The James Gang

The James Gang

In Henry James and his family, biographers find a fascinating story of dynastic melodrama.



All things literary lead to Henry James, or so it seems these days, and not just because he’s the consummate chronicler of success and failure and freedom and money, American obsessions, each of them, or because his novels frequently turn up as movies, as if the screen might at last capture the subtle presences he so knowingly conjures up. For surely his commitment to the excellent in art and to living and breathing it, as he once said of Balzac, inspires anyone who has labored over a word, a phrase, a comma. Then, too, there is the enigma of the man despite, or perhaps because of, Leon Edel’s multi-volume biography (1953-1972), which diligently traces the making of “The Master” (the title of Volume Five), while countless letters, speculations and suppositions keep coming to contradictory light and recent writers as varied as Colm Tóibín, Joyce Carol Oates and Richard Howard dazzlingly re-create him.

Nor does Henry stand alone. Flanking him is his restless brother William, the ebullient avatar of American philosophy, psychology, religion and good sense. Himself a lively writer of a different stripe, coining such felicitous terms as “stream of consciousness” and “the bitch-goddess success,” William is the Mark Twain of philosophy, says Stephen Pinker. A pragmatist par excellence in Louis Menand’s fine The Metaphysical Club (2002) and the subject of Robert Richardson’s splendid biography William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism (2006), William bravely stands, open-throated and compassionate, ready to embrace the contemporary world in all its blooming, buzzing confusion: “Life,” says William, “is in the transitions.” No surprise, then, that he is also the eponymous hero of books as different as Deborah Blum’s Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death (2006) and Michelle Huneven’s delightful Jamesland (2003), a novel of breakdown and belief.

And let’s not overlook Alice in Jamesland, the invalid sister with a gimlet eye as keen as those of her brothers. “I’m working away as hard as I can to get dead as soon as possible,” she acerbically quipped in 1890, two years before she succeeded. Henry, who once said he was haunted by her, was astonished by her privately printed diary, which William said produced “a unique and tragic impression of personal power venting itself on no opportunity”: a woman’s dilemma. But since its full publication, that astonishing diary has been admired and then superbly parsed by its author’s biographer, Jean Strouse, and, more recently, by Susan Sontag, whose play Alice in Bed (1993) brought the strength of Alice’s weakness to angry life.

More likely to be forgotten, though not forgiven, is Henry James Sr., the doting, self-centered father of a brood that included two other far more neglected siblings and who, in his own time (1811-82), cut a rather remarkable figure: his leg twice amputated in his youth and replaced with a wooden prosthesis, this Ahab of Swedenborgianism and Fourierism restlessly sought safe harbor in European and American ports, yanking his children here and there to prevent their becoming prigs. Long-winded, polemical, wearying and mercurial–but also brilliant–Henry James Sr. is characterized by Alfred Habegger in his resourceful biography The Father (1994) as part gifted seer and part crazed metaphysician. Son of William James of Albany, New York, an Irish immigrant who by the 1830s was one of the richest men in America, Henry Sr. was the country’s best talker, according to James Russell Lowell, and could well afford to be. But he’s also remembered as the father Alice watched working at his desk, wanting to knock off his head, and who, when she asked permission to kill herself, granted it.

All happy families may be alike, but the families of affluent geniuses pique public interest. And here are the makings of dynastic melodrama worthy of the Roosevelts and the Kennedys: politics, ambition and moral messianism, as well as European travel, New York brownstones and domiciles in Newport and on Beacon Hill; a cameo appearance by Emerson, peering prophetically into William’s cradle; and for tragic relief those two James brothers, Wilkinson Garth (known as Wilkie) and Robertson (Bob), who generally get short shrift even though both of them served heroically during the Civil War, Wilkie in the fabled Massachusetts 54th, a regiment of free blacks. Plus, there is Mary Robertson Walsh James, whom Henry movingly called “our life…the house…the keystone of the arch.”

