House of Wits An Intimate Portrait of the James Family

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  • Edition: 1st
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2009-05-26
  • Publisher: Holt Paperbacks

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Revealing the fascinating complexities of one of history's most brilliant, eccentric, and daring families, "House of Wits" looks at how the James family was traumatized by the restrictive standards of their times but reached out for new ideas and ways to live.

Author Biography

Paul Fisher, the author of Artful Itineraries: European Art and American Careers in High Culture, 1865–1920, has had a long professional fascination with the James family. He grew up in Wyoming, was educated at Harvard and Trinity College, Cambridge, and received his Ph.D. from Yale. He teaches American literature at Wellesley College and lives in Boston, Massachusetts.

Table of Contents

Introduction: A Contemporary Portrait Of The Jamesesp. 1
The Voyage Of The Atlanticp. 11
Panicp. 27
Shadow Passionsp. 57
The Nursery Of Geniusesp. 85
Hotel Childrenp. 118
Implosionp. 153
Athenian Erosp. 190
Bottled Lightningp. 233
Heiresses Abroadp. 272
Matchesp. 310
Boston Marriagep. 345
Abandonmentp. 378
Steamer Newsp. 423
Spiritsp. 471
Curtain Callsp. 504
The Imperial Twilightp. 543
The Emperor In The Roomp. 585
Notesp. 601
Selected Bibliographyp. 657
Acknowledgmentsp. 667
Indexp. 671
Table of Contents provided by Ingram. All Rights Reserved.


Introduction: A Contemporary Portrait of the Jameses

Late in his life, the American expatriate novelist Henry James longed to memorialize his entire remarkable family, all of whom remained poignantly alive in his imagination. “We were, to my sense, the blest group of us,“ he wrote in his autobiography in 1913, “such a company of characters and such a picture of differences... so fused and united and interlocked, that each of us... pleads for preservation.” But although there have been admirable James biographies, it has been difficult to break through the decorum of the family and even their finest chroniclers to truly capture this iconoclastic group, whose oversized collective achievements—as great as those of any other family in American history—grew out of a very troubled, impassioned, and often dysfunctional home life.

Some of the Jameses—a close-knit New York dynasty—ended their lives as depressed and disappointed bankrupts; others became eminent writers whose wit and invention helped lay the foundations for what we now think of as modern America. The family is best known for its two eldest sons, Henry James Jr. and William James, the philosopher and psychologist. The former’s sumptuous fictions about Americans in Europe—The American (1877), The Portrait of a Lady (1881), and The Wings of the Dove (1902), among many others—captured the glittering international world of the so-called Belle Epoque, the “beautiful epoch” between the Civil War and World War I. Henry James epitomized high literary achievement, and his works, known for their psychological depth, have been seen as groundbreaking “modern” classics. Only a shade less well known than his brother, William James established a considerable reputation as a pioneer of modern psychology and as a proponent of “pragmatism”—a characteristically American philosophy that empowered each individual to determine his or her own truths.

History has immortalized these brothers in isolation and has only secondarily considered them in the light of their less prominent relatives and the struggles those relatives embodied. Critics have sometimes regarded William and Henry as grand self-generated “geniuses” in their respective realms, as figures who stood above their family circumstances. But Nietzsche’s warning about success obscuring the real complexity of famous lives applies well to these two American icons. Suffering and deep human complexity fueled their work, and for six decades the two men remained remarkably close, engaged, and competitive blood brothers. They were locked in a lifelong relationship that weirdly echoed their parents’ marriage and whose turbulent and complex dynamics crucially shaped their most famous books.

