William James on the Great Eastern, 1867

June 30th, 2008 Posted in Magic Lantern | No Comments »

The Great Eastern being refitted at Liverpool, 1866.

“The Great Eastern outclassed everything that had come before it, even in a century that lived to crack champagne bottles on the bows of maritime superlatives.  A ‘Triton among minnows,’ as the newspapers called it, the British-built ship measured five times the size of anything else afloat.  In fact, it outsized any ship that would launch for the next fifty years.  It resembled a ‘great swollen hunk of a premature Leviathan,’ the press observed, with its five gigantic smoke funnels and its paddles the size of Ferris wheels.

“A vainglorious and ungainly monster, the Great Eastern had captured the admiration of Walt Whitman.  Even more thoroughly, it had fascinated the French fabulist Jules Verne, who wrote an adulatory account of it called Une Ville flottant (A Floating City).  Verne, in fact, shared the voyage from New York with William [James]–William’s voyage out, Verne’s return.  The Frenchman had made a career of writing science fiction based ont he exciting leaps in transportation that he along with the James family had witnessed.  In Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870), he wrote precociously about submarines; in From the Earth to the Moon  (1865) about space travel.  With his full iron-gray beard, this thirty-nine-year-old best-selling writer would have been somewhat conspicuous to his fellow passengers, though William evidentlyd idn’t notice him at all.  But although the two men weren’t acquainted, they no doubt passed each other on the broad avenues of the pitching decks.”

(c) Paul Fisher 2008 – All Rights Reserved


Minneapolis-St. Paul Radio Interview, 3 July 2008

June 28th, 2008 Posted in Events | No Comments »

Lynette Reini-Grandell will be talking with me on “Write on Radio,” KFAI, Minneapolis, on Thursday, July 3, at 11am local time.

Henry and Mary James, Unusual Newlyweds

June 28th, 2008 Posted in Meet the Jameses | No Comments »

“Henry [Senior]’s new tea-table existence may have been the least of the burdens of his jobless, stay-at-home life.  Men of the time frequently drank rum, whiskey, or gin mixed with bitters even before breakfast; took a liquor break at midmorning, for ‘elevens’; then drank hard spirits at midday dinner and on into the afternoon and evening, with a fireside nightcap before turning in.  Temperance movements would gradually persuade Americans to put aside some of these alcoholic rituals, but the norms of the 1840s favored hard drinking and no doubt camouflaged Henry’s ongoing addiction.  But if certain fraids were to notice his problem later in the 1840s, Mary must have done so, too, and probably early in their marriage.

“Partly because Henry spent many hours shut away in his study, the Jameses’ improvised rental was probably the first place Mary acted with real independence.  Although hierarchy dictated that Mary follow her husband’s instructions on pretty much everything, he rarely laid down the law.  Their situation was hardly unconventional, in any obvious way, but it could have exposed Henry, especially as an alcoholic, to accusations of unmanliness.  In the temperance tracts of the time–the formulaic stories about drunkards and the saintly women who compensated for their vices–wives sometimes had to take on tasks usually reserved for men when their husbands drank.  Mary rarely acknowledged such an imbalance; she was too loyal to refer to her husband’s difficulty with spirits.  Yet Henry’s occasional incapacity, due to depression or alcohol, must have led to Mary’s taking charge–although Henry mostly remained active, driven, and to use one of his own favorite words, manly.

“But, as Henry’s friends recognized, he was ‘an unbusinesslike character,’ who knew little of the ‘value of money.’  His intimages trembled for him whenever he had to interact with ‘Wall Street people.’  Mary, fortunately, had a good head for figures: even when she couldn’t  make money for the family through its investments, she could save it by means of the trifty household management lauded by the  popular tracts and women’s periodicals of the time.  Mary sometimes read books that Henry recommended and caught onto his enthusiasms, but she instinctively belonged to what Americans had begun to call the Cult of True Womanhood–the nineteenth-century adulation for women’s domesticity that was growing along with the number of prosperous middle-class households.  Mary saw her home as her true sphere, and she wanted to make their new house a refusge for the man who had chosen her for his wife.”

(c) Paul Fisher 2008 – All Rights Reserved

Mary Walsh James Faces the Panic of 1837

June 26th, 2008 Posted in Meet the Jameses | No Comments »

“Before the Panic, the view from the big front windows of her drawing room had provided young Mary Walsh with welcome distraction.  With her needlework in her lap, she could sit for hours and watch Manhattan’s well-tailored society pass by.  Mary’s home, fittingly situated on the north side of Washington Square Park, stood near the base of Fifth Avenue, where she could enjoy the greenery of the square and keep track of passing carriages, laundry carts, and neighbors out for a stroll.  Beyond the trees, she could see redbrick mansions with identical fanlights, and farther south, the shingled rooftops of less fashionable townhouses.