It should thus come as no great shock that R.W.B. Lewis’s graceful biography The Jameses: A Family Narrative (1991) was first conceived in the 1970s by Lewis and his then-Yale colleague David Milch (most recently the creative producer and head writer of the HBO series Deadwood) as a twelve-part Masterpiece Theatre-like miniseries. When television did not bite, Lewis spent the next decade researching his book, doffing his hat to his teacher, F.O. Matthiessen, whose life-and-letters portrait The James Family (1947) spawned something of a Henry James revival, which, in the next decade, helped ensure that the novelist, with his complex ambiguities and sinuous prose, would become one of New Criticism’s darlings.

Like Edel, but with a touch far less Freudian, Lewis depicted the James story as one of consciousness and competition, particularly in the development of William and Henry, which goaded them into becoming, well, William and Henry. (Wilkie, Bob and Alice were not so fortunate.) Interested primarily in literary and intellectual development, Lewis treaded lightly on the matter of Henry’s sexuality, one of the subjects of Edel’s last two volumes, in which Henry’s erotic feelings for men, and for William in particular, assume center stage. Sex, wealth, art and the self-made or self-willed, with a dash of expatriation, genius and inchoate religious experience: it’s an American story about how, as Americans, we want to see ourselves at our best.

And perhaps never as much as now, which might account for the appearance of Paul Fisher’s House of Wits, yet another book about the Jameses. Largely derived from the biographies preceding it, House of Wits speaks less of matters of writing–what it means, how one does it–than to the academy’s preoccupation with class and gender. Race, usually on the team, is oddly absent despite Wilkie’s and Bob’s involvement in the Civil War and their doomed attempt to reconstruct the Old South. (In 1866 they purchased farmland in Florida with a loan from their father, hoping to provide employment and education to the freedmen and, according to the idealistic Wilkie, “kill this negro prejudice,” which, as it turned out, helped kill the project.) Instead we have alcoholism, dilettantism and, in Henry’s case, eroticism sublimated into aesthetics and grandiosity.

William once characterized his brother Henry as a native of the James family; all the siblings were. House of Wits does not confront the Jameses as themselves–complicated beings of outsized talent–but as symbols “of middle-class aspiration, anxiety, and self-realization,” which in effect designates them the “forerunners of today’s Prozac-loving, depressed or bipolar, self-conscious, narcissistic, fame-seeking, self-dramatized, hard-to-mate-or-marry Americans,” whom Fisher locates “somewhere between the Alcotts and the Royal Tenenbaums.” Yet in cutting them down to therapeutic size, Fisher insulates them from the very America they presumably represent, assuming, for instance, that each of the unusual Jameses was far more influenced by his “dysfunctional home life” than by, say, Hawthorne, Louis Agassiz or Walt Whitman–to say nothing of Flaubert, Tintoretto, Darwin or Bergson.

Consider Fisher on Henry’s admiration of Turgenev, whom he met in 1875 and whose stories he had called, though Fisher does not mention this, the best ever written:

After one rainy winter afternoon of revelatory conversation with the author of Fathers and Sons (1862), Harry [Henry’s nickname] pronounced Turgenev to be an “amour d’homme”–a conventional yet oddly ringing phrase. Harry meant to describe Turgenev, with this detached French expression, as a sweetheart of a man, a man a person could love. But Harry’s phrase also hinted at specific male love, a love between men–though in the homosocial nineteenth century, when homosexuality remained inconceivable, this phrase would have caused a ripple of surprise.

The segue from Turgenev to homosexuality is awkward, even though it speaks to one of Fisher’s themes: that homosexuality was not yet a social category. But in subsequent pages we do not return to Turgenev and his literary influence on James, the relation, for instance, of Virgin Soil to The Princess Casamassima. Rather, for Fisher, the conversation with the Russian author serves to introduce James’s infatuation with the Russian painter and aesthete Paul Zhukovsky, a friend of Turgenev’s and, over the years, the subject of erotic speculation that’s positively Jamesian.

