Matthew Price, writer and book critic
The James Gang
A new portrait of the family of Henry, William and Alice presents a House of James for the self-help era. Matthew Price picks through the pile of pathologies.
By Matthew Price. The National, August 14, 2008

House of Wits, by Paul FisherHouse of Wits: An Intimate Portrait of the James Family, by Paul Fisher. Little Brown.

“It is a complex fate to be an American,” Henry James famously observed. But it was an even more complex fate to be a James. One of five children — his oldest brother was William, the pioneering philosopher and social thinker — James, along with his siblings, grew up under the tutelage of a strong-willed, mercurial and footloose father who hopped, family in tow, from New York to Boston to London and the Swiss Alps. Inhabitants of no one country so much as they were natives of a place called Jamesland, the family followed its own customs and peculiar rituals.

Brisk, chatty, and sometimes ridiculously florid, House of Wits is an engrossing if heavy handed biography of this eccentric and fascinating Victorian-era clan. If the achievements of the famous brothers bulk large in the story of the Jameses, Paul Fisher has thought passionately about the family as a whole — patriarch Henry Sr, and his wife Mary, lesser known brothers Bob and Wilkie and the lone sister, Alice.

There have been other books on the Jameses, by RWB Lewis and FO Matthiessen, the great post war Americanist and scholar of 19th century literature. But where they were reticent, even demure about sex and love, Fisher, wise to faddish theories about gender and sexuality, proposes a James family for the 21st century — for the age of Oprah and Dr Phil. “We can talk about the Jameses now without holding back or turning our heads,” Fisher writes, “and we are significantly more able to interpret what lies behind their hard-to-read expressions.”

For Fisher, there is very little that is inscrutable about the family. He uncovers a welter of pathologies — alcoholism, depression, sundry neuroses, dark obsessions, repressed sexual desires, even hints of incest. With a nod to our time, Fisher describes the Jameses as the “the forerunners of today’s Prozac-loving, depressed or bipolar, self-conscious, narcissistic, fame-seeking, self-dramatised, hard-to-mate-or-to-marry Americans.” Yet they hardly need such a glibly contemporary gloss to hold our attention. The Jameses are fascinating on their own terms.

Henry Sr, the son of a Scotch-Irish emigrant turned business tycoon, was an unorthodox thinker with a mystic bent. Sustained by a family income, the one time seminary student, under the spell of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thomas Carlyle, fancied himself a freethinking visionary, though he was more prone to bombast. (“When I take a few glasses of wine,” he once mused “I am ready to measure my strategy with Bonaparte, and…to encounter Anthony in rivalry for Cleopatra.”) In the 1840s, he delivered public lectures on abstract religious topics that left his audiences baffled — and bored.

Henry Sr’s unconventional notions about the conduct of life would profoundly affect his children, who were born in rapid succession between 1842 and 1848. So would his temperament. Fragile, wracked by insecurity, impulsive and unpredictable, Henry James Sr passed onto his children a mixed inheritance. He was an alcoholic, and could resort to violence when provoked — William remembered how “Father used to spank me with a paper cutter” in their house on New York’s 14th Street. But he also wanted his children to benefit from his offbeat theories about pedagogy and child rearing.

It would be a fraught experiment. In 1855, he packed up his young brood, and went to Europe, where he hoped they would have a “sensual education.” As Henry James Jr (“Harry”) later recalled, he and his siblings became “hotel children”. Vagabonds, they hopped from Switzerland, France and England, as Henry Sr looked for inspiration and enlightenment. His mind would quickly alight on a new idea, and his children were expected to follow. “Like some child in sandbox,” Fisher writes, “he formed and then destroyed version after version of his children, never satisfied with the results.”

If he resorts sometimes to a cut-out rate Victorianese (Henry Sr worried about William succumbing to the temptations of a “rosy housemaid or impetuous piano-playing minx”), Fisher diligently tracks the family’s chronic travelling. Henry Sr’s journeys would establish a central dynamic in the life of the Jameses: pilgrimage. Even if they were bound by nettlesome ties, they were forever trying to break free of one another. In time, the James children divided loosely into three tiers, with eldest siblings William and Harry at the top, Bob and Wilkie lost somewhere in the middle, and Alice occupying an unfortunate place all her own.

