House of Wits

An Intimate Portrait of the James Family

Paul Fisher

Henry Holt and Co.

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An American odyssey that reveals the fascinating complexities of one of history’s most brilliant, eccentric, and daring families
 
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 American’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.

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Book Excerpts

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Chapter One

THE VOYAGE OF THE ATLANTIC

Though small, spare, and unbalanced in his gait, Henry James Sr. loved to pit himself against the uncomprehending world. Sometimes he walked with canes, to cope with a childhood injury, but more often this self-appointed prophet of social reform cast away all artificial forms of support and navigated on his own. Such was the case on this steamy and momentous June dayin 1855, when the forty-four-year-old patriarch lowered himself down the steps of his Fourteenth Street brownstone, ready to take on just about everyone.

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Reviews

Praise for House of Wits

“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

“A solid and crisp narrative of this fascinating American clan . . . 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

“[A] stunning multigenerational portrait of one of the most complex families in American intellectual history . . . A golden bowl, brimming full.”—Kirkus, starred review


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About the Author

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
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Available Formats and Book Details

House of Wits
An Intimate Portrait of the James Family
Paul Fisher

e-Book Agency

e-Book Agency
Henry Holt and Co.
October 2013
e-Book Agency
ISBN: 9781466855076
ISBN10: 146685507X
704 pages, Includes eight pages of black-and-white photographs
$7.99

Trade Paperback

Trade Paperback
Henry Holt and Co.
Holt Paperbacks
May 2009
Trade Paperback
ISBN: 9780805090208
ISBN10: 0805090207
5 11/16 x 8 7/8 inches, 704 pages, Includes eight pages of black-and-white photographs
$28.99
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Henry Holt and Co.

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