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House of Wits: An Intimate Portrait of the James Family
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House of Wits: An Intimate Portrait of the James Family

3.89  ·  Rating details ·  90 Ratings  ·  25 Reviews
An American odyssey that reveals the fascinating complexities of one of history's most brilliant, eccentric, and daring families
The James family, one of America's most memorable dynasties, gave the world three famous children: a novelist of genius (Henry), an influential philosopher (William), and an invalid (Alice) who became a feminist icon, despite her sheltered life a
Hardcover, 704 pages
Published June 10th 2008 by Henry Holt and Co.
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Nov 02, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: james-family
I am enjoying Fisher's presentation of family life among the Jameses, much more engaging for me than Matheissen or Lewis.
What I find a bit jarring, however, is his interpretive framework, which is a mish-mash of Alice Miller on the dysfunctional family, the doctrine of various 12-step groups it seems, including AA, Children of Alcoholics, Co-dependents Anoymous, and several others. Fisher should have offered at least a page or two in an appendix to justify his application of family theory, addi
Jan 30, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Each night I have been curling up in my bed with Paul Fisher's House of Wits: An Intimate Portrait of the James Family (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2008). It has been a pleasure to slip into their cosmopolitan gilded-age world and to travel back and forth between Europe and the United States with Henry James, Alice James and William James. Although Fisher's writing is often trite (he uses similes and metaphors used by the James children in their letters in his ensuing descriptions) and sli ...more
Apr 18, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: biography, writers
This biography is an ambitious undertaking. First, a biography of one person is project enough, and Paul Fisher is taking on a nuclear family of seven plus Aunt Kate. Second, Fisher is also promising a fresh look at the James family incorporating modern views of psychology, addiction and the role of women.

Fisher succeeds as much as can be expected given the large volume of material to wade through and analyze. Given limitation on the author's time and a feasible size for a book, something had to
Amy Jenkins
I was hoping that the book would have more of a literary bent in terms of helping the reader to understand the works of Henry James. But I worked my way through this doorstop and learned about social history of this middle class family. It did help me to understand the East Coast social scene. I also thought it strange how often Fisher (and apparently the James family) wrote about the misery of the Wisconsin climate- although two of James children settled there. It's really not so different fro ...more
Gayla Bassham
Completely engrossing, even if you don't know much about the James family. Henry and William are, of course the most famous; but in many ways I found their lives less interesting than those of Alice and Aunt Kate--two bright, frustrated women--or Bob and Wilkie, the boys whom the parents wrote off as untalented early in their lives. (I started reading the book because of Henry, but he mostly seems to flit from dinner party to dinner party.)

The prose is only serviceable. Fisher overinterprets at
May 12, 2017 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Sull by: library find
Not enough about Henry, but then perhaps he was the least interesting to this biographer out of that famous trinity of children in this ferociously intellectual family--William, Henry and Alice James. However, I do find Henry extremely interesting so I could have done with less of Alice and William, and I found myself becoming curious about the younger two boys, Wilkinson and Robertson, who get very short shrift in this biography. So the book felt unbalanced from the beginning, tempting me to sk ...more
Jul 13, 2012 rated it really liked it
I was happy to finally check this book off of my "to read" list. I have been a huge fan of 19th-century history, the Jameses (especially Alice), and the social history of the late nineteenth century in general, for many years. I appreciate that Fisher's biography questions and challenges some of the more traditional and "given" readings of the James family (including, especially, Leon Edel), and recovering some of the overlooked narratives in their lives. Some ways he achieved this was by provid ...more
Oct 02, 2016 rated it really liked it
I came to this as a general reader with no great knowledge of the James Family. What I had read of Henry James I didn't enjoy and I knew of William and that was about it. My knowledge of America in the second half of the 19thC was scrappy.

I found the book fascinating. It is a portrait of the whole family and of the age. There is more known about William and Henry and Alice and of their parents. Wilkie and Bob the younger brothers were seen as failures and they left no written trails of their li
Oswego Public Library District
Here is a fascinating and detailed examination of the lives of Henry James, Williams James, and Alice James. These siblings are part of a much larger family, but these three are the ones who have left a lasting impact on society.

Henry James is one of the major figures of trans-Atlantic literature. His works explore the clash of personalities and cultures between Europeans and the New Americans. William James was an important philosopher and psychologist. Alice James was a diarist who wrote about
Oct 09, 2011 rated it liked it
At 200+ pages into this 600-page volume, I found the author's description and commentary about the historical setting surrounding the James family to be quite interesting and enlightening. At the same time, he tediously rehashes (and manufactures?) his opinions of the mental processes and conditions of the characters way too often and too much, especially so since those opinions seem to be based largely in speculation. But at this point I gave him the benefit of the doubt and read on.