Besides Henry and William, the James clan contained other figures who have also fascinated many: Henry James Sr., their father, was a rebellious prophet of American social reform; their sister, Alice James, was a career invalid and clandestine diarist who documented her own struggles in an extremely male-oriented family and society. But these two additional Jameses, reclaimed and recovered only in the last few decades, are just the beginning of the family story. I believe that all seven of the Jameses—the parents and their five extraordinary children—were in fact so “fused and united and interlocked” that it is impossible fully to understand any one of them without the rest, without investigating the moving drama of their complex family life that unfolded in some of the most interesting cities of the era—New York, Newport, Boston, London, Paris, and Rome—between the social upheavals of the 1840s and the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

For years, the Jameses lavished on one another a rich moveable feast of family life. Their father’s intellectual ambitions and shifting moods swept them capriciously from city to city, continent to continent. When the five children were still young, before constant mobility had become the American norm, the family moved through Europe and America like vagabonds, surviving years of shifting houses, hotels, and boarding schools knitted together by long rail journeys and Atlantic steamship crossings. Traveling continually, with only the family for stability and continuity, they alternately adored, defended, and excoriated one another with an intensity that only people who passionately love each other can generate. They became the only real “country,“ as William James later put it, to which any of them ever belonged.

Driven to leave his mark on the world as well as to travel, Henry Senior passed on many of his obsessions to his children; with high expectations and elusive approval, he helped spur them all toward the anxieties of overachievement. Henry Junior and William James were especially caught up, but their less famous siblings were not immune to it. Their superhuman efforts to be seen, acknowledged, and understood dominated their private and professional lives, spawning grandiose plans, remarkable accomplishments, and deep, long-lasting depressions.

Somewhere between the Alcotts and the Royal Tenenbaums, the Jameses come into the American story and add much to our perception of it. In their ambitions, ambiguities, and affectations, the Jameses can strike us as curiously contemporary—the forerunners of today’s Prozacloving, depressed or bipolar, self-conscious, narcissistic, fame-seeking, self-dramatized, hard-to-mate-or-to-marry Americans. This side of the Jameses has often been downplayed, and much of the story has remained untold, buried under generations of propriety, convention, and veneration. But the Jameses’ dysfunction sheds crucial light on the origins and full range of their influential achievements. Henry Senior’s bold social experiments, Henry Junior’s exquisite fiction, Alice’s exploration of women’s hidden lives, and William’s seminal contributions to American psychology—all grow directly from this sometimes unseemly experience. Accordingly, this book is an effort to interpret these people by way of their interior family and household experience, as Henry James himself longed to do, and to understand their hidden passions and vulnerabilities both as deeply moving and highly relevant to our own present-day lives.

IN NEW YORK’S Washington Square, you can still see scraps of the Jameses’ family world: cast-iron railings, steep steps, porticoes, and fanlights. Back when I was an undergraduate, I roamed expectantly with an old address, hoping to look them up, hoping to establish a personal link. For years, I’ve “collected” James houses: on Beacon Hill, on the rue St.- Honoré, in St. John’s Wood, at Newport, at Chocorua, in New Hampshire. With Henry Senior’s determination to give his family a “sensuous education,“ each house represented a slice of his experiment in unconventional living, each a new phase of the family’s remarkable development. Most of the numerous James residences are ghostly now, thanks to the American mania for tearing down and rebuilding that Henry James so deplored in The American Scene. (I was almost as shocked as he was to discover that both his mother’s house in Washington Square and his birth house in nearby Washington Place no longer exist.) Of some of these houses, not even a photograph remains; they were ordinary domestic properties, part of the family life of the nineteenth century that almost nobody bothered to document.

The half-effaced domestic story of the James family has fascinated me for many years, and I found one unexpected living link in Edinburgh in 1988, when I met H. S. (“Jim”) Ede (1895-1990), a distinguished art critic, then in his nineties, who as a young art student in London had met the elderly Henry James at the house of the actress Ellen Terry and had walked with the grandfatherly novelist through the streets of Kensington. Here was someone who had shaken Henry James’s hand and who remembered the man as having a “melodious voice” and once remarking, when a child walked into the room, “Oh, you angel from an antique age.”

Did I like Henry James? Did people still read him? Jim Ede asked me; he was passionately interested in the novelist’s legacy, as well as, more generally, in the living relevance of art. Vital links to the past come in many forms, and many generations of readers have felt, as I did when I first read these books, an almost disquieting connection with the authors of The Turn ofthe Screw (Henry Junior’s gripping ghost story) or The Varieties of Religious Experience (William’s heartfelt exploration of human spirituality), and have wondered what might be behind the unexpected immediacy of these works. I have spent many tantalizing days at Harvard’s Houghton Library, that great storehouse of Jamesian artifacts, looking for those surprising details that bring people of the past alive for us and make them relevant. There and elsewhere, I have found, among more “distinguished” papers, scrawled love letters and confessions, cartoons and shopping lists, and blurred photographs of loved ones that the Jameses carried with them on their travels.

