THE FATHER, Henry James Sr., was the fifth of 11 children of one of the richest men in the state of New York. As a teenager, his leg was burned and amputated. Addicted to alcohol, he grew into the black sheep of his family. Although he was born again and studied for the ministry, his father all but cut him out of his will. Henry sued, won and was "leisured for life." Peg-legged, charming, rakish even when delivering theological rants, he enchanted the stolid, spinster sisters of a school chum; he married one, Mary Walsh, and got two; for decades, "Aunt Kate" would serve as second-string mother in the James household.
And what a household, this nursery of William James, the psychologist and philosopher; Henry James, the novelist; Alice James, the diarist; Wilky James, war hero and financial failure; and Bob James, alcoholic.
The first biography to take the whole family as its subject was "The James Family" (1947), an anthology of Jamesian writing with commentary by F.O. Matthiessen. In 1991, R.W.B. Lewis published "The Jameses: A Family Narrative," a readable doorstop of literary scholarship that came out of a collaboration between Lewis and his former student, producer David Milch ("Deadwood"). The two had written a (never produced) 12-episode television serial. Though the book can seem scant on the individual lives -- compared with, say, Leon Edel's five volumes on Henry or Jean Strouse's superb "Alice James" -- Lewis grasped the pathos, humor and dramatic possibilities of the family story and, without losing sight of the great work that made it famous, tried to grasp what it meant to be, as William once termed it, "a native of the James Family."
Now, with "House of Wits: An Intimate Portrait of the James Family," Paul Fisher returns to the well-thumbed family record determined to apply an "up-to-date critical perspective" and "break through the decorum" that previously stifled frank discussions of alcoholism, depression and sexuality. He aims "to truly capture this iconoclastic group, whose oversized collective achievements . . . grew out of a very troubled, impassioned, and often dysfunctional home life."
Fisher finds the family "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." Dysfunction, he promises us, "sheds crucial light on the origins and full range of their influential achievements." As someone who has read widely for pleasure in Jamesiana, I had noticed that Henry Sr.'s alcoholism was mentioned by biographers but never discussed with any contemporary understanding of the disease and its effect on families; I was interested in what Fisher would have to say. He covers the essential territory (no small scholarly feat), beginning his book with the family sailing for Europe in 1855.
Inspired by his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Sr. had sought a career as lecturer and writer, but his impenetrable, inconsistent thinking undermined it. He had a nervous collapse after his first two children, William and Henry, were born and slowly cured himself by reading the Swedish mystic Swedenborg. Unlike his own distant father, he was home a lot and took an interest in his children. Especially in their education.
By the time William, his eldest, was 13, Henry Sr. had enrolled and withdrawn his children from an estimated 10 schools in New York City alone. Then came the trip to Europe. From 1855 to 1860, the young Jameses sampled educational experiments in or near Geneva; Paris; Boulogne, France; Newport, R.I.; Geneva (again); and Bonn, Germany, all in a rapid cycling of Henry Sr.'s high expectations and crashing disillusionment. When William, at 18, decided to be a painter (against his father's wishes), the family returned to Newport.
It was then, at the start of the Civil War, when dinner at the James house became a lively, loud forum, a forensic free-for-all in which knives were brandished to make points, impassioned children leapt from their chairs and comic curses rained on Henry Sr.'s head (that "his mashed potatoes might always have lumps in them!"). In the interest of public safety, Mary sat her brood all on one side of the table.