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House of Wits: An Intimate Portrait of the James Family Hardcover – June 10, 2008


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 704 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.; 1St Edition edition (June 10, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805074902
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805074901
  • Product Dimensions: 6.8 x 1.7 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,829,769 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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. (June 10)
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Review

“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

Customer Reviews

4.5 out of 5 stars
5 star
67%
4 star
17%
3 star
17%
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See all 12 customer reviews
Fisher weaves incredible details into his narrative.
Charlotte C. Gordon
It is often hard to make the lives of intellectuals interesting but Fisher has succeeded in an outstanding book of biographical inquiry and insight.
C. M Mills
What I loved most about it was the family dysfunction, scandal and complicated relationships.
Susan Lyddon

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

17 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Lev Raphael on August 13, 2008
Format: Hardcover
I've been reading books by and about the various Jameses for years and this is one of the absolute best for its range, wit, compassion, and modernity. The author isn't afraid to look openly at the dark side of this remarkable family, but he also doesn't overdraw conclusions. What I like best is that Fisher gives you a profound sense of the fault lines in the James clan, the allegiances, the jealousies, the ways in which they depended on one another and undermined each other. And the family exists in each historic period it passes through, so that the impact of technological and cultural shifts is always present. His grasp of the material is flawless, his insight sharp, and his writing is so good I read some passages aloud. This book marks a new era in James studies, but you don't have to know anything about the clan to be riveted by this complex story of wealth, ambition, despair, defeat, genius.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By D. Kane on January 31, 2010
Format: Paperback
Mr. (Dr.?) Fisher is obviously well versed in late 19th Century American Literature. He reads like he would be fun to spend an evening with,arguing out some of the issues he raises.

It might be an opportunity to "wring out" the hyperbole from his overwrought
prose.

In the words of Hermine Lee's NYT review of his book ( July 6, 2008):

"My main problem with Fisher's book is its tone of voice. To make the Jameses popular, accessible and relevant, and to keep his narrative surging along, Fisher goes in for a relentlessly sprightly, up-to-the-minute headline style. This does come as a change after R. W. B. Lewis's rather stuffy prose, or Edel's leisurely psychoanalyzing of James's books. But it rapidly becomes wearing. Favorite adjectives are dysfunctional, crucial, insecure, conflicted, fateful, weird, iconic, groundbreaking and signature (as in Henry Sr.'s "signature enthusiasm"). Henry eats bland "comfort food" in Britain and Alice is a "career invalid"; Mrs. James is an "icon of domesticity" and Thomas Carlyle has made a "real estate steal." Everything is made racy, dramatic and vivid, as in: "Grief was evidently far from Harry's mind as he hurled himself into the gaiety of the national capital." Or: "Deadly contagious illnesses roved the Victorian world with impunity." There are lashings of travelogue: "The sunshine was cold but the shadows even chillier, as Harry walked into the deep narrow streets of the old city Rome." "Morning coffee was a glorious business at the famous cafe of Florian's on the Piazza San Marco in Venice." Climaxes are loudly signposted: "Little did he know what kind of heiress was waiting for him!
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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Susan Lyddon on July 11, 2008
Format: Hardcover
This is not the type of book I would normally read but I absolutely loved it! I am not a scholar and I knew nothing about the James family but it was a real page-turner. What I loved most about it was the family dysfunction, scandal and complicated relationships. I thought that people just spent their time painting china and doing needlepoint during this era and I was shocked and delighted to learn that this family struggled with many issues and challenges that we struggle with today! The book was funny, moving, informative and I learned a lot about the period. Looking at this family through a contemporary lens was really fascinating. It is a great book and a lot of fun to read.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Dr. James Fisher is a professor of American Literature at Wellesley College in Boston. He is an expert on the family of Henry James Sr. His new volume of over 600 densely written pages is a detailed exploration into the lives of this important nineteenth century family of authors, oddballs, soldiers and scientists.
Henry James Sr was a Princeton Seminary dropout who was wealthy due to a huge inheritance from his father. The James came from Albany, New York where HJ Sr. was born. He lost a leg during a horrible childhood accident in which he was attempting to assist in the extinguishing of a fire. James was a scholar of Swedenborg and his philosophy. He wed the plain but rich Mary and they embarked on a long marriage filled with traumas enought to keep psychiatrists busy for aeons!
James Sr. was an alcoholic but gave up John Barleycorn in his later years. He was in the transcendentalist circle of Concord intellectuals counting the eminent Ralph Waldo Emerson as among his friends. James traveled widely in Europe where he got to know such luminaries as the crusty Scots philosopher Thomas Carlyle and the novelist William Makepeace Thackery, author of "Vanity Fair." Mary was a longsuffering wife as she put up with his dalliances with other women (none of which was probably consumatted) and his minor fame on the periphery of literary and lecturing fame.
What a house of wits was produced by these two midcentury New Yorkers!
The five children were:
William James-the eminent Harvard doctor who was the leading proponent of the pragmatism philosophy. He was the author of "The Variety of Religious Experiences". James married late and was neurotic always being worried about his health (as were all the James!).
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