The purpose of biography, particularly the biography of a writer, is to understand the sources of his or her art, whether that art be Henry’s amazing late novels; or William’s stunning Principles of Psychology (1890), which Fisher twice calls a “magnum opus” without discussing it; or Alice’s diary; or even Wilkie’s humanitarianism and Bob’s paintings (he “sampled some public success,” Fisher writes). Here, however, these siblings run the gantlet of so-called Victorian repression and social construction of manhood, which Fisher presumably derides even while employing clichés that reinforce it. We find Mary Walsh James a “Victorian matriarch and moral guardian” and Alice languishing on the sofa, “that asylum of Victorian females.” Henry, who is “sometimes prone to napkin-daubing priggishness,” lives in a “prison of fear” about his homosexuality and then, later in life, withdraws to Rye in “spinsterish retirement,” where he can indulge his “old-maidish spying.” Bob skulks on “the seamier fringes of Victorian philandering,” and William, who inherited “his father’s lifelong delectation of ladies,” eventually publishes his influential Pragmatism (1907), “a positive, commonsense philosophy that anyone could adopt”–the sole analysis offered of this book, although Fisher alleges that it “countered Harry’s increasing tendency toward obscure, elitist, postmodernist high-art fiction.”

Fisher’s condescension toward his subjects’ work is among the least savory aspects of his biography. (James, we are told, “blitzed” the novels of his friend Constance Fenimore Woolson.) What we need–what we clamor for–is the voice of the varied Jameses as they speak to one another and to life with their inimitable style, their insouciance, their humor, their insight and their ample moral kindness, to say nothing of their attempt in one way or another to live out the American dream of a better, more meaningful world, even if just among a small group of the like-minded. And Henry was beloved by his friends, one of whom called him “generous and open-handed to a fault, slow to condemn, quick to forgive, and gifted with a power of immediately inspiring affection and keeping it forever.”

Doubtless, friendships can be physical and no doubt were, but whom Henry James loved and when are matters of some dispute. Enter biographer Sheldon Novick’s Henry James: The Young Master (1996), with its incendiary claim that James and Oliver Wendell Holmes had a tryst in 1865, a year after the latter returned home wounded from the Civil War. Far more interesting than the claim or the surrounding brouhaha is the assumption underlying it and Fred Kaplan’s Henry James: The Imagination of Genius (1992): that James was not a reticent, involuted, wounded man taking refuge in art but a maker, a doer, a social being, outgoing, beloved, engagé and often in love.

This is Novick’s perspective in the second volume of his elegantly composed biography, The Mature Master. Novick’s James is a smiling public man, perhaps too much so, but one prodigiously committed to “the process by which private ecstasies and pains find themselves transmuted in the artist’s workshop into promising literary material.” Such alchemy is the strength and center of this volume: “James was not a storyteller, a bard,” Novick writes, “nor was he a poet…. But he set his scenes carefully, and the slow, cumulative effect was of remembered experience itself.” As a consequence, he is especially convincing when discussing the effect of the theater–and the failure of James’s play Guy Domville (1895)–on The Spoils of Poynton (1897) and, later, on the more ambitious The Ambassadors (1903). As for the style of James’s late works, Novick finds that “the greatness, let us say the sublimity…lies in their organic unity, the manner in which fact and idea, fable and incident, fuse.” Imagery replaces logic, Novick argues, as he eloquently discusses method in James’s biography of the sculptor William Wetmore Story and in his autobiographies, in which James uses his own memories as a reflecting medium. And of James’s attempt to explain his corpus in the prefaces to The New York Edition, Novick writes, “The reader was asked to embark on a purely intellectual project, an inquiry into the art of representation, in which the only voice we hear is James’ and the only sight we see is James with his back turned, at his desk before a window.”

But Novick’s James does not turn his back on his friends, his family or what he once called the madness of art. Actually, none of the Jameses did. Which is why they fascinate and frustrate and finally enlarge us: “We work in the dark–we do what we can–we give what we have,” said Henry. “Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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