Fisher’s treatment of Bob and Wilkie is poignant and substantial. Henry Sr didn’t know quite what to do with his middle sons. If William and Henry drifted to the arts — both dabbled in painting as young men — Wilkie and Bob could never get out from under the long shadow of their talented older brothers. Both served with distinction in the Civil War (Wilkie was badly wounded) but their post-war careers foundered. Bob, a railway clerk, descended into alcoholism and a troubled marriage in the Midwest, while Wilkie failed in business ventures. They were an unhappy lot.

But as Fisher makes clear, none of the James children were really destined for happiness. Though he was his father’s favourite, William was dogged by depression and impotence. Trained as a doctor at Harvard, he was reluctant to practice, and turned to the new field of psychology. Groping to understand his own state of mind and spiritual needs — “he himself was his most engrossing patient,” Fisher writes — William struck out on a path that would culminate in two classics, The Principles of Psychology (1890) and The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902).

William’s relationship with his brother Henry was intense and charged. Following the lead of Leon Edel, author of perhaps the greatest Henry James biography, Fisher contends there was tinge of homoeroticism to their bond. The question has swirled around Henry, and, in recent years, academics have made heavy weather about Henry’s famously ambiguous sexuality.

A lifelong bachelor who found his home in Europe, in the great houses of London and crumbling palazzos of Italy, Henry created some of the great female characters in English literature, even if his ambivalence about women bordered on misogyny. Fisher makes a fairly indisputable case on the matter of Henry James and women, but about his alleged homosexuality, the author makes some debatable claims. James revelled in ambiguity; it was his métier. He is always hinting at themes just beyond the realm of comprehension — “obscure” is a key word in the James lexicon. Whatever James repressed or kept secret, whatever desires he checked and contained, he made an art out his buried passions.

Was James a homosexual? There is much conflicting evidence, though nothing incontrovertible confirming he was, even the flowery letters he wrote his male acquaintances, many of them younger and some of them openly gay. (The Irish novelist Colm Toibin, one of James’s best critics, put it this way: “he covered his tracks magnificently.”) Fisher, however, tries to steer us to a more a definitive conclusion. A believer in the theory that silence is code for tacit homosexual desire, Fisher is rather unsubtle in his dealings with Henry’s sexuality.

Looking at James’s 1886 novel The Bostonians, which ostensibly concerns feminism and its discontents, Fisher argues that there are deflected glimpses of Henry’s longing for Paul Zhukovsky, a painter who James knew in the 1880s. “For Harry, though, The Bostonians functioned as a roadblock, not a road,” Fisher contends.” “Once again, he was *not [ital] writing about the likes of Paul Zhukovsky (or John Addington Symonds, a homosexual acquaintance whom he claimed to William never to have met.)” A clever reading perhaps, but specious and unpersuasive all the same. Sometimes, a silence is just a silence.

Henry’s later years, his emergence as “The Master” and author impenetrably baroque works like The Golden Bowl — the novel exasperated William, who counselled his brother to try something with “absolute straightness in the style” — occupy a good portion of House of Wits.

Fisher’s handling of William becomes a little secondary, though his philosophical contributions are of major importance. (Fisher gives slight consideration to William’s writings on pragmatism, a signature development in American intellectual history). This is foremost a biography of emotional and psychological states.

Whatever the flaws of Fisher’s approach, there is a rewarding fullness to his account of the family’s nettlesome ties and crisscrossing relationships. Fisher has takes an expansive view of the Jameses, and includes portraits of cousins Kitty and Minny Temple; Mary’s sister, Katherine Walsh, “the travel hungry maiden aunt” who became a kind of surrogate mother to the children; and Alice Gibbens James, wife of William.

“The role of women in the James family is essential to their story,” Fisher writes. Yet it was never easy being a James woman. For all his newfangled ideas, Henry Sr thought of women as domestic helpmates and little more. Such attitudes had a profound effect on perhaps the most tragic of the Jameses, Alice. Plagued by mysterious ailments and prone to hysterical fits, the youngest of the siblings emerges as one of the most interesting figure in the family saga. Of all the Jameses, her fate was the most complex. Fisher casts Alice as an actress whose most extraordinary performance was her illness. Beset by her neuroses, Alice, an invalid for much her life, was nonetheless an intellectual in her own right; she had a literary mind second only to Henry, who called her diaries “rare-wondrous”. It was worthy praise from someone who did not give it easily.

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