Megan Marshall and John Kaag at Harvard Book Store

presenting

Three Roads Back:
How Emerson, Thoreau, and William James
Responded to the Greatest Losses of Their Lives

and

Be Not Afraid of Life:
In the Words of William James

Date

Jan
26
Thursday
January 26, 2023
7:00 PM ET

Location

Harvard Book Store
1256 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138

Tickets

This event is free; no tickets are required.

Harvard Book Store welcomes MEGAN MARSHALL—award-winning biographer and Charles Wesley Emerson College Professor—for a discussion of the late Robert D. Richardson's final book, Three Roads Back: How Emerson, Thoreau, and William James Responded to the Greatest Losses of Their Lives. She will be joined by JOHN KAAG, Donohue Professor of Ethics and the Arts at UMass Lowell and author of Be Not Afraid of Life: In the Words of William James. 

A Return to In-Person Events

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About Three Roads Back

In Three Roads Back, Robert Richardson, the author of magisterial biographies of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and William James, tells the connected stories of how these foundational American writers and thinkers dealt with personal tragedies early in their careers. For Emerson, it was the death of his young wife and, eleven years later, his five-year-old son; for Thoreau, it was the death of his brother; and for James, it was the death of his beloved cousin Minnie Temple. Filled with rich biographical detail and unforgettable passages from the journals and letters of Emerson, Thoreau, and James, these vivid and moving stories of loss and hard-fought resilience show how the writers’ responses to these deaths helped spur them on to their greatest work, influencing the birth and course of American literature and philosophy.

In reaction to his traumatic loss, Emerson lost his Unitarian faith and found solace in nature. Thoreau, too, leaned on nature and its regenerative power, discovering that “death is the law of new life,” an insight that would find expression in Walden. And James, following a period of panic and despair, experienced a redemptive conversion and new ideas that would drive his work as a psychologist and philosopher. As Richardson shows, all three emerged from their grief with a new way of seeing, one shaped by a belief in what Emerson called “the deep remedial force that underlies all facts.”

An inspiring book about resilience and the new growth and creativity that can stem from devastating loss, Three Roads Back is also an extraordinary account of the hidden wellsprings of American thought.

About Be Not Afraid of Life

William James—psychologist, philosopher, and spiritual seeker—is one of those rare writers who can speak directly and powerfully to anyone about life’s meaning and worth, and whose ideas change not only how people think but how they live. The thinker who helped found the philosophy of pragmatism and inspire Alcoholics Anonymous, James famously asked, “is life worth living?” Bringing together many of his best and most popular essays, talks, and other writings, this anthology presents James’s answer to that and other existential questions, in his own unique manner—caring, humorous, eloquent, incisive, humble, and forever on the trail of the “ever not quite.”

Here we meet a James perfectly attuned to the concerns of today—one who argues for human freedom, articulates a healthy-minded psychology, urges us to explore the stream of consciousness, presents a new definition of truth based on its practical consequences, and never forecloses the possibility of mystical transcendence. Introduced by John Kaag and Jonathan van Belle, these compelling and accessible selections reveal why James is one of the great guides to the business of living.

Praise for Three Roads Back

"[A] remarkably rich study . . . [Richardson] expertly frames the emotional and intellectual lives of these three significant artistic figures and demonstrates the relevance, for anyone, of what they accomplished in their profound negotiations with loss. . . . A stirring and keenly perceptive examination of bereavement and recovery." ―Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"Stimulating . . . [Three Roads Back is] a moving, candid group portrait. Fans and students of American literature will find this worth picking up." ―Publishers Weekly

Praise for Be Not Afraid of Life

“Want to get to know William James, America’s most-beloved―and perhaps most widely influential―philosopher? This wonderful collection gives us James at his best―provocative, lyrical, inspirational. Whether you are meeting James in an easy chair, in a classroom, or on a ‘ramble,’ as James called the mountain hikes he loved, the encounter will leave you richly rewarded.” ―James T. Kloppenberg, Harvard University

“A great collection that lets readers experience James’s philosophy as epistemological tonic, moral orientation, and spiritual regeneration. The brief introductions to the individual selections are compelling and written in sparkling prose.” ―Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, author of The Ideas That Made America

John Kaag
John Kaag

John Kaag

John Kaag is the Donohue Professor of Ethics and the Arts at UMass Lowell, External Professor at the Santa Fe Institute, and the author of Sick Souls, Healthy Minds: How William James Can Save Your Life (Princeton), American Philosophy: A Love Story, and Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are.

Photo Credit: Jill Goldman

Megan Marshall
Megan Marshall

Megan Marshall

Megan Marshall is the author of three biographies: The Peabody Sisters, winner of the Francis Parkman Prize, the Mark Lynton History Prize, the Massachusetts Book Award in Nonfiction, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Biography; Margaret Fuller: A New American Life, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Biography and the Massachusetts Book Award in Nonfiction; and Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast, a finalist for the Christian Gauss Award in Literary Criticism of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. She is the Charles Wesley Emerson College Professor at Emerson College, a past president of the Society of American Historians, and the recipient of the 2022 BIO (Biographers International Organization) Award for “contributions to the advancement of the art and craft of biography” as well as the 2022 Walter Harding Distinguished Service Award for “scholarly achievement that furthers the mission of the Thoreau Society.”

Photo Credit: Gail Samuelson

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