“But by the spring of 1837, the big jewel box of Washington Square which had thoroughly encased Miss Walsh in the velvet of middle-class security, had come a little unhinged.  This showpiece of New York City had fallen deadly quiet, though knots of rough, hatless men occasionally passed through the square and hackneys raked along the cobbles at breakneck speed.  Mostly, though, the sidewalks remained deserted, with no young couples out roving to admire the clusters of the acacia trees or take in the peppery smell of the blooming ailanthus.  Mary and her mother and sister hardly dared leave the house.  Throughout the spring, the city had plunged ever deeper into a new and frightening financial crisis, the worst the United States had yet encountered.  During this, the so-called Panic of 1837, New York banks and trading companies toppled like dominoes.  Investments plummeted, flattening the city’s newfound wealth and raising the fear of mobs.”

(c) Paul Fisher 2008 – All Rights Reserved

Henry James Sr., Alcoholic at the Age of Ten

June 25th, 2008 Posted in Meet the Jameses | No Comments »

“Young Henry took full advantage, developing a knack for swigging from all the wrong bottles.  As he later recalled, he plunged into ‘the habit of taking a drink of raw gin or brandy on my way to school morning and afternoon.’  Significantly, Henry later described even his early drinking as a ‘habit.’  Even at the age of ten, three years before his accident at the fire, the boy was veering, rather scarily, toward chronic alcoholism.  In his walks to school, he weaved down the bypaths of Albany–just as later, for decades, he’d lurch and zigzag his way through life.

“That Henry’s parents evidently didn’t notice or intervene shows something about their distance or distraction.  A problem like Henry’s, though, may not have attracted much attention during an era when, as one historian has observed, even babies and toddlers were fed strong spirits.  Drinking small amounts early on, the theory went, would ‘protect them from becoming drunkards.’  Such preventatives, however, weren’t working.  The 1820s saw the highest per capita consumption of alcohol in American history.  Estimates range from between for and seven gallons of pure alcohol, per person, per year.  In any case, it was more than twice the amount consumed in the United States.  In an era when water was often polluted and coffee and tea cost dearly, stiff drinking had become a daily ritual for most Americans.  Beer and hard cider were staples of households, drunk at every meal including breakfast.  Especially among men, whiskey, brandy, rum, and gin flowed freely both in homes and taverns.  Liquor dominated most public social occasions, including weddings, funerals, militia musters, barbecues, balls, horse races, barn raisings, and even elections.”

(c) Paul Fisher 2008 – All Rights Reserved

Henry James Sr. Sweeps his Family off to Europe

June 24th, 2008 Posted in Meet the Jameses | No Comments »

“Though small, spare, and unbalanced in his gait, Henry James Sr. loved to pit himself against the uncomprehending world.  Sometimes he walked with canes, to cope with a childhood injury, but more often this self-appinted prophet of social reform cast away all artificial forms of support and navigated on his own.  Such was the case on this steamy and momentous June day in 1855, when the forty-four-year-old patriarch lowered himself down the steps of his Fourteenth Street brownstone, ready to take on just about everyone.

“The James family party was leaving New York: one lame man, Henry himself; three bonneted women; five young children; and a Himalaya of luggage.  On this ‘thoroughly hot’ summer morning, as the New York Tribune described it, they were striking out toward a Europe that, thanks to the lithographs and novels that had stoked their imaginations, felt more real to them, in a sense, than the scorching streets of Manhattan.  It was as if they were going home, though the places they envisioned were as yet unknown.  Defiantly, Henry was preparing to snatch his young family–Alice, his smallest child, was only six–away from the city that had counted as the only genuine home they’d ever known.  The Jameses were moving to the lake country of Switzerland, where, Henry insisted, his children would blossom in the experimental hothouses of Swiss schools.  He was, after all, a social engineer of sorts.  His children, he believed, should be the beneficiaries of the world’s most enlightened thinking.”

(c) Paul Fisher 2008 – All Rights Reserved

Boston, Massachusetts Radio Interview, 29 June 2008

June 23rd, 2008 Posted in Events | No Comments »

I will be talking with Keith Orr on WFNX Boston on Sunday, June 29, at 9:05pm local time.

Madison, Wisconsin Radio Interview, 29 June 2008

June 23rd, 2008 Posted in Events | No Comments »

John Quinlan will be interviewing me for “Forward Forum” on WTDY-AM, Madison, Wisconsin, on Sunday, June 29, at 7:05pm local time.

Dallas, Texas Radio Interview, 29 June 2008

June 23rd, 2008 Posted in Events | No Comments »

I will be appearing as David Taffett’s guest on KNON, Dallas, on Sunday, June 29, at 12 noon local time.

“Viewpoints” Appearance, Date to be Announced

June 23rd, 2008 Posted in Events | No Comments »

I will be interviewed by Pat Reuter on “Viewpoints,” a nationally syndicated radio program, very soon.  Stay tuned for a specific air date and time.