, and looks back at the transitional moments of his life and illuminates the “plural facts” of James’ 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.

The majority of the exhibition is drawn from the vast James family papers at Houghton Library. Additional items were loaned from Countway Library, Harvard Medical School; Harvard University Archives; and the Ernst Mayr Library, Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard.


Highlights of the exhibition include James’ 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 online exhibition is arranged similarly to a physical exhibition — with a series of “cases” that lead viewers through James’ life from a young man until his death. At the same time, viewers are able to jump from case to case and examine items that interest them. Links to the catalog record for every item, as well as links to a finding aid for the James family papers are also included. A physical exhibition of the same name will be on display in the Edison and Newman room of Houghton Library through Dec. 23.