Occasionally, I like to imagine my ideal dinner party. The guest list changes frequently, but George Eliot, Edith Wharton, and Jane Austen are always welcome at my table. Not the Jameses, however—at least not given Paul Fisher's wearying account of them in House of Wits: An Intimate Portrait of the James Family. By turns self-pitying, hypochondriacal, and—it cannot go unmentioned—sexually repressed, a more frustrated (and frustrating) clan of eminent Victorians one could scarcely imagine. In any event, the scheduling would be a nightmare, what with their many engagements and even more numerous nervous breakdowns. House of Wits might have been much more aptly titled "House of Fits."
The trouble begins on the very first page, where Fisher, currently a professor of American literature at Wellesley, arranges epigraphs from Nietzsche and psychologist Alice Miller's The Drama of the Gifted Child (1983). Yes, it's that kind of book. Success, the Nietzsche selection declares, is the "biggest liar," and "great men" are "bad little fictions invented afterwards." The Miller quotation is all sympathetic psychobabble, with the poor "gifted child" suffering the agonies of "depression," "emptiness," and "self-alienation." There is no better summary of House of Wits: Fisher takes his "great men" and lays them out on the psychiatrist's couch, where he exposes the "gifted children" within, their fragile psyches still bruised from childhood traumas.
Alice James characterized her silly, egoistic father, Henry Sr., as a "delicious infant," and this is how Fisher seems to regard the rest of Henry's remarkable brood: psychologist and philosopher William, novelist Henry Jr., diarist Alice, and their two lesser-known siblings, Wilkie and Bob. There have been many individual biographies of the various Jameses, and even two ensemble portraits like Fisher's (F.O. Matthiessen's The James Family, 1947, and R.W.B. Lewis's The Jameses, 1991), but Fisher argues his book offers an "up-to-date critical perspective."
In their ambitions, ambiguities, and affectations, the Jameses can strike us as curiously contemporary—the forerunners of today's Prozac-loving, depressed or bipolar, self-conscious, narcissistic, fame-seeking, self-dramatized, hard-to-mate-or-to-marry Americans. This side of the Jameses has often been downplayed, and much of the story has remained untold, buried under generations of propriety, convention, and veneration. But the Jameses' dysfunction sheds crucial light on the origins and full range of their influential achievements.
To Fisher, the Jameses are primarily a bundle of ailments. Henry Sr. is alcoholic and slightly lunatic; William has a bad back and is suicidal; Henry Jr. (Harry) is constipated and sexually repressed; Wilkie, rheumatic; Bob, alcoholic and sexually diseased; and Alice, neurasthenic and invalid. Their mother Mary alone escapes diagnosis, but only, it seems, so her patient "cheerfulness" can be ground down by a selfish husband and ungrateful children. The price of good health in the James family is eternal martyrdom.
Sexual dysfunction fascinates Fisher, though anything that hints at the scatological will do. For he holds, along with the most unsophisticated students of history, that the secret foundation of the Victorian period was sex. Every relation is scrutinized for sexual valence. What was the exact nature of Alice and Katherine Loring's "Boston Marriage"? Was Henry Jr. gay? How far did William's flirtations with his pretty young students go? Did Henry Sr. ever cast a furtive eye on his spinster sister-in-law, Kate Walsh?
Fisher loves to hint that the Jameses' relations were somehow incestuous, but the scholar in him won't let him claim it outright. Thus we get teasing insinuations—full of qualifiers—that permit him to disavow a claim even as he makes it. The James family, he tells us, "tended toward incest," "figurative and psychological incest, at least." He hems and haws about the sexual orientation of the various family members, finally rejecting labels like heterosexual and homosexual as too "crude," instead pronouncing the entire James family queer, which he defines rather broadly as "anyone whose sexuality doesn't conform to the social norms of his or her time."
