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HOUSE OF WITS by Paul Fisher Kirkus Star

HOUSE OF WITS

An Intimate Portrait of the James Family

By Paul Fisher

Pub Date: June 10th, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-8050-7490-1
Publisher: Henry Holt

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.

A golden bowl, brimming full.