House of Wits An Intimate Portrait of the James Family

Paul Fisher

Holt Paperbacks



Trade Paperback

704 Pages



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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 America’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.


Praise for House of Wits

"House of Wits: An Intimate Portrait of the James Family adds to and enriches what we already know from R. W. B. Lewis's history of the family."—Colm Tóibín, The New York Review of Books

“A sweeping biography . . . [Fisher] gives fair and sympathetic time to everyone, and provides a lively and detailed social history of the period and its houses, museums, steamships, restaurants, department stores and hotels. Even the invention of the Hershey’s Kiss gets a mention. And in evoking this rich context Mr. Fisher drops a clue that helps explain the Jameses as well as any other.”—Charles McGrath, The New York Times 

“Fisher, who teaches American literature at Wellesley College, has captured in vibrant, but careful and highly readable prose, the turbulence and vital history of both the James family and the era in which they lived.”—Rosemary Michaud, The Post and Courier (Charleston) 

“Graceful, thoroughly researched . . . Fisher illuminates the centrality of family to the James clan . . . Comprehensive and compelling.”—The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

“Paul Fisher’s portraits of the famous members of the James household are brilliant; our fascination grows exponentially as he enlarges the frame to include the others. He appreciates the web of characters, the dynamics of influence. Dramatic, richly detailed, House of Wits is a prime contribution to our understanding of this prodigious family.”—Daniel Mark Epstein, author of The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage

“In House of Wits, an account of one of America’s most interesting and influential families—the Jameses—Paul Fisher has managed to turn a remarkable feat of scholarship into a story more engaging, and far more rewarding, than any fictional saga.  He breathes life into every individual in several generations of the dysfunctional family that produced novelist Henry and psychologist William, and he recreates with telling detail the times of nineteenth century American and Europe through which they moved.”—Samuel A. Schreiner Jr., author of The Concord Quartet:  Alcott, Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau and the Friendship that Freed the American Mind

House of Wits is a rich and engaging contribution to James biography, weaving together the developing lives of each member of the family in a way that shows how enabling and disabling their collective entanglement could be. The treatment of the father's alcoholism, Henry's sexuality, and Alice's social agonies strikes me as sound and acute. But there is more than psychic tension here. We are also given the public spaces and social geographies and institutional drift that shaped the Jameses' lives. Fisher has done as much as anyone to get this expansive and unruly family between the covers of a book.”—Alfred Habegger, author of My Wars are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson and The Father:  A Life of Henry James, Sr.

“In this amazing portrait of a family that may have been the Royal Tenenbaums of the 19th century, Paul Fisher has written a biography which brings the Jameses to life on the page as if they were our own fascinating, brilliant friends and neighbors.”—Susan Cheever, author of American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work

“Stunning multigenerational portrait of one of the most complex families in American intellectual history. It's difficult to nudge aside brothers Henry (the novelist) and William (psychologist, philosopher, spiritual seeker) to accommodate lesser-known sister Alice and ne'er-do-well younger brothers Bob and Wilkie—not to mention parents Henry and Mary, Aunt Kate and such notable friends and acquaintances as Emerson, Thackeray, Wharton et al. But first-time author Fisher accomplishes the task with aplomb and panache. The book begins in 1855, as the peripatetic paterfamilias prepared to haul the entire entourage off to Europe. (Henry Sr. wanted his boys in Swiss schools, a hot desire that quickly cooled in the alpine air.) The author then retreats for 100 pages or so to sketch the family background before returning to the 1855 European sojourn. The complex demands of a multiple biography buttressed by the requisite social, cultural and literary history sometimes lead Fisher, as he shifts focus from one James to another, to rewind his tape to catch up on the doings of a James he's neglected for a while. But he is careful with dates and places, so the potential for confusion is unrealized. Back and forth across the Atlantic we go, with Henry fils spending most of his career abroad, Alice settling in England eight years before her death and the rest of the clan making frequent visits. Henry Sr. is portrayed as a dominant, fiery intellectual presence, and the author properly accentuates Mary's quiet strength. Alice, sickly and often depressed, struggled to establish her identity amid dominant men. Civil War veterans Bob and Wilkie moved West but failed to find either fame or fortune. William and Henry became cultural icons. Although Fisher discusses the Jameses' publications and other enterprises, his focus is on them as a family, a collection of unique individuals who remained affectionate while envious, loyal and supportive even when continents and oceans separated them.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Fisher, who has taught American literature at various universities, presents an exhaustive group biography of one of America's most famous literary families. His cast of characters includes Henry James Sr.; Henry's wife, Mary; their five children; Henry James Jr. (called Harry); William James; Alice James; and the two younger (and most obscure) brothers, Wilkie and Bob. Fisher examines his subjects' lives by showing their relationship to the family as a whole as well as their efforts to individualize themselves. He also focuses on their identities as representative of the Victorian period that shaped them. Some themes he examines in detail are mental illness, alcoholism, sexual predilection, and the roles of men and women of the time. While the book is very long, the events depicted and the portrayals of the Jameses and those they knew are fascinating and colorful. One misses, however, photographs, especially since Fisher often describes pictures of the James family and their acquaintances.”—Morris Hounion, Library Journal

“Biographers return again and again to the Jameses—the great novelist Henry, groundbreaking psychologist and philosopher William, diarist Alice (who became a feminist icon) and their parents and other siblings. Now Fisher, who has taught American literature at Harvard, Yale and other institutions, delivers a solid and crisp narrative of this fascinating American clan. In addition to the three prominent siblings, two other brothers labored to shine from behind the shadows they cast. But as Fisher reveals, much darkness and bitterness—along with a brilliant father who was both a Christian socialist and heir to a fortune—shaped these remarkable people. For all of its successes, the James family harbored its share of trouble: alcoholism, repressed sexuality, heartbreak, jealousy and adultery. Most importantly, in a rigidly prim Victorian world, the expatriate Henry, a resident of London, wrestled with homosexuality. He lived a closeted life of clandestine affairs with younger men—always wary of the dark fate that had befallen Oscar Wilde. Fisher narrates all of this, and more, vividly, cleanly and engagingly.”—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

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
Read the full excerpt


  • Paul Fisher

  • Paul Fisher comes from a family of writers and has taught American literature at Harvard, Yale, Wesleyan, Boston University, and Wellesley. He lives in Boston.
  • Paul Fisher Todd Wemmer