A Conversation with Paul Fisher


The James Family

Q: Why should anybody write about the Jameses?

A: The Jameses keep coming back to haunt us because they’re such compelling figures. They wore Victorian clothes, but they led amazingly edgy and modern lives. William James is a down-to-earth, luminous thinker-maybe the most original psychologist and philosopher the United States has yet produced. His father was a career alcoholic, and William’s writings helped inspire the founding of AA in the 1930s. Henry James is a world-class novelist full of intricate, fascinatingly modern characters. And Alice James is a feminist icon of the complex, hidden lives that women have often had to live. They’re people who speak to us here and now.

Q: Many books about the Jameses have been published. What’s new about yours?

A: Until just a few years ago, it was hard to talk frankly about the most burning issues of the Jameses’ lives: mental illness, alcoholism, love, sex, homosexuality, money, the roles of women and men, and the pressures of professional and artistic success on personal lives. Sex was a major secret for the Jameses, and it’s something I talk about a lot: William’s sometimes long-distance but loving marriage; Henry’s “bachelorhood”; Alice’s amazing secret life in a same-sex “Boston marriage.”

Also, I really try to bring the women of the family forward: Mary James, the sturdy and financially savvy mother; the brilliant young cousin who tragically died, Minny Temple; William’s amazing and resourceful wife; Alice and her partner, Katharine Peabody Loring, an example of a very modern women’s collaboration.

Q: What motivated you to write this book?

A: For me, it’s a grand, fast-paced mystery story about stolen pearls. Years ago, when I was working on Henry’s travel writing, I found out that he actually stole a lot of his ideas from his sister, Alice. She said in her diary he’d taken her “pearls”-her best ideas, bon mots, and reflections-and used them without giving her any credit. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg in this loving but fiercely competitive family. It’s all about what they got from on another, and what they didn’t get.

The Jameses I wanted to bring to life are the imperfect, dysfunctional, suffering Jameses-not just the geniuses everybody has heard about but the living, breathing people behind them. It’s like a personal mission.

Q: What’s “personal” about your connection to the Jameses?

A: I was a kid from Wyoming who read The Turn of the Screw by the light of a Coleman lantern. Later on, when I went to Cambridge in England, I met a man in his nineties-Jim Ede, the former director of the Tate in London-who’d actually met Henry James when he, Ede, was a young art student in London. I was wowed by that direct link back: I talk about the importance of that kind of living linkage in my book. Over the years, I’ve tracked down almost every one of the Jameses’ houses, or where they used to be. My goal in this book has been to bring these amazing pieces of history vividly to life-the places as well as the people.

Q: Why does your account emphasize things like steamships, grand hotels, sanitariums, and the Civil War?

A: All of these things are part of the surprising, lost story of the Jameses. Previous writers on the Jameses have often taken their Victorian world at face value and have barely mentioned, for example, the actual physical ships they crossed the Atlantic on. But the Jameses’ association with luxury liners, daguerreotypes, spiritualist mediums, and other crazy Victorian things gives us an incredible window into their times and their lives. I care about what the Jameses ate, drank, wore, read, loved, and hated. I want to feel like you know these people, that they live just around the corner from you.

Q: Who’s your favorite James?

A: I started out with a fascination for Henry James (I’m a literature professor), but I got twice as enthralled when I encountered Alice James and William James. I’ve come to adore all of them: the adventurous Aunt Kate; all five children (Wilkie and Bob are the lesser-known sons); the feverish and idealistic father; the tough-minded mother.

One of my favorite parts of the book is the Civil War (“Implosion”) chapter, because all of the James children were in their teens and just having their early brushes with sex, love, and death. I find the story of Wilkie James, who was wounded along with many courageous black soldiers in the charge on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, a really hair-raising but inspiring episode. I always get a little breathy when I read some of these passages-the historical material is just so stunning, like a really great, moving film.