“The Dysfunctional Jameses” (review)

House of WitsA new biography of the James family — House of Wits (2008) — paints an intimate portrait of (the other) William and Harry, along with their brothers and sister (and father and grandfather). Hermione Lee, Goldsmiths’ Professor of English Literature at Oxford, recently reviewed it for the New York Times:

The story has often been told, either as a family narrative or in individual biographies. What does Paul Fisher, a professor of English at Wellesley, bring to this crowded territory? His argument is that no single member of the family, however remarkable his or her achievement, can be understood separately from the others, and that there has as yet been no view of the family that takes into account late-20th-century work on same-sex love, gender, repression, illness, depression and alcoholism.

The treatment is not without its problems, though.

The book’s historical aim — a confused one — is to persuade us that the Jameses were typical Victorians yet also exceptions to every Victorian rule: “strange and florid paradoxes of passionate unconventionality and Victorian restraint.” Every condescending historical cliché about Victorianism is duly trotted out. We hear repeatedly of “the monumentally repressed 19th century,” the treatment by Victorian men of women as “second-class citizens,” the eroticism of Victorian sickbeds, Victorian starchiness, double standards, conventions, self-hatred and “ingrown … convolutions.” These stereotypes rush past entirely unexamined.

But, in many respects, Lee thinks it succeeds where others have failed.

Fisher’s promise to put the Jameses more in their social context is energetically fulfilled. He has lots of information about Atlantic crossings, American houses and cities, shops, public lectures in Boston, mediums, jungle explorations with the naturalist Louis Agassiz, Saratoga Springs and “wilderness tourism” in the Adirondacks. He manages the organization of his big complicated project efficiently, driving us along without too much “meanwhile, back in Cambridge. …”

Chapter 1 is available free online, here.

About Jeremy Burman

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman is a senior doctoral student in York University’s Department of Psychology, specializing in the history of developmental psychology and its theory (especially that pertaining to Jean Piaget). Prior to returning to academia, he was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.