Fisher is convinced that he is on the cutting-edge of literary interpretation, that his "intimate portrait" of the Jameses is new. The introduction is full of such self-congratulation. "Few people talked or wrote about the most intimate issues in the Jameses' lives: mental illness, alcoholism, love, sex, homosexuality, money"; "there has been little frank discussion about the Jameses in love," etc., etc. Previous biographers might have done "superlative," even "meticulous, monumental" work, but none of them is the bold slayer of myths our author claims to be.
How to take this sincere, but frankly bizarre, self-conception? The style of biography Fisher employs has been the dominant mode since at least the 1980s when Joyce Carol Oates gave the genre a name: "pathography." (Arguably, the trend started much earlier, though it was not so entrenched as it is today. Freud—who else?—pioneered the form with his self-professed "pathological review" of Leonardo da Vinci in 1910.) Oates defines pathography thus: "Its motifs are dysfunction and disaster, illnesses and pratfalls, failed marriages and failed careers, alcoholism and breakdowns and outrageous conduct"—a thorough description of the House of Wits.
Far from being an innovator, Fisher is on well-trod ground, and his book is hardly exceptional among Jamesiana in its fascination with the tawdry. Scholars and critics have been only too eager to pick apart the Jameses' dysfunctions, almost to the exclusion of their achievements. Never mind, too, that most of this amateur psychologizing is blatant speculation, which more often attests to the writer's own obsessions than to those of its supposed subjects. Just four years ago—when so many books about Henry Jr. abounded that 2004 was declared "The Year of Henry James"—the fiercest debate was not over, say, the famously ambiguous ending of The Ambassadors, but over biographer Sheldon M. Novick's assertion that "one evening in the spring of 1865" James masturbated "his young friend Oliver Wendell Holmes." Even a dinosaur like Leon Edel in his five-volume biography of Henry posited a homoerotic relationship between Henry and his brother William. Far from being "buried under generations of propriety, convention, and veneration," the Jameses' intimate lives have been all too thoroughly excavated.
Even Fisher's insistence that the Jameses are "curiously contemporary" plays into current biography's demand for relevance, which always takes the form of telling a mass audience of readers that the great men in question are just like us, replete with our foibles and insecurities. Why, Henry James would have loved Prozac, too! Such a perspective certainly makes him seem less remote, but it also downplays the real differences between his world and our own. More insidiously, it encourages us to pity him and his family for the misfortune of having been born in (as Fisher calls it) "the monumentally repressed nineteenth century." After all, if they're just like us, "their hidden passions and vulnerabilities" should be completely explicable to us. Indeed, given our superior vantage point in history, we can understand them even better than they understood themselves. Yearnings unnamable to them are classifiable by us. Given our "new theoretical structures," Fisher tells us, "we are significantly more able to interpret what lies behind [the Jameses'] hard-to-read expressions."
What these "new theoretical structures" are capable of is nothing short of amazing. To judge from House of Wits, they confer the power to read minds. Take, for example, Fisher's account of the "rather repressed" William's trip to Brazil, during which he supposedly experienced a "sexual awakening." That there's no indication of this in his letters home or other papers is of no importance. Perhaps the letters were edited, Fisher suggests, "comically doctored for consumption by his little sister." (This is one of Fisher's favorite tricks, in which the very absence of evidence is made out as proof.) Anyway, he continues, poor William, coming from "buttoned-up Massachusetts," probably didn't understand the full import of this life-changing event. "During an era in America when sex was rarely mentioned, William hardly knew what desires had broken loose inside him." But you can bet Fisher does.
It's hard to say to whom this biographical approach is more condescending: its readers or its subjects. On the one hand, it assumes that today's readers are so narcissistic they're only interested in a book that holds up a mirror to their own lives, or perhaps what their lives lack; hence the curious tabloid-style packaging as if these Victorians were modern-day celebrities. On the other hand, note the pity redolent in "rather repressed William," who could hardly understand what "desires had broken loose inside him." And what of "the vulnerable, struggling Harry James," who is so squeamish he can't even use the word buttocks in his letters, but has to resort to the "jarringly nursery-ish or auntish" bottom, "visibly struggl[ing] with the issue of graphic nakedness"? But what else can be expected from those poor, benighted Victorians, always covering statues with fig leaves and draping furniture legs?
