It is unusual for any nuclear family to produce one talented child who influences their culture. Henry James Sr. and Mary James produced three: William James is often called the Father of American Psychology and was the creator of the Pragmatic school of philosophy. Henry James Jr. was a successful novelist whose works were bestsellers in the 1800s and are classics today. Alice James was an acerbic diarist, whose repressed life and insightful writing have influenced 21st Century feminism regarding its view of middle class women’s lives in 19th Century America. Many individual biographies have been written about these three siblings. But Paul Fisher does something that has never been done before; he writes a biography of the entire family. This permits a reader to see the environmental influences on these three and examine what elements came together to precipitate such intellectual talent.
At the very beginning of the book, Paul Fisher makes an important blunder that throws a damp washcloth on a reader’s enthusiasm for his project: he spends more than 100 pages on Henry James Sr., the father of this clan. Henry Sr. was a follower of Emanuel Swedenborg. He was a theologian, a lecturer and a writer, who was neither successful in his lifetime, nor influential after it ended. He wrote a dozen volumes of arcane religious philosophy that were little noticed when published and are of little importance today. If it were not for his three famous offspring, it is safe to say that Henry Sr. would not be remembered at all. That a figure of such modest consequence should consume so much of a book which includes his three more influential children, is a waste of time. Surely, his importance lies in his impact on these children. A more useful beginning would have involved an abbreviated chapter on Henry Sr. and Mary that discussed their individual lives and how they came together.
Fisher writes with an ease and informality which allows his book to flow. He can be amusingly sarcastic with his subjects’ flaws. When Henry Jr. squanders family money in European spas, rationalizing that he must “get thoroughly well” so he can work, Fisher writes “Harry bled with self-sacrifice” (Fisher, p. 259). When William’s insecurity causes him to continually fail with women, Fisher comments that his “would-be liaisons struck one wet match after another” (Fisher, p. 304). It is this informality and refusal to hold his subjects as sacred, which permit him to delve into their lives in a way that holds nothing sacred.
The author exposes the worst about the Jameses, holding-up each nasty secret like an exterminator bringing a homeowner every poisoned rat: William is “living with depression” (277), has “quirky, skittish methods of human interaction” (442), and was “cut off from reacting, empathizing, and relating to others’ emotions” (Fisher, p. 439). Henry Jr. is a vain, self-involved social climber, “tipping his hat like a marionette” in high London society (Fisher, p. 432). Alice is a neurasthenic shut-in, whose fits of “hysteria” are part of a “long career as an invalid” that brings her “much attention and solicitude” (Fisher, p. 461). With such debilitating psychological problems, one wonders how they accomplished anything.
None of these revelations are new. Biographers have been analyzing this family for over 100 years and, given William James’s vocation, a number of those have been psychologists. So throughout the book Fisher is reaching for new insights that, due to the competence of his competition and the obsessive letter-burning practices of the Jameses, may simply not be available.
But because this author is examining the family as a whole, he has the benefit of everyone else’s biographies and his own research. He does spend time on the two ignored James sons Wilkie and Bob, which adds an interesting dimension to the family dynamic. Early in their lives, Henry Sr. and Mary determined that those two had little intellectual promise and were cut-out for the world of commerce. So they did not receive the privileged educations of William and Henry Jr. In addition, the two less promising Jameses both serve for the Union in the Civil War, whereas Henry Jr. and William dodge service with ailments. The war service and unhappy journeyman lives of the two unsuccessful Jameses leave the privileged sons with lifelong guilt.
Fisher does have an evolved social conscience through which he views the Jameses and their period. He spends a good deal of time on Henry Jr’s alienation due to his being a closeted gay male. Henry’s fears of discovery affect his responses to his sister’s “Boston Marriage” with Katharine Loring. A special focus on the status of women is unavoidable given Alice’s penetrating diary. But even with avoidable issues, like anti-semitism and the condition of the poor, the author makes sure to expose the era’s injustices.
Occasionally, Fisher can be a bit melodramatic in pursuit of deeper Jamesian problems. He uses the word “incest” or “incestuous” so often that one is certain he’d love to discover some. In one silly passage, the author describes seven-year-old Alice selecting colors for a new hat with a London milliner. He characterizes the resulting color clash as causing “distress and confusion” (Fisher, p. 132). The shopping trials of an over-privileged child seem hardly worth mentioning in a city where her fellow seven-year-olds were working in factories and wearing rags. Fisher also uses literary devices to create dramatic tension. Sections often end with premonitions of doom as entrees into the next section: “Quincy Street harbored a grim secret” (232), “The winds were already gathering” (422), “a more immediate drama was unfolding” (510). Such breathless, gothic style can become tiresome.
But, for all of his melodrama and faux suspense, Fisher strives with some success to pierce through the Jamesian wall of stolid Puritan/Victorian repression and self-regard. One feels a sadness pervading the book as the Jameses struggle against their common, depressive, inner darkness. Because they are not portrayed as the paragons of their earliest biographies, one sees them as human and roots for them to succeed in love and work. The author’s unique approach, to the household as a whole, reveals how the environment produced three individuals who were highly intellectual, driven and emotionally problematic. His angle has produced a compelling read.
Fisher, Paul. House of Wits. An Intimate Portrait of the James Family. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2008.