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Keeping up with the Jameses

A 'House of Wits' that dazzled even as it disappointed.

By / July 9, 2008



“We were, to my sense, the blest group of us, such a company of characters and such a picture of differences ... so fused and interlocked, that each of us ... pleads for preservation.” So wrote novelist Henry James of the intense family unit into which he was born. There were four boys, a girl, and a pair of well-meaning, well-educated parents. There was money enough – and good intentions aplenty – for the children to be showered with all the best that 19th-century culture had to offer.

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Yet the results were decidedly mixed. Genius did flower – at least in the case of Henry; his brother William, the pioneering psychologist and philosopher; their father, Henry Sr., an eccentric but noted theologian-philosopher; and sister Alice whose intellect shone within the family circle on a par with her famed brothers.
But all of the Jameses struggled in life with significant obstacles to personal happiness, at least some of which seemed to stem from their privileged yet stifling upbringing. Constant traveling abroad plus home schooling turned them inward to one another so intensely that William would later write that the family was the only real “country” to which any of them would ever belong.
In Family of Wits, Paul Fisher takes on not only the better known Jameses, but the family as a whole is this absorbing (albeit dark) examination of the Jameses and their world.

Celebrated cameo appearances abound, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, George Eliot, Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Muir, Brigham Young, John Singer Sargent, Bret Harte, Gustave Flaubert, Ivan Turgenev, Oscar Wilde, General Sherman, Chester A. Arthur, and Edith Wharton. (And that is a very partial list. )

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