Midway, I f
Maryann Jorissen
Sep 08, 2013 rated it liked it
The subtitle of the book,"An Intimate Portrait of the James Family", provides an apt brief summary. This large family is comprised of complex eccentric personalities. The book seeks to describe each personality in intricate detail. Then, it describes the convoluted relationships formed within the family among the personalities. The is the framework that is used as the story spans the lifetime of the James' family. Not surprising, it starts out being difficult to follow because it takes time to u ...more
Aug 04, 2015 rated it liked it
In the end, though well written, I didn’t feel this book was a huge addition to the cannon of biographies already devoted to various James’ family members. Most other biographies spend time on the familial relations and in the end it was another focus on William and Henry. Fisher also spends much of his time obsessed with Henry James’ sexuality. By applying modern attitudes and innuendo he comes to his own conclusions that don’t add to the discussion. Alice gets the same treatment. In the end th ...more
Jan 18, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: biography-memoir
Fascinating and detailed examination of the lives of Henry James, Williams James, and Alice James. These siblings are part of a much larger family, but these three are the ones who have left a lasting impact on society.

Henry James is one of the major figures of trans-Atlantic literature. His works explore the clash of personalities and cultures between Europeans and the New Americans. William James was an important philosopher and psychologist. Alice James was a diarist who wrote about psychosom
Aug 27, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: biography
Excellent well written, detailed, biography of the James family, including patriarch and philosopher wanna-be Henry Senior, stolid long-suffering mother, Mary (and her live in sister, Ruth), as well as the five children: the proto-psychologist, William, the world famous novelist, Henry Junior, the relatively ne’er-do-well sons, Wilkie and Bob, and finally poor, brilliant, unappreciated Alice. It inspired me to think about my own family and how parents differentially treat and favor their childre ...more
Aug 07, 2008 rated it liked it
I am a huge Henry James fans and I am interested in Alice James as well. I feel lukewarm about the book. It's heavily focused on the father, Henry James Sr., who I felt is the least interesting of the two. Also, it's one of those history books that starts at the very very beginning, which I don't find too interesting. It's very fact based and straight forward. I was expecting more of a Henry James novel, quite honestly. Alice is also a very minor character in the book and I wish there would have ...more
Apr 29, 2010 rated it it was amazing
I read this after reading The Master by Colm Toibin which I loved. This book is amazing - tying together the threads of the James' family's life and lives. Very compelling reading, interesting and well-written. One of those books that's hard to put down. Next step is to read a bit of Henry James. Guess I'm on a James run....
Oct 21, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: biograhpy
This was a very difficult book to get through. Full of useless info, for the most part, and repeated prose it ran on like Charlie Brown's school teacher. The references clearly show a great deal of reaseach on the subjects but I think it could have been presented in a lighter format. Heavy reading......not recommended for the beach.
Michael Davis
Oct 15, 2009 rated it it was ok
Very scholarly but interesting work on how one family, one household, could produce both Henry James, novelist, and William James, father of American psychology. A bit dry, which is why it's taking me so long to finish it. Like the laudanum of the times, best imbibed in small doses. Fascinating study, though, on how the borderline well-to-do managed in 1800's New York and abroad.
Dec 02, 2008 rated it liked it
Not knowing crap about the James family, except Henry James wrote heavy novels, the book was very detail and at sometimes a bit of a read. Hey, I need a little disciplined reading every now and then.
Christi Warner
Excellent easy read about one of the famous families across the pond who managed to survive eccentricities that would have driven many individuals mad. The genius of this family became the cornerstone of American Literature and Psychology.
Aug 31, 2010 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
interesting, but a little dry. took a while to get through
Laura Lee
May 20, 2012 rated it really liked it
Monster of a book. Liked very much.
Nov 06, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Scott Sheaffer
For anyone who likes Henry James, this is a terrific biography. Loved every minute of it. While it is a large book, it read really fast. Fascinating.
Feb 01, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: book-challenge
Very interesting book. The James was connected by friendship and social networking to an astounding array of literary and historical figures from the 1840's to the early 1900's.
rated it it was ok
Dec 15, 2008
rated it really liked it
Sep 14, 2013
John Strickland
rated it it was amazing
Nov 17, 2012
rated it did not like it
Nov 19, 2014
Darla Ebert
rated it it was amazing
Dec 04, 2012
rated it it was amazing
Aug 02, 2014
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