The Dysfunctional Jameses
HOUSE OF WITS
An Intimate Portrait of the James Family.
By Paul Fisher.
Illustrated. 693 pp. Henry Holt & Company. $35.
"House of Wits" seems an odd title, suggesting elegant repartee and playful badinage more Oscar Wilde or Noël Coward for what is billed as an "intimate portrait" of the James family. Certainly they could be witty (Alice, the only daughter, was especially sharp); they competed as children at the family dinner table to tell the best stories, jumping from their chairs and gesticulating passionately; and two of them, the two geniuses of the family, grew up to live on their wits. But "wits" is not how I think of them, either before or after reading this book. "House of horrors" would be nearer the mark, in this version. Paul Fisher refers to the James home as a "chamber of horrors," a "plague ship" and "the James family bog." His big project is to tell the James family story as a traumatic saga of dysfunction, competition, anxiety, aspirations often thwarted, confusion, repression, breakdown and sadness, of lifelong struggles to get away and an inexorable pull back to the powerful family bond. The lives of all the children are shaped by the father's peculiarities: "The young Jameses grew up borne on the shifting currents of Henry's emotions and desires, and buffeted by them." Resenting or hating the home, driven away from it by wanderlust, ambition and desire for independence, yet always locked into it and haunted by what Alice James called "ghost microbes," the Jameses were doomed, in Fisher's words, to be "always running away from Jameses only to collide with Jameses again."
However you choose to tell it, it's an extraordinary American family story, stretching from the 1820s to World War I. First there's the pioneering tale of the founding grandfather, William, an Ulster immigrant and self-made Albany businessman. Then, the eccentric and domineering personality of Henry James Sr., high-minded, spiritually questing, unemployed, nomadic, scarred by the amputation of his leg in childhood, his "inward demons" and his breakdown in his 30s (or, in the Swedenborgian terms he adopted, his "vastation"). Then the women of the family, devotedly domestic, Presbyterian Mary James, long-suffering and managerial (described here as overcontrolling and "passive-aggressive"), and her sister, Aunt Kate Walsh, briefly married, but for most of her life a dependent, ever-present, increasingly costive adjunct to the family. Then, the early years of the five highly competitive James children, born between 1842 and 1848, constantly moving around from Albany, New York, Europe, Newport, and Boston, undergoing a great many educational systems, subject to their father's erratic, intense demands and moral ambitions, a bewildering mixture of free choice, high expectations and close surveillance. (The parents "routinely" opened their children's letters, for example, well into their adulthood.) Out of this, the struggle for intellectual mastery between the older brothers, William and Henry the elder ("a tortured late bloomer") taking many years of trial and tribulation to become the great psychologist and philosopher; the younger energetically forging his way as America's novelist-in-exile as soon as he could. In contrast to, but interlinked with, these two astounding careers, there is the bitter quest for independence, the agonized breakdowns, the strong attraction to female friendship and the hidden brilliance of the invalid sister, Alice, who died at 44. And, far away from New England or Europe, the two younger brothers, Wilkie and Bob, struggle to make a living in Florida or Chicago or Milwaukee, working as plantation owners or railroad clerks or in the iron business. Wilkie, wounded in the Civil War, always in bad health and with bad financial luck, dying young at 38; Bob, an unstable alcoholic with a failed marriage.
The story has often been told, either as a family narrative or in individual biographies. What does Paul Fisher, a professor of English at Wellesley, bring to this crowded territory? His argument is that no single member of the family, however remarkable his or her achievement, can be understood separately from the others, and that there has as yet been no view of the family that takes into account late-20th-century work on same-sex love, gender, repression, illness, depression and alcoholism. In Fisher's view, it has never been made apparent how "contemporary" the Jameses are, how relevant to our times as "the forerunners of today's Prozac-loving, depressed or bipolar, self-conscious, narcissistic, fame-seeking, self-dramatized, hard-to-mate-or-marry Americans."
This agenda sounds rousingly new, and Fisher is right to say that some of the more startling aspects of the Jameses were passed over by earlier biographers. Leon Edel notoriously played down Henry James's complicated sexuality, and for a long time relatively little attention was paid to the women of the family. But in fact, much of the work Fisher draws on for his "new" treatment on Henry James's suppressed homosexuality or on Alice James's illness and her "Boston marriage" is now very well established in James studies, and has a rather familiar look to it. Fisher nudges us, as if scandalously, toward Henry's sexual repression whenever possible noting, for example, his youthful description of the footmen carrying staves in London in 1855 as an indication of "incipient sexual stirrings" or interpreting his descriptions of male sculpture in Rome in 1869 as "teeming with sexual, barely disguised genital metaphors." Fisher makes much of the homoerotic friendship between the two male characters in "The American," his novel-turned-play, and sums up James's erotic history as living "in a prison of fear." But there is nothing original about his theory of James's sexual repression, dutifully drawn from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's theories of silence and closetedness.
Necessarily, too, Fisher's account of Alice James's turning her illness into a form of self-assertion in competition with her brothers, of her flirtatious and quasi-erotic relationship with William and of her powerfully mixed feelings about her father is heavily indebted to Jean Strouse's pioneering study, and often echoes it. Fisher quotes the same "courtship" poems from William to Alice as Strouse and gives similar accounts of her "neurasthenia" and breakdown in Switzerland.
