THE FATHER, Henry James Sr., was the fifth of 11 children of one of the richest men in the state of New York. As a teenager, his leg was burned and amputated. Addicted to alcohol, he grew into the black sheep of his family. Although he was born again and studied for the ministry, his father all but cut him out of his will. Henry sued, won and was “leisured for life.” Peg-legged, charming, rakish even when delivering theological rants, he enchanted the stolid, spinster sisters of a school chum; he married one, Mary Walsh, and got two; for decades, “Aunt Kate” would serve as second-string mother in the James household.
And what a household, this nursery of William James, the psychologist and philosopher; Henry James, the novelist; Alice James, the diarist; Wilky James, war hero and financial failure; and Bob James, alcoholic.
The first biography to take the whole family as its subject was “The James Family” (1947), an anthology of Jamesian writing with commentary by F.O. Matthiessen. In 1991, R.W.B. Lewis published “The Jameses: A Family Narrative,” a readable doorstop of literary scholarship that came out of a collaboration between Lewis and his former student, producer David Milch (“Deadwood”). The two had written a (never produced) 12-episode television serial. Though the book can seem scant on the individual lives -- compared with, say, Leon Edel’s five volumes on Henry or Jean Strouse’s superb “Alice James” -- Lewis grasped the pathos, humor and dramatic possibilities of the family story and, without losing sight of the great work that made it famous, tried to grasp what it meant to be, as William once termed it, “a native of the James Family.”
Now, with “House of Wits: An Intimate Portrait of the James Family,” Paul Fisher returns to the well-thumbed family record determined to apply an “up-to-date critical perspective” and “break through the decorum” that previously stifled frank discussions of alcoholism, depression and sexuality. He aims “to truly capture this iconoclastic group, whose oversized collective achievements . . . grew out of a very troubled, impassioned, and often dysfunctional home life.”
Fisher finds the family “curiously contemporary -- the forerunners of today’s Prozac-loving, depressed or bipolar, self-conscious, narcissistic, fame-seeking, self-dramatized, hard-to-mate-or-to-marry Americans.” Dysfunction, he promises us, “sheds crucial light on the origins and full range of their influential achievements.” As someone who has read widely for pleasure in Jamesiana, I had noticed that Henry Sr.'s alcoholism was mentioned by biographers but never discussed with any contemporary understanding of the disease and its effect on families; I was interested in what Fisher would have to say. He covers the essential territory (no small scholarly feat), beginning his book with the family sailing for Europe in 1855.
Inspired by his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Sr. had sought a career as lecturer and writer, but his impenetrable, inconsistent thinking undermined it. He had a nervous collapse after his first two children, William and Henry, were born and slowly cured himself by reading the Swedish mystic Swedenborg. Unlike his own distant father, he was home a lot and took an interest in his children. Especially in their education.
By the time William, his eldest, was 13, Henry Sr. had enrolled and withdrawn his children from an estimated 10 schools in New York City alone. Then came the trip to Europe. From 1855 to 1860, the young Jameses sampled educational experiments in or near Geneva; Paris; Boulogne, France; Newport, R.I.; Geneva (again); and Bonn, Germany, all in a rapid cycling of Henry Sr.'s high expectations and crashing disillusionment. When William, at 18, decided to be a painter (against his father’s wishes), the family returned to Newport.
It was then, at the start of the Civil War, when dinner at the James house became a lively, loud forum, a forensic free-for-all in which knives were brandished to make points, impassioned children leapt from their chairs and comic curses rained on Henry Sr.'s head (that “his mashed potatoes might always have lumps in them!”). In the interest of public safety, Mary sat her brood all on one side of the table.
James family life was so singular and intense, the family home so affectionate, yet stultifying -- so mired in dysfunction, Fisher would say -- that any hope for individuation necessitated a break. The boys, at least, dispersed as soon as they could. Henry Sr. held onto his older boys’ coattails to keep them from enlisting, then allowed the younger ones, Wilky and Bob, to join up. Both distinguished themselves serving in free-black regiments. Wilky, wounded, never fully recovered his health. After the war, he lost his fortune running a cotton plantation that employed freed slaves. He and Bob both found wives and humdrum jobs in the Midwest. Wilky died at 38; Bob separated from his wife and two children and lived a wandering life, attempting to paint and drinking.
