James Bissett Pratt was born June 22, 1875 in Elmira, New York, the only child of Daniel Ransom Pratt and Katharine Graham Murdoch. Pratt’s education began at home, listening as Katharine read aloud. The author whose literary idealism most influenced Pratt’s youth was Ralph Waldo Emerson. Indeed, Emerson’s naturalistic passages remained a part of Pratt’s thinking throughout his life.
In his youth, Pratt mingled with others attracted to Emersonian ideals. One such was Mr. Rufus Stanley, secretary of the local Y.M.C.A., who introduced Pratt to what would become one of his greatest loves. Stanley saw the educational value of “tramping” through the mountains, of being in harmony with and appreciating the natural world. This love of hiking he passed on to Pratt, who spent many of his free hours until late in his life walking through the Berkshire Hills with family, friends and students.
After preparing for college at the Elmira Free Academy, from which he graduated in June 1893, Pratt set out for Williams College with his mother. Due to illness, Pratt was forced to delay his entrance into Williams in the fall of 1893. Thus, with his matriculation in 1894, he became a member of the class of 1898. As an undergraduate at Williams, Pratt became interested in philosophy, and in his senior year he became president of the Philosophical Society. He excelled as a member in various other organizations, including Gargoyle, the Williams Literary Monthly, the debating team, Kappa Alpha Society, and as president of the Philotechnian Society. He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in his senior year, voted Valedictorian by the faculty, and served as his class’s Ivy Poet.
Pratt, in an autobiography entitled Zia, named numerous faculty members as particularly influential in his undergraduate years. Among these were John E. Russell, Mark Hopkins Professor of Intellectual and Moral Philosophy, Frank Jewitt Mather, who taught a course in Anglo Saxon and Chaucer, Frank Goodrich, professor of German, and the Reverend John Bascom.
The fall of 1898 found Pratt at the Harvard Graduate School where he studied philosophy under James, Royce, Palmer, Musterberg and Santayana. After receiving his Masters degree in 1899, Pratt allowed parental pressures to convince him that a better career was in law. It took six weeks at Columbia Law School to send Pratt back to philosophy.
Upon leaving Columbia, Pratt taught Latin and Psychology at the Elmira Free Academy in order to save money to attend the University of Berlin in Germany. This temporary position as a teacher was the realization of his true calling. He wrote: “within thirty minutes I knew that teaching was the thing I wanted to do as long as I lived” (Zia, p.99).
In 1902, Pratt went abroad, but he found the philosophers at the University of Berlin disappointing. Only one, Otto Pfleiderer, who taught a course in the philosophy of religion, stood out. The rest of the German philosophers Pratt found to be lacking in originality. During 1902, Pratt also traveled throughout Europe and the Middle East. This was the beginning of his “wanderlust”, his thrill of travel. During his later tenure at Williams, he spent a total of four summers and three sabbatical years in Europe and the Eastern countries, as well as numerous trips through the United States.
Once back in the United States, Pratt returned to Harvard. His doctoral study, performed 1903-1905, was done under the aegis of William James. James profoundly influenced Pratt’s philosophical development, and became a mentor and good friend.
Having earned his doctorate in philosophy, Pratt was hired by Williams College in the fall of 1905 as Instructor of Philosophy. During his first year, he taught courses in psychology, history of philosophy and history of religion. In 1906, he was promoted to
Assistant Professor. That year he revised his advanced psychology course to include psychology of religion, and added a course entitled “A History of Idealism.” These early professorial years also saw the publication of Pratt’s The Psychology of Religion (1907) and What is Pragmatism? (1909).
In 1910, Pratt traveled to Chicago to visit his college companion, Percival Truman, and his Italian wife, Leonora. It was there that Pratt met his future wife, Catherine Mariotti (Leonora’s younger sister). The courtship developed by letter, Pratt proposed later in the year, and in 1911 traveled to Italy where he and Catherine were married.
Catherine, born Erminia Caterina Beatrice Giussehpina Maria in Rome in 1887, was the daughter of Commendatore Francesco Mariotti and Melanie Durfee. Francesco Mariotti had begun his career as private secretary to Queen Margherita, and had later become director of the royal palaces in Milan, Genoa and Palermo. Catherine, one of five children, received a multi-lingual education, learning Italian, English, French and German.
As a faculty wife, Catherine made it her duty to contribute to Pratt’s success in the classroom by opening their home on Sunday afternoons to students. She hosted student luncheons and organized holiday dinners, as well as hosting “poetry evenings” several times a year. According to Pratt’s records, they entertained over 4000 people between 1932 and 1943.
In 1917, Pratt inherited the Mark Hopkins Chair of Intellectual and Moral Philosophy which had previously been held by John E. Russell. The 1920s saw the publication of The Religious Consciousness (1920) and Matter and Spirit (1922). During his sabbatical leave in 1923/4, Pratt studied Buddhism in Japan, China and Korea, and also taught in Peking at the Chinese Christian University. His studies in the Orient resulted in The Pilgrimage of Buddhism, published in 1928. Several months of the 1931-1932 sabbatical year were spent in Bengal at Santiniketan, where Pratt gave a course on ethics as well as a series of public lectures.
Catherine and James’s health began to fail in the 1930s. In 1935, Catherine became ill and spent many weeks in a hospital in New York, where she received a blood transfusion. In February 1939, a thrombosis was discovered in the artery of James’ left leg. By March, his condition had worsened, necessitating removal of the leg at Albany Hospital in New York. Pratt retired from teaching in 1943 after receiving an honorary L.H.D. from his alma mater.
James Bissett Pratt died January 15, 1944 and was laid to rest in the College cemetery. Catherine published his last two books, Reason in the Art of Living (1949) and Eternal Values of Religion (1950).
By Kristen A. Petersen
Connect to the guide to the James B. Pratt Papers