Still, Fisher does have some new theories, which he plays for all they are worth, the major one being Henry James Sr.'s "chronic alcoholism."The father's early addiction is well known, but Fisher pushes it later into the life, gives it as a significant cause for his breakdown and proposes continuing addiction as an explanation of his behavior, which he describes as "mad" or unstable. Bob's addiction is seen as re-enacting his father's, and Henry is also fingered as a drinker, "even if there is no real evidence of his father's kind of alcoholism." Fisher makes more of the women, presenting a tougher and more oppressive mother than "some biographers" have done, emphasizing Aunt Kate's hitherto "downplayed" intrepidity and independence of thought, and makes more of William's brief attraction to the radical Jewish poet Emma Lazarus and his interest in the work of the psychic Leonora Piper.
Some of Fisher's discoveries have a hypothetical air, relying heavily on those useful biographical formulations "must have" and "might have." So, if Mary and her sister, Kate, were rivals for Henry Sr.'s courtship, then Kate, if she "felt a twinge of envy," must have "hid it well." Similarly: "Harry's illnesses ... must have been formative"; Bob, "the youngest male James child, may well have been the first to try sex." Fisher would have liked the Jameses to be incestuous, but he has to make do with repeated innuendo about a family that "tended toward incest ... figurative and psychological incest, at least."
Fisher's promise to put the Jameses more in their social context is energetically fulfilled. He has lots of information about Atlantic crossings, American houses and cities, shops, public lectures in Boston, mediums, jungle explorations with the naturalist Louis Agassiz, Saratoga Springs and "wilderness tourism" in the Adirondacks. He manages the organization of his big complicated project efficiently, driving us along without too much "meanwhile, back in Cambridge. ..."
My main problem with Fisher's book is its tone of voice. To make the Jameses popular, accessible and relevant, and to keep his narrative surging along, Fisher goes in for a relentlessly sprightly, up-to-the-minute headline style. This does come as a change after R. W. B. Lewis's rather stuffy prose, or Edel's leisurely psychoanalyzing of James's books. But it rapidly becomes wearing. Favorite adjectives are dysfunctional, crucial, insecure, conflicted, fateful, weird, iconic, groundbreaking and signature (as in Henry Sr.'s "signature enthusiasm"). Henry eats bland "comfort food" in Britain and Alice is a "career invalid"; Mrs. James is an "icon of domesticity" and Thomas Carlyle has made a "real estate steal." Everything is made racy, dramatic and vivid, as in: "Grief was evidently far from Harry's mind as he hurled himself into the gaiety of the national capital." Or: "Deadly contagious illnesses roved the Victorian world with impunity." There are lashings of travelogue: "The sunshine was cold but the shadows even chillier, as Harry walked into the deep narrow streets of the old city Rome." "Morning coffee was a glorious business at the famous cafe of Florian's on the Piazza San Marco in Venice." Climaxes are loudly signposted: "Little did he know what kind of heiress was waiting for him!" Minor characters are briskly brought to life, with a slightly worrying emphasis on facial hair: "the black-eyed, mustached Friedrich Nietzsche," "the tubercular and long-mustached Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson," Henrik Ibsen "the lion-whiskered Norwegian iconoclast." The book's historical aim a confused one is to persuade us that the Jameses were typical Victorians yet also exceptions to every Victorian rule: "strange and florid paradoxes of passionate unconventionality and Victorian restraint." Every condescending historical cliché about Victorianism is duly trotted out. We hear repeatedly of "the monumentally repressed 19th century," the treatment by Victorian men of women as "second-class citizens," the eroticism of Victorian sickbeds, Victorian starchiness, double standards, conventions, self-hatred and "ingrown ... convolutions." These stereotypes rush past entirely unexamined.
Fisher's most disconcerting decision is to refer, throughout, to Henry James as "Harry." This is fair enough when he is a little boy, but leads to trouble when he becomes a major novelist and legendary subject of biography. So we get "Harry's smash-hit novella 'Daisy Miller,'" and "Harry finished his final installment of 'The Portrait of a Lady,'" and Leon Edel's "painstaking analysis of Harry." It's as if I had written a whole biography of Edith Wharton referring to her by her childhood nickname, "Pussy," or as if Richard Holmes had called Shelley throughout by his family name, "Bysshe." Fisher presumably wants us to feel intimate not with the famous, celebrated, public "Master," but with "the vulnerable, struggling Harry James." This is why, I suppose, there is rather little in the book about Henry's (or William's) writings. Fisher wants to show, not the author but the child, the son and brother, persisting as the essential self. So he pictures Henry James, after the deaths of his parents and all his siblings, as a profoundly lonely figure, playing down his adult friendships and professional relationships. He ends his book (in yet another imitation of Lytton Strachey's much-imitated ending of "Queen Victoria") with a deathbed rush back to James's earliest memories of childhood. It is a thoroughly infantilizing agenda, in which no one in the James family, least of all the novelist, is allowed to put childhood and family life behind him, and to be grown-up.
Hermione Lee's biography of Edith Wharton was recently published in paperback.