AN AMERICAN CONSTELLATION

a review of R. W. B. Lewis's The Jameses: A Family Narrative.

At one point in his career, Henry James felt that his literary field was neither England nor the United States but rather "a big Anglo-Saxon total," that his outlook was cosmopolitan. "He's really . . . a native of the James family, and has no other country," his brother William rightly observed. It was precisely this most inbred of families -- a clan and a continent of its own -- that favored and fostered such open, far-reaching views.

The founder of the family, old William (1771-1832), had emigrated from Ireland when easy fortunes could still be made in the United States; in fierce antagonism, his son Henry (1811-82) had turned mystic and philosopher, a friend of Emerson and a revolutionary social thinker. Of Henry Sr.'s five children, Henry (1843-1916) and William (1842-1910) were to become world-famous as novelist and philosopher, respectively; Garth Wilkinson (1845-83) and Robertson (1846-1910), after serving gallantly in the Civil War, had checkered careers and troubled lives, their ventures in farming and speculation ending in disappointment and failure; Alice (1850-92), a lifelong invalid, wavered between self-effacement and intellectual fervor. The following generation distinguished itself in public service or private careers, though in less spectacular ways.

Forty-four years ago, F. O. Matthiessen compiled a pioneering group biography, "The James Family," setting side by side the crucial experiences and selections from the writings of its various members. Since then, a great deal of biographical and cultural light has been shed on them -- notably by Leon Edel on Henry, by Gerald E. Myers on William, by Jean Strouse on Alice and recently by Jane Maher (in her "Biography of Broken Fortunes") on the two troubled, neglected, unhappy siblings, Garth (Wilky) and Robertson (Bob), the scapegoats, as it were, for the others' brilliance.

Building on the strengths of their combined findings, R. W. B. Lewis gives us an original and compelling "family narrative" by closely weaving their various and tangled threads. There was unity in diversity (as well as diversity in unity) in a family that proved a unique monument to American intellectual brilliance and achievement. Mr. Lewis starts with the founder, William James of Ireland and of Albany, a businessman who amassed a fortune second in New York state only to that of John Jacob Astor (so that for two generations no one in the James family was "guilty of a stroke of business," his grandson Henry noted), and ends, in our century, with the "later Jameses." Still, the core of the book deals with the affectionate though often strained relations, the interminglings and crisscrossings, the constant joinings and departures, the "flights and perchings," the forward or retreating moves of Henry Sr. and his two intellectual sons, with Alice catching up with them against tremendous odds and almost breaking herself in the process.

Striking parallels and recurrences, as well as deep-seated rivalries, emerge in the course of "The Jameses." Henry Sr. lost a leg in a fire; while helping to extinguish another blaze, Henry Jr. gave himself "a horrid even if an obscure hurt," which partially incapacitated him. The father had suffered a Swedenborgian vastation, a seizure of "a perfectly insane and abject terror." Henry Jr. speaks in similar terms of a "vast visitation"; William experienced his own vastation, "a horrible fear of my own existence"; Alice had hallucinations and a horror of life throughout her days.

In one way or another, all of the Jameses felt the call or the lure of the supernatural, of what is beyond death or human experience -- Henry Sr. as a mystic; William as a late believer in spiritualism; Alice, who felt she could commune with her dead mother; Henry Jr., who in these as well as other matters proved the most balanced and practical and was drawn to "the possible other case," to what lies beyond mere human comprehension.

Patterns ran deep in the James family, and they are deftly brought to light by Mr. Lewis, the Neil Gray Professor of Rhetoric Emeritus at Yale and the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Edith Wharton. Henry Jr. wrote in a philosophical, "supersubtle and analytic" way that had much to do with his brother's emphasis on subliminal states of mind, the subconscious and what he termed the stream of thought (or, of consciousness). William wrote of psychology and religion with deep feeling, emotionally, autobiographically, sometimes almost narratively.

Oppositions and rivalries ran even deeper. On the biographical side, we know of a "lifelong fraternal rhythm": when one brother rose, the other tended to decline. Henry, who was keener on the social life of the times, embodied and dramatized the uninvolved, passive, detached observer; "the only form of riot or revel ever known to me would be that of the visiting mind," he confessed. William, who had faltered in efforts to find himself and a career when his younger brother Henry was already an established author, stressed action and experience, the will, pragmatism, taking "life strivingly," "the element of precipitousness, so to call it, of strength and strenuousness, intensity and danger." He was forward-looking rather than reflective.