Though superlative biographical work has been done on almost all the Jameses—and collectively on the family by F. O. Matthiessen in 1947 and R. W. B. Lewis in 1991—a more complete and modern portrait of this family has simply not been possible until recently. The Jameses’ papers were thoroughly combed through by an earlier generation of scholars, but few have looked at these documents with an up-to-date critical perspective. Whole new theoretical structures about gender and sexuality have emerged since most of the James biographies were written, and incisive research has bared the contradictions of their personal lives and their historical era.

Before the last decade or two, few people talked or wrote about the most intimate issues in the Jameses’ lives: mental illness, alcoholism, love, sex, homosexuality, money, the roles of women and men, and the pressures of professional and artistic success on personal lives. Even meticulous, monumental biographies of the past—exemplary ones, like Leon Edel’s careful and comprehensive multivolume account of Henry James Jr., completed in 1985—do not adequately address many issues of the James family’s confidential lives. We can talk about the Jameses now without holding back or turning our heads, and we are significantly more able to interpret what lies behind their hard-to-read expressions.

The Jameses methodically kept from the public eye the substantial history of mental and physical illnesses that ran in the family. Along with a history of psychological problems, Henry Senior lived for nearly three decades as an alcoholic, a factor in his and his children’s lives that has largely gone unmentioned in the James biographies. Henry Senior’s desperation to avoid the depression of everyday life made him imagine better places on far horizons. At least one of his sons had a severe drinking problem, and all of his offspring developed coping mechanisms and character traits common to children of alcoholics. For all of the Jameses, dysfunction and illness operated as a safety valve: breakdowns gave the unknown Alice a mode of self-assertion, and deep depressions dogged William and Henry, the most conspicuously “gifted” of the children.

Sex counted as a prime James family secret, one that stirred and stimulated them behind the moral propriety they had inherited from both of their parents. In fact, the common Victorian conflation of romance and family love caused a special confusion in a family whose closeness bordered, psychologically at least, on the incestuous. Until recently, there has been little frank discussion about the Jameses in love, about the affairs and half affairs and private obsessions that they carried on, in private and in public, throughout most of their adult lives, and the instability of the younger generation’s relationships in comparison to their parents’. These rich stories are not a matter of labels; to more deeply understand Alice James’s ambiguous “Boston marriage” with Katharine Peabody Loring, for example, it helps to adopt a contemporary understanding of the complexities of women’s sexual desires. Henry James Jr.’s London bachelorhood provides a similar puzzle, one whose implications were largely taken at face value until recent studies called his motivations into question and started a lively debate about the novelist’s sexuality.

Henry, the great letter burner of the family, imposed his own uneasiness about eroticism (and especially homoeroticism) during a time when middle-class Victorian silence was yielding to greater sexual openness—his own father’s agitations on behalf of “free love” in the early 1850s, for example, or William’s musings on his own sexual fitness for marriage in the 1870s. Henry’s genteel obfuscations about sex create a frustrating though not an impenetrable smoke screen. But even William James’s apparently more conventional marriage turns out not to look so simple and in fact helps to build a rich picture of love and its complications for the James family and their era.

The role of women in the James household is essential to their story. The rediscovery and republication of Alice James’s diary in 1964, Jean Strouse’s brilliant Alice James: A Biography (1980), and Alfred Habegger’s Henry James and the “Woman Business” (1989) have admirably redressed this imbalance. Even so, the James women have been methodically sidelined. At the center of the family drama, I have tried to place Mary Walsh James, the only member of the immediate family about whom a biography has not been written but whose shrewd maneuvers kept her family together and halfway functional. I would also like to shed light on Kate Walsh, the travel-hungry maiden aunt, who often lived with the family and chaperoned Alice without much understanding her; Alice Gibbens James, William’s wife, who objected to Alice James’s intense friendship with the Bostonian feminist Katharine Loring but otherwise coped with her husband’s contradictions; and the Jameses’ first cousins, Kitty and Minny Temple, headstrong and wayward orphans whom the Jameses adored and idolized and who prefigured the greater liberties of the twentieth century.