Victims and victimizers: these are the roles available in contemporary biography. For the most part, the young Jameses are cast as victims, though occasionally Fisher slips in a mention about all those poor souls in steerage while the Jameses luxuriate in first-class cabins. But class war is not terribly interesting to Fisher, so the Jameses get a free pass on that one. Still, there must be a villain, and unlucky Henry Sr. gets the part. Whenever Fisher needs a stand-in for the evils of patriarchy, Henry Sr. is called in, always ready to tyrannize over his wretched female relations.
But if pathography is tired, conventional, and stale, why do these biographies continue to crowd the shelves? Won't we ever tire of learning that all our golden idols have feet of clay? Or is there something more at work here than mere muckraking or pandering to our prurient impulses?
The pathographer sees himself as deconstructing myths, refusing, as Fisher puts it, to let the success of great men "obscur[e] the real complexity of famous lives." Instead, the pathographer promises to expose great men for the "bad little fictions" they really are. Yet, as bold and iconoclastic as the pathographer thinks he is, he is actually in thrall to a much more powerful, enduring mythology: the myth of the tortured artist or the dysfunctional genius.
Great men are expected to suffer for their talents, and Fisher's Jameses do so exquisitely. Indeed, he seems to think he must heighten their trials and tribulations lest we suspect their credibility. The "influential achievements"—which all this dysfunction supposedly sheds "crucial light" on—are largely ignored. Fisher says almost nothing about William's work and neglects Henry's career as a novelist in favor of his disastrous foray into playwriting. Never mind that after this failure, he would go on to write three of his most important novels—The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl. Of this amazing period of productivity, Fisher can only mutter, "Harry's involuted style would eventually thwart his hopes for large book or ticket sales."
To be sure, Fisher's apparent lack of interest in the novels is also a kind of blessing. He seems to regard Henry's work as veiled autobiography, the outpourings of a tortured soul. The resulting interpretations are wholly personal and strikingly reductive. Fisher treats the early novella Roderick Hudson as a meditation on Henry's possible sexual relationship with a handsome Russian aristocrat; The Bostonians, as a testimony of Henry's troubled feelings about Alice's "Boston Marriage" and his own anomalous sexuality; The Americans, as a sublimation of the "psychosexual" relationship between William and Henry. Thus some of the greatest novels in American literature are treated as little more than the confessions of a priggish, sexually frustrated pedant.
Dysfunction might sometimes be linked to genius, but it cannot be the whole of it, unless we are to believe, as the current trend of "misery-lit" (harrowing memoirs of personal trauma) would have it, that to suffer is, in and of itself, art. Dysfunction certainly did not make geniuses of the younger brothers, Bob and Wilkie, who both wound up failures—bankrupt, miserable, and exiled to an inhospitable Midwest. Nor did it make one of Henry Sr., for all his ambitions to become a great philosopher.
The missing ingredient might be "wit"—to return to Fisher's promising title. There are precious few examples of the Jameses' wit in the book, but these few are enough to make one wish to have known them. "There could not be a more entertaining treat," wrote E.L. Godkin, the founder of The Nation, "than a dinner at the James house." Visitors spoke of leaving in "convulsions," delighted by the young Jameses' antics and badinage. So excitable were they that Mary often sat all the children on one side of the table, lest a guest be accidentally stabbed in the course of their gesticulations. To amuse their guests, they competed in concocting silly curses to heap upon Henry Sr.; that "his mashed potatoes might always have lumps in them!" Comical, irreverent, and ebullient, these Jameses—and not the dreary, frustrated bores of Fisher's imagining—would be welcome at my table anytime.