- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 23, 2003

By William Boorstin
Viking, $24.95, 342 pages

"The Newsboy's Lodging-House" begins with a late night letter from the philosopher William James to Dearest H. no doubt his novelist brother, Henry. Abjuring false modesty, William sketches his claims to fame as his country's preeminent thinker.
"Whatever their transcendent truth, my thoughts have been clasped to the bosom of a nation busy with the conquest of a continent and devoted to the science of Life," he writes. "I have revealed to the American people the meaning of their doings, and so enabled them to go on doing them more intelligently and harmoniously… . I know that I have trumpeted democratic respect for the sacredness of individuality and outward tolerance of whatever is not itself intolerent… . I have fought with some success against the aridity of a world deprived of faith."
Now, he says, a recent event compels him to turn his analytical techniques onto himself, to admit "the obvious fact that my truths … are distilled in the crucible of experience."
The event is the arrival of Willliam James MacReady, whose mother Emma told him that the famous William James of Harvard had saved her life. There not being a lot of other candidates for the job, MacReady asks whether James is his father. Since Emma refused him an answer, James also refuses. Nonetheless in a demonstration of the Jamesian will to believe, MacReady decides, "You're my father. I seen it in your eyes"
The "confessions" of John Boorstin's novel follow the letter to Henry, describing in William's words the formative period of his life and philosophy. He begins when he leaves the McLean hospital, where he was being treated for a mental crisis. His afflications included crippling psychosomatic back spasms, a Darwinian loss of faith, and perhaps most significantly, uncertainty about what to choose as a career a dilemma not caused by any lack of opportunity: He had a trained talent for drawing and was qualified as both a biologist and a physician.
James' self-pescribed remedy for this paralysis of belief and action was to try not to think. What gets his gray cells throbbing again is Horatio Alger, the 19th-century enthusiast for picking yourself up by your bootstraps. Armed with a copy of "Ragged Dick," among the first of the many novels Alger wrote about poor boys making good through perseverance, James take himself off to New York. There he works alongside Alger, teaching in a lodging-house for orphaned boys who keep body and soul together by selling newspapers and matches on the street, or doing whatever comes to hand.
He meets 9-year-old newsboy, Jemmie, and his sister Emma, who cares for her infant brother in a slum where she is at the mercy of a brutal father. Cholera carries the baby and father off, and looks set to take Emma too, until James applies his medical skill to save her. When she recovers, he must choose whether or not to marry her, and this raises, even more potently than before, the question of what to do with himself.
James had believed that his metier would declare itself if only he kept himself open to receive it. Now he realizes, "I wished for a destiny to determine my outcome so that I might avoid the trauma of creating it myself."
But in his crisis over Emma he turns his back on determinism. Choice is all. "I did not exist apart from those decisions, or if I did exist on some higher Platonic plane, that essence of William James was invisible and unknowable… . My future would not search me out. I was creating William James with every choice I made." In other words, wealth and education notwithstanding, he was exactly like the impoverished boys of Alger's novels, exactly like th appealing Jemmie and the even the evil Dannie and others he met in the lodging-house: continually faced with the choices that fashion his identity.
Mr. Boorstin's tale thus neatly brings together two crucial figures of 19th-century American cultural life, illustrating the threads that made their thinking kin. It also paints a vivid picture of life inside the big cities of the era, at once the locus of the most abject poverty and filth and the greatest opulence and luxury. The voice of William James links all of this, tracing the double story of his inner life and the adventures of Jemmie as he flees his father, finds the lodging-house, determines to adopt the life of an Indian fighter, then changes course when other prospects open up.
The earnestness of both James' search for authenticity and Jemmie's quest for ways of making a few cents nicely underlines the similarities between two people facing different odds, leading to different outcomes, thereby illustrating James' thesis that we create ourselves with every choice we make. Necessarily, we develop beliefs that "express not our deepest truths but our deepest needs."
Willliam MacReady believes he has found his father, because that is what is most essential to him. Emma believes her baby brother is in heaven and then that he is reincarnated as each belief helps her deal with her problems. As for James, he faces a void and has to find a philosophy that will stop him falling into it.
Mr. Boorstin's story speeds along, opening vistas with cultural icons worth revisiting. But one has only to think of this 19-century story in a hands of contemporaneous novelists of Charles Dickens with his obsessive interest in poor children, or to cite American writers, William Dean Howells or even Henry James, to imagine lights and shades, tones and resonances missing here.
One reason for this is that though Mr. Boorstin tells his tale in William James' voice, its 21st-century pace quickly reveals it as the linguistic equivalent of costume drama, an effect that paradoxically highlights the distance between the mindset of James' world and our own. Mr. Boorstin's characterization reinforces this. His people are like dramatic characters: lively and entertaining onstage, but mostly lacking the complexity needed to make them live in the imagination when the scene move on.
"The Newsboys' Lodging-House" has a sense of play of philosophy coming alive becomes it springs from a life, not an abstraction. This makes philosophy more fun, more pertinent, and if it does not make for a passionate novel, it certainly is an intriguing and entertaining read.

Claire Hopley is a writer and critic in Massachusetts.

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