Just as important, confusions and conflicts over the roles of women and men played a huge part in the Jameses’ lives, especially as nineteenthcentury feminism challenged traditional understandings. The elder Jameses counted as a somewhat unconventional couple—Mary James the more forceful and practical character, Henry Senior more emotive and sensitive—who still embodied quite a bit of Victorian propriety. To their children, they offered both rigidity and veiled permission to be different. Raised with their father’s obsession with “manliness” and his disdain for women as anything but homemakers, the young Jameses had to work hard to carve out identities for themselves, and their rich solutions to these questions reflect many of our contemporary concerns.

Finally, it is revelatory to look at the Jameses as a Victorian (and not-so-Victorian) household—the family’s fascinating interrelations with their era and its emerging middle-class culture. As well-to-do middle-class forerunners, the Jameses belonged to a group trapped in between worlds. Like Isabel Archer in Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, they inherited enough money to pursue the personal and professional lives they wanted, though not really enough to qualify them for the mansions, cotillions, and commercial empires of the Gilded Age. Yet, more than such luxuries, the Jameses craved intellectual independence, and with that freedom came many difficulties: they were all too free to consider their own happiness and satisfaction. (At least some of them were; the parents largely indulged their two oldest sons while putting the younger two out to earn their livings, effectively creating two classes of Jameses, the “successes” and “the failures.”) Just rich enough to worry about whether or not they were fulfilled, all the Jameses tended to fall victim to introspection and self-scrutiny. Their richly textured private lives forecast the increasing leisure and prosperity (but also the competition and dysfunction) of coming generations. The Jameses were crucial pioneers of middle-class aspiration, anxiety, and self-realization.

For this reason, in hunting for a more compelling image of the Jameses, it is essential to look at their houses, their servants, their luggage, their ships, their friends, their connections to the institutions and manias of their day—and to consider these contexts as mysterious and complicated, not as given facts of life. Seeing more of the Jameses’ historical world can give us more access to their inner lives. Such a thickly populated Victorian topography of temperance meetings, department stores, financial panics, and nerve asylums helps take the Jameses out of the elite shell in which they have often been trapped. Far from being a mythical or exalted dynasty, living in artistic isolation, the Jameses interacted with a burgeoning America and its developing institutions: they witnessed the creation of the Erie Canal, the transcontinental railroad, the New York Public Library, the modern form of Harvard University, and the Brooklyn Bridge.

To be sure, the iconoclastic and misfit Jameses didn’t epitomize their era in an obvious way. They lived to trounce customs and violate norms, beginning with Henry Senior and Mary’s unconventional civil marriage in 1840. But the Jameses stood at a remarkable intersection of worlds. In their long collective lifetimes, they penetrated some of the most glittering intellectual, literary, artistic, financial, and even political enclaves of their times. They met everybody. They knew everybody. And any understanding of the Jameses remains incomplete without a portrait of the ever-changing nineteenth- and twentieth-century Atlantic world—its terrain of attic nurseries, drawing-room séances, thronged lecture halls, and blood-spattered Civil War field hospitals—through which the Jameses adventurously roved.

In Washington Square more than twenty years ago, I looked for a vanished mansion. But what I’ve discovered since, and especially in the many years of writing this book, is something almost as ghostly but much more personal: the moving, hidden story of this family whose vulnerabilities tell us something crucial about their remarkable works. Ultimately, I think, the Jameses reveal something profound not only about “genius” but also about the misfortunes and triumphs of ordinary families. And even more surprisingly, they tell us something striking and unexpected about how a modern family can survive and thrive in love and in trouble, despite the tangles of the past.

Copyright © 2008 by Paul Fisher
Published in 2009 by Henry Holt and Companty, LLC

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

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