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House of Wits: An Intimate Portrait of the James Family

by Paul Fisher

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House of Wits: An Intimate Portrait of the James Family

© Henry Holt and Co.

Henry Holt and Company, June 2008

Mental breakdowns, sexual repression, alcoholism, and rocky friendships: these dramatic aspects of human experience make ample showing in House of Wits: An Intimate Portrait of the James Family. That a modern reader can understand and even identify with the struggles of these nineteenth-century characters provides evidence that some things never change.

In House of Wits, Fisher chronicles the ups and downs of a brilliant yet troubled American family that included one of America's literary giants (Henry James), an early theorist in the field of psychology (William James), and a feminist icon (Alice James).

In his introduction, Fisher places the James family somewhere "between the Alcotts and the Royal Tenenbaums." They are a "curiously contemporary" clan, he says: "the forerunners of today's Prozac-loving, depressed or bipolar, self-conscious, narcissistic, fame-seeking, self-dramatized, hard-to-mate-or-to-marry Americans."

Fisher begins his 600-plus page biography with Henry James Sr. and his wife Mary setting out on a trans-Atlantic journey, one of several that becomes characteristic of this mobile family's peregrinations. The year is 1855, and the couple waits patiently to board the Atlantic with a mountain of luggage and five young children in tow: William, Henry Jr., Wilkie, Bob, and Alice.
Henry Sr. had become convinced that his children should be educated in Europe, but the family's time abroad often resulted in odd living arrangements and experiences. Sometimes they were cramped together in tight quarters, huddled together on the floor of an apartment, or moving from hotel to hotel. In this way, the James children's education was an eclectic one, contributing to their adult status as savvy citizens of the world and members of the American intellectual and literary elite.

After offering background information about the parents-Henry Sr. and Mary Walsh James-Fisher turns to the individual lives of the children, tracing their development through adolescence and into adulthood.

Fisher vividly recounts the lives of Wilkie and Bob, the lesser-known siblings in the James family, both of whom served in America's Civil War. And he contrasts Alice's learning experiences with those of her brothers, who were able to develop active intellectual and social lives at a time when women were denied the formal educational opportunities available to men.
William and Henry Jr. emerge as this family's shining stars, with William becoming a key theorist in the burgeoning field of psychology and Henry, a novelist who achieved an international reputation within his lifetime. William's Variety of Religious Experience (1902) later inspired the creation of Alcoholics Anonymous, and Henry's fiction, including Daisy Miller (1878) and The Portrait of a Lady (1882) remain among the greatest in the canon of American literature.

Those who read this book wanting to know more about novelist Henry James, in particular, may find themselves disappointed. While a study of the James family certainly sheds light on the influences that shaped one of its most fascinating members, most of Henry James' personal and professional life remains shrouded in mystery.

And despite Fisher's ability to create engaging scenes at the beginning of each of his chapters, readers may find themselves bogged down in the details of this lengthy biography. The book's tone is often too academic to remain engaging, and it wanders into tangential terrain at times. It is, however, a notable contribution to the fields of literary and American history.
Whereas other biographers have tended to focus their efforts on one member of this family at a time, Fisher attempts to interpret its members by looking at their household experience; in doing so, he attempts to help readers understand "their hidden passions and vulnerabilities both as deeply moving and highly relevant" to their lives.

Fisher achieves his goal by exposing this family's passions in such a way that modern readers will see their own life's ambitions and tragedies reflected in the story of these nineteenth-century characters. And certainly many can recognize some truth in Fisher's estimation of the James clan: "Old patterns died hard," he says, "even in a family struggling for enlightenment and laboring to improve on the mistakes of previous generations."
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