House of Wits: An Intimate Portrait of the James Family
By Paul Fisher
Holt, 693 pp., illustrated, $35
Over the past decades, beginning with F. O. Matthiessen's "The James Family" (1947), many biographies and portraits of various Jameses have appeared. Notable among them are ones by Alfred Habegger on Henry James Sr., Robert D. Richardson on William James, Jean Strouse on Alice James, and a slew of them, including two novels, about Henry Jr. In "The Jameses: A Family Narrative" (1991), R.W.B. Lewis expertly considered the whole tribe, including pertinent commentary on many of their writings - which writings are, after all, the reason we are interested in the family. Is it time to declare a moratorium on further books about the Jameses and reacquaint ourselves instead with "The Varieties of Religious Experience" and "The Portrait of a Lady"?
Paul Fisher doesn't think so, since he has produced what he takes to be a fresh look at the James family as a "dysfunctional" one. They strike us, he announces in an overheated introduction, as "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." He believes this aspect of the family has been downplayed, and that it is time for someone "with an up-to-date critical perspective" to take things in hand. After all, "whole new theoretical structures about gender and sexuality have emerged," enabling us (or at least Fisher) to "talk about the Jameses now without holding back or turning our heads." With gaze thus fixed resolutely forward, Fisher undertakes to chronicle matters such as alcoholism, sexual ambiguity, depression, and illness that qualify these gifted people as certifiably dysfunctional, even as some of them functioned memorably on the written page.
Fisher's use of language may be described as enthusiastic, sometimes reckless, since he is never content to use few words when more will do. He sees the family's achievements in literature, philosophy, and psychology as issuing from "sometimes unseemly experience" (synonyms for "unseemly" in my dictionary are "unbecoming," "indecorous," "indecent") and is determined "to understand their hidden passions and vulnerabilities both as deeply moving and highly relevant to our own present-day lives." He thrills himself, and hopes to thrill us, by hinting at sensational aspects in the family's "involvement" with one another. For example, when they lived in Paris in 1865, that involvement "tightened to an almost incestuous pitch" (almost, but not quite, incestuous?). Later we are informed that "the Jameses indeed tended toward incest," a claim that is not substantiated by words like "indeed" or "tended toward" and that is further muddied by calling the incest "figurative and psychological . . . at least."
Henry Sr.'s sometime addiction to alcohol was treated in Habegger's biography; Fisher, always eager to heighten things, notes that the father's famous nervous collapse occurred after what Henry Sr. later described as a "comfortable dinner," which "may also indicate that Henry had also drunk, and possibly heavily." "May also" and "possibly," along with "probably," "might well have felt," and "must have felt," are only a few of dozens of attempts at saying something that may or may not have been the case.
When Henry's fourth child, Robertson ("Bob"), visits Henry Jr. in London (Fisher calls him "Harry" throughout), the novelist, returning to his lodgings, "found the truant Bob lounging on his sofa." Since "Bob" also had a problem with alcohol, Fisher remarks, gratuitously, "No doubt Harry's younger brother had just stashed a bottle of spirits behind it." No doubt. But did he really "stash" it?
One word for this kind of writing is vulgarity, and it can be seen in the overloading of epithets as characters are introduced: There is "the slim young queen" (Victoria), or "the plump, light-haired [Sarah Orne] Jewett," or "the charismatic, square-jawed [Richard] Wagner." Ibsen appears in a walk-on as "the lion-whiskered Norwegian iconoclast"; Henry Jr.'s friend Howard Sturgis is "the chunky, mustached American novelist," while Hugh Walpole is "the gung-ho, shortsighted Hugh." Fisher's comments about Henry Jr.'s novels are perfunctory, on occasion grotesque, as when he says that "The Bostonians," one of his richest books, "would prove Harry's weirdest and most lugubrious fictional cocktail to date." That Fisher eschews detailed commentary on the books is probably fortunate.
Everywhere there breathes an air of sexual portent: apropos of Alice James's bedridden attendance by her companion, Katharine Loring, we are told that "sickbeds in the Victorian era crackled with an erotic charge" (can you hear the springs crackling?). That Henry Jr. liked to wear well-tailored English suits means he had "likewise buttoned [himself] into his own form of repression and stultification - another instance of a 'feminine' dynamic in his life." Near the book's end, Fisher settles on "the recent term . . . queer" as most fitting for the family and finds that "by that same token" all its members qualify as "queer," "according to the dynamics of their long, itinerant, incestuous, ambitious family history." If such is the final reward of an "up-to-date critical perspective," then this reader prefers to remain an outdated back number.
William H. Pritchard is professor of English at Amherst College. His most recent book is "Updike: America's Man of Letters."