Critical Praise

Critical Praise for Paul Fisher’s
HOUSE OF WITS

“In this amazing portrait of a family that may have been the Royal Tenenbaums of the nineteenth century, Paul Fisher has written a biography which brings the Jameses to life on the page as if they were our own fascinating, brilliant friends and neighbors.”—Susan Cheever, author of American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work

House of Wits is a rich and engaging contribution to James biography, weaving together the developing lives of each member of the family in a way that shows how enabling and disabling their collective entanglement could be. The treatment of the father’s alcoholism, Henry’s sexuality, and Alice’s social agonies strikes me as sound and acute. But there is more than psychic tension here. We are also given the public spaces and social geographies and institutional drift that shaped the Jameses’ lives. Fisher has done as much as anyone to get this expansive and unruly family between the covers of a book.”—Alfred Habegger, author of My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson and The Father: A Life of Henry James, Sr.

 “Paul Fisher’s portraits of the famous members of the James household are brilliant; our fascination grows exponentially as he enlarges the frame to include the others. He appreciates the web of characters, the dynamics of influence. Dramatic, richly detailed, House of Wits is a prime contribution to our understanding of this prodigious family.”—Daniel Mark Epstein, author of The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage

“In House of Wits, an account of one of America’s most interesting and influential families—the Jameses—Paul Fisher has managed to turn a remarkable feat of scholarship into a story more engaging, and far more rewarding, than any fictional saga. He breathes life into every individual in several generations of the dysfunctional family that produced novelist Henry and psychologist William, and he re-creates with telling detail the times of nineteenth-century America and Europe through which they moved.”—Samuel A. Schreiner Jr., author of The Concord Quartet: Alcott, Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau and the Friendship That Freed the American Mind

“A solid and crisp narrative of this fascinating American clan . . . For all of its successes, the James family harbored its share of trouble: alcoholism, repressed sexuality, heartbreak, jealousy and adultery. Most importantly, in a rigidly prim Victorian world, the expatriate Henry, a resident of London, wrestled with homosexuality. He lived a closeted life of clandestine affairs with younger men—always wary of the dark fate that had befallen Oscar Wilde. Fisher narrates all of this, and more, vividly, cleanly and engagingly.”—Publishers Weekly

“[A] stunning multigenerational portrait of one of the most complex families in American intellectual history . . . A golden bowl, brimming full.”—Kirkus, starred review

“Graceful, thoroughly researched . . .  In his comprehensive and compelling House of Wits scholar Paul Fisher succeeds in spinning all eight biographical plates atop narrative poles—the stories of the parents, Aunt Kate and five offspring.”—Daniel Dyer, Cleveland Plain Dealer

“Mr. Fisher portrays William’s wilderness years with touching empathy. . . [He] write[s] vividly of the children’s youth, filled as it was with heated arguments, shared enthusiasms and combative table banter. He likewise captures the passions and rivalries among the children as they grew up and struggled to find their place in the world.”—David Propson, The Wall Street Journal

 

“This monumental, but never prurient, portrait brings to the fore the presence and influence of the James parents, Henry senior and his wife, Mary . . . [House of Wits] manages to be simultaneously large and small, and in the best ways.  It is indeed an ‘intimate’ portrait, but . . . it’s also a mammoth read, an all-encompassing work.  It’s to Fisher’s great credit that he draws us into the lives of those closely bickering, often sentimental, James siblings and their parents, and really makes us feel as though we were there, in those cramped and heavily draped drawing rooms, with them.”—Lesley McDowell, The Scotsman (Edinburgh)

 

“An immensely interesting story . . . [House of Wits is] a decent and highly readable book. . . . The last years of the story . . . are terribly moving.”—Philip Hensher, Spectator (UK)

 

“Absorbing. . . . Fisher, who teaches American literature at Wellesley College, creates a detailed 19th-century backdrop for his characters. . . . Fisher’s focus is the family.  What he achieves is to show us the Jameses in two dimensions:  how they appeared in their own time and how they seem today, in an era of deeper (or more obsessive—take your pick) interest in familial dysfunction. . . . The siblings remained devoted to one another throughout their lives, and for all the darkness there is enduring love woven throughout the story of the Jameses.”—Marjorie Kehe, Christian Science Monitor

 

“[An] elegant narrative . . . Fisher draws us convincingly into the relational spider web of the James family.  He makes the evanescent past seem astonishingly present—and also inspires us to wish that we had been there, if only to stay the letter-burners’ hands.”—Julia M. Klein, Obit Magazine

 

“Brilliantly described . . . Fisher, who teaches American literature at Wellesley College, has captured in vibrant, but careful and highly readable prose, the turbulence and vital history of both the James family and the era in which they lived.”—Rosemary Michaud, Charleston Post and Courier

 

“Lively and fascinating . . . Enjoyable . . . [A] highly readable, carefully researched account of one of the most astonishing families America has produced.”—Philip Horne, author of Henry James: A Life in Letters, Evening Standard (London)

 

“As its title promises, Paul Fisher’s study of the James family provides an intimate portrait of this privileged, dysfunctional American dynasty. . . . A compelling book.”—Rebecca Pelan, The Irish Times

 

“[A] sweeping biography . . . What Mr. Fisher, a professor of English at Wellesley College, adds to the dossier is an enormous amount of background research, some narrative dexterity and the language of therapy. . . The Jameses are a huge and complicated story . . . but [Fisher] keeps all the balls juggling, gives fair and sympathetic time to everyone, and along the way provides a lively and detailed social history of the period and its houses, museums, steamships, restaurants, department stores and hotels.  Even the invention of the Hershey’s Kiss gets a mention.  And in evoking this rich context Mr. Fisher drops a clue that helps explain the Jameses as well as any other.  In the end they were less a contemporary family than creatures of their time, propelled into the modern world while still carrying a load of Victorian baggage.  There was a lot they simply could not say, even to one another. . . . Unlike us, Henry had no language for what was wrong with him, so rather than spend a lot time talking about it, he made art instead.”—Charles McGrath, New York Times