HENRY JR. began writing and publishing while still at home, moving to Europe for good in 1875. He eked out a living and, with some help from home, rented spacious, elegant rooms and dressed impeccably. He made friends -- compulsively, Fisher suggests -- dined out often and spent months in friends’ Italian villas. He repeatedly befriended homosexuals and maintained several intense friendships with women but remained ostensibly chaste and resolutely single. A brief career in the theater ended in failure; he went on to write extraordinary novels. He was also a prodigious correspondent; his letters alone, which are being published by the University of Nebraska Press, are projected to fill 140 volumes. After much cataloging of Henry’s proclivities (staring at gondoliers, gaping at naked statues), Fisher finally classifies him as “queer -- sexually complicated, idiosyncratic and unconventional.”
William matured more slowly, independently continuing the dislocations of his upbringing. He dropped out of Harvard, changed majors, went on a Brazilian expedition, fled to Europe for his health. (He and Henry Jr. competed “dorsally,” as the most ailing back was worth a ticket to the Continent.) Finally finishing his medical degree, William had his own mental collapse. A job teaching anatomy at Harvard got him up and running, but he didn’t leave his parents’ house until, at 36, he married Alice Howe Gibbens. His first book, “The Principles of Psychology,” published when he was 48, was 10 years late to the publisher. A career in philosophy and “The Varieties of Religious Experience” followed.
Alice James remained in the dreary Victorian family home, without marriage prospects, her only hope for escape. She suffered breakdowns and fits. She would, however, passionately attach herself to one Katharine Peabody Loring and build a three-story “cottage” north of Boston, near Manchester-by-the-Sea. After her parents died, she moved close to Henry in London (he promptly fled to Italy, but only temporarily). Her diary is an acknowledged literary masterpiece. Attended by Katharine and Henry, Alice died of breast cancer at 43.
Depressions, breakdowns. Using illness to get what one needed. Sexual confusion and repression. Alcoholism. Fleeing the country.
Fisher examines any and all dysfunction as he tracks each family member, intercutting the lives and attempting, less successfully, to provide a cultural-historical context. Long digressive passages are devoted to department stores, hotels -- and ocean liners. Every ocean liner boarded by a James is described in detail. More scrupulous attention is paid to these boats than to the literary output of Fisher’s scribbling subjects.
In A 1995 essay in the New Republic, Louis Menand warned of the James’ biographers’ trap: “the tendency to treat the psychological and intellectual history of the Jameses as a history of family relations -- to write as though Henry Senior was a greater influence on William’s thinking than Charles Darwin, or as though the chief aim of Henry’s fiction was to dramatize the psychological complexities of life as a James.” So ensnared, Fisher allows that Henry, William and to a lesser degree Alice, are exceptional, then implies that family successes stand on the shoulders of the failures, much as first-class passengers like Henry Jr. strode the deck of ocean liners while masses huddled in steerage: Henry “and his family could and mostly did ignore the desperately poor immigrants with whom he shared some of his Atlantic crossings. But related hierarchies of privilege and deprivation also pervaded the James family itself, with its two pampered and its two penniless sons.”
Fisher stretches a bit. Wilky lost a large chunk of family capital. And William scrimped and juggled. Henry too was hardly a fiscal success. His life in England, where he settled, was pinched by economy. Edith Wharton took up a collection and sneaked him the money through his publisher.
Some scholars have tried to address the unequal distribution of success in the James family by championing the underexpressed or squelched talents of Henry Sr., Bob, Wilky and Alice. Fisher, however, levels the playing field by suggesting that the fame and accomplishment of the two elder brothers is their way of compensating for the dysfunctional family from which they emerged. I’d like to compensate like that.
Fisher’s focus on family dynamics and sexual issues, though often fascinating and insightful, has a cumulative flattening and reductive effect on even such rich material. To enliven his narrative, he resorts too often to portentous pronouncements (“Only the empty white pages awaiting his words could hold such painful, coded confidences” and “But for the Jameses’ spinster daughter, there wasn’t a ship to take”) and cliffhanging transitions (“But at the moment Harry had other troubles on his mind besides sex” and “Little did he know what kind of heiress was waiting for him” and “But she couldn’t know that soon, very soon, her diary would ramify into something even more impressive and hair-raising than that”).
With only brief, and often glib, consideration given to the literary achievements that made the family exceptional, the portraits themselves suffer. Henry finally seems an aging, sexual curiosity whose “involuted style would eventually thwart his hopes for large book or ticket sales.” William comes off as a distasteful chronic old flirt. Yet both were widely beloved by family and friends and countless readers.
Reading “House of Wits,” I soon wished for both more of what the title promised (wit) and less (of the intimate). By the last 100 pages, I found myself longing for the work itself -- William’s, Henry’s, Alice’s -- as an antidote to the ultimately indecorous rummaging in all that damage and woe.
“The Golden Bowl,” here I come. *