Henry loved Europe; William was suspicious of the Continent and irritated by it. Each time Henry brought forth a book, William was notoriously uncomprehending and wrote callous letters; while William felt he was writing against the "resistance of facts," Henry had such an easier task in his "resistless air of romance." Henry had finally to warn William that he could never be brought to write the type of fiction he was constantly asked or advised to write. Yet strange reversals also took place. In later years, just as Henry became doubtful about his expatriation and came back to the United States to study and to write ominously about the country's social and cultural centers in his marvelous book of reportage "The American Scene," William came to Europe and finally discovered its charm.

What a pair -- indeed, what a trio, if we keep (as we must) Alice in mind, who lost no opportunity to disparage the British in the very terms Henry had used to disparage the Americans and who was pro-Irish and a radical. Henry Sr.'s being "leisured for life" (thanks to his father's money) and his having chosen to give his children no formal schooling but rather "a better sensuous education" in Europe set an incredible whirlwind of intellectual energies in motion. Despite the losses, tangles and insecurities that choice may have provoked, the fictional and philosophical achievements of Henry and William, as well as Alice's expression of the emotional ravages of a life led in the shade of others, were monumental.

Mr. Lewis is keen to pursue parallels between Henry's books and William's philosophical works (for instance, between "The Wings of the Dove" and "The Varieties of Religious Experience," between "The American Scene" and "Pragmatism"), and he is quite correct to show the extent of William's influence on a number of later writers, from T. S. Eliot to Robert Frost, from Gertrude Stein to Virginia Woolf.

Henry and William James were a formidable pair, around whom all the other Jameses revolved (even in Mr. Lewis's book, despite all sound efforts to the contrary). Henry confessed to a "ferocious ambition" under his "tranquil exterior"; he constantly had in mind the expression of a total world, of an oeuvre to rival those of his 19th-century confreres, and realized that "success . . . now stretches back a tender hand to its younger brother, desire." William felt unashamedly that he could write autobiographical science; he succeeded in works that are both scientific and imaginative, personal and factual. Alice (as well as Wilky and Bob) was a reminder of the price one was made to pay for the achievement of others.

That achievement seemed to have been worth the sacrifice. The James family did become an institution in which the exigencies and claims of the various members provided material and strength for boundless reverberations. Such an isolated family, mixing cosmopolitanism and a fierce inwardness, changed the shape of American culture and American sensibilities. R. W. B. Lewis tells the story with great compositional skill, relying on the latest psychological findings, mingling narrative ease with sensible interpretations of the works, and above all bringing the human side back into the picture of the artistic, philosophical or purely intellectual achievement of the family that Henry James called these "queer monsters," the Jameses.

Enormous wealth, foreign travel, jealousy, scandal -- the saga of the James family contains so many elements of a television mini-series that it is not a great surprise that R. W. B. Lewis's monumental study of the clan that produced William and Henry James was originally conceived as highbrow soap opera.

David Milch, a former student, was Mr. Lewis's colleague and officemate at Yale University in the late 1970's when "almost out of the blue he said, 'Why don't we do something on the James family?' " the 73-year-old scholar said during a telephone interview from his home in Bethany, Conn. "We worked on it for a couple of years, and had quite a long program, as many as 12 episodes."

The most common impediment to creativity -- insufficient funds -- stalled the project. Mr. Milch went on to great success as a television writer and producer, winning two Emmys for his work on "Hill Street Blues." Mr. Lewis spent virtually all of the 1980's researching and writing "The Jameses," which, he said with a chuckle, began to coalesce for him in an Irish graveyard.

"The summer of 1981 signaled the beginning" of the book, he said. "My daughter Emma and I went to Ireland. I looked up the homeland of the original Jameses, where the founder of the American branch was born," in County Cavan, near Dublin.

"The actual places, the graveyards, the atmosphere -- it really was the place to start," Mr. Lewis said. "In my memory that visit is when this book took its form."

The resulting "family narrative" was something of a family affair. Besides accompanying her father on his Irish sojourn, Emma Lewis served as "memory resource" and, with her sister, Sophie, provided lively in-house critical commentary. Mr. Lewis's son, Nathaniel, was present to tape-record an interview with one of the latter-day Jameses.

And his wife, Nancy, with whom Mr. Lewis edited an edition of Edith Wharton's letters, receives this husbandly tribute in the book, appropriately from a quotation by William James: "One who makes a life significant."

by Sergio Perosa

The Jameses: A Family Narrative. by R. W. B. Lewis.
Illustrