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House of Wits: An Intimate Portrait of the…

House of Wits: An Intimate Portrait of the James Family

by Paul Fisher

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Readers of [House of Wits] by [[Paul Fisher]] should remember that this is, as the subtitle says,"an intimate portrait of the James family." So don't look for everything you always wanted to know about each of its most famous members: novelist Henry, philosopher/psychologist William, or feminist Alice. But the interactions between these individuals and others make for fascinating reading.

Short-changed of necessity in this 600+ page volume are brothers Wilkie and Bob who were so unfortunate as to be born average into a family of geniuses and suffered on that account. Bob became an alcoholic like his father. Wilkie was badly wounded in the Civil War. Both brothers failed in business and in marriage.

The eccentric father, Henry Sr., had a streak of brilliance that he narrowly focused on a study of the equally eccentric Swedish scientist/philosopher/inventor/religious writer Emanual Swedenborg. Mary Walsh James, the mother, was passive yet strong as a domestic manager under the trying conditions imposed by her always-on-the-move husband. Between them, the pair exercised control over their brood even as they entered adulthood.

Especially interesting to me is Fisher's examination of Henry, Jr.s failure as a playwrite. He might write splendid novels, but he was once booed off an English stage after his friends in the front rows of an play opening got through applauding. In common with some other biographers, Fisher believes that Henry James was a repressed homosexual and points to what little evidence is available in his letters and fictional writings.

The two brothers were close, yet competitive, and not necessarily admirers of each other's work. In one exchange William wrote Henry after receiving one of Henry's new books: "I wish sometimes you would sit down and write a new book, with no twilight or mistiness in the plot . . . and absolute straightforwardness in style." In response, Henry wrote William: "I am always sorry when I hear of your reading anything of mine, and always hope you won't -- you seem to me so constitutionally unable to enjoy it."

The sickly and reclusive Alice James did not emerge as a feminist icon until sections of her thoughtful diary were published after her death. The author makes a convincing case that Alice had a lesbian relationship with her friend, Katharine Loring.

The flaws in this book are few. Given the wide scope of research, information of interest to some readers had to be left out. Three omissions would have made the book more interesting to me. Fisher gives very casual treatment to William's contribution to the development of the philosophy of pragmatism. Not even a proper definition of this landmark in philosophical thinking is given. The many physical and mental symptoms of Alice's illnesses were recorded by her and others. Why didn't Fisher ask a modern physician to suggest a possible diagnosis? Finally, when Henry met Mark Twain and sat with him in summer chairs at a New Jersey resort, surely there is a better record of their conversation than Henry's remark that "There was gold dust in the air." But these are niggling criticisms.

This a a fine book -- scholarly, yet engaging in style. The context in which the family lived and worked in this country and Europe is brought to life. One feels there with the family in New York in the late 1800's, with Henry in England and Italy, and with William in Germany. This is social history at its best. The 68 pages of notes display the depth of Fisher's research. Last, but not least, this book has a fine index -- something lacking in too many biographies.

I highly recommend this book to fans of any of the famous Jamees and to avid readers of biography. ( )
1 vote dwsact | Aug 10, 2009 |
No reviews for this fantastic book yet!?!

House of Wits explores the gifted yet troubled James family. Anyone who loves Henry James knows about his childhood and siblings, but this book delves more deeply into the dynamics of this fascinating family; his brother William the famous philosopher, his sister Alice, who lived her life as an invalid struggling with the "female illnesses" of the 19th century, his father, Henry Sr., who was an alcoholic and struggled with his own demons, his mother, Mary, who provided the stability the moody patriarch could not, and Wilkie and Bob, the two younger brothers who were constantly overshadowed by their siblings brilliance. A must read for any lover of Henry James or the 19th century. ( )
  Matsar | Jul 16, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0805074902, Hardcover)

An American odyssey that reveals the fascinating complexities of one of history's most brilliant, eccentric, and daring families
The James family, one of America's most memorable dynasties, gave the world three famous children: a novelist of genius (Henry), an influential philosopher (William), and an invalid (Alice) who became a feminist icon, despite her sheltered life and struggles with mental illness. Although much has been written on them, many truths about the Jameses have long been camouflaged. The conflicts that defined one of American's greatest families-- homosexuality, depression, alcoholism, female oppression--can only now be thoroughly investigated and discussed with candor and understanding.
Paul Fisher's grand family saga, House of Wits, rediscovers a family traumatized by the restrictive standards of their times but reaching out for new ideas and ways to live. He follows the five James offspring ("hotel children," Henry called them) and their parents through their privileged travels across the Atlantic; interludes in Newport and Cambridge; the younger boys' engagement in the Civil War; and William and Henry's later adventures in London, Paris, and Italy. He captures the splendor of their era and all the members of the clan--beginning with their mercurial father, who nurtured, inspired, and damaged them, setting the stage for lives of colorful passions, intense rivalries, and extraordinary achievements. House of Wits is a revealing cultural history that revises and completes our understanding of its remarkable protagonists and the changing world where they came of age.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:11:26 -0400)

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"The James family, a true American dynasty, gave the world three famous children: Henry, a novelist of genius; William, an influential philosopher and psychologist; and Alice, an invalid who became a feminist icon, despite her sheltered life and struggles with mental illness." "Fisher provides a captivating account of the conflicts that shaped this brilliant family - bitter struggles with depression, alcoholism, and panic disorders; repressed affections and sexual desires; and intellectual and emotional jealousies." "House of Wits is a revealing cultural history that revises and completes our understanding of its remarkable protagonists and the changing world in which they came of age."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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