OVERRIDE

House of Wits

An Intimate Portrait of the James Family

Paul Fisher

Holt Paperbacks

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.

BOOK EXCERPTS

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
BACK

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

Reviews from Goodreads

BACK

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

  • Paul Fisher

  • 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.

  • Paul Fisher Todd Wemmer
BACK

BUY THE BOOK

Available Formats and Book Details

House of Wits

An Intimate Portrait of the James Family

Paul Fisher

BOOKS FOR COURSES AVAILABLE

BACK

FROM THE PUBLISHER

Holt Paperbacks

BACK