“House of Wits” by Paul Fisher, 2008

This book illuminates the personal lives of the Henry James family as well as the period in which they lived; the early 19th century to the early 20th century.  As a biography, the family dynamics and individual personalities are examined in detail through the lens of modern psychology and sensibilities.  As a history, the period events are seen through the participant’s eyes as they live through them, putting a human face on events such as: the Civil War, WW I, the panic of 1837 and of 1873, the many inventions during the period, urbanization, and social changes.  Henry Jr., the author, being the most historically significant James and the one for whom most of the documentation exists, receives the lion’s share of text.  Paul Fisher’s basic premise is that the family achieved standing among the intellectuals of the day and made contributions to society spurred on by their upbringing, but struggled through more than their share of mental illness, alcoholism, and other personal issues.  A lot of this was due to the family patriarch, Henry, Sr. and his personal demons of alcoholism, restlessness, depression, obstinacy, and peculiar opinions.  His strengths and foibles were amplified in their effect on the rest of the family by the absolute authority granted male heads of household during the period.  These effects play out in the lives of each of the children: William, Henry Jr. (Harry), Wilkie, Bob, and Alice.  Several themes are covered extensively; the inequality of men and women, how homosexuality was dealt with by same-sex attracted people and society at large, cross-cultural influences between America and Europe, depression, hypochondria, physical disability, class divisions, the influence of personal life on Henry’s writing, and the competition for parental approval and affection. Many notable artists, writers, philosophers, and leaders were known to the Jameses or crossed paths with one or more of them and are included in this book.

Several biographies of the James family members pre-exist this one by Paul Fisher.  Here he strives to delve in deeper on a psychological level for a more intimate view of the family.  In our discussion meeting, the group felt the book could have had 100 pages trimmed off its 600 heft and could have brought out the content of the letters between Henry and the other writers he communicated with.  I learned a lot from this book about the period and feel that the historical insight into the period was the most valuable aspect of the book.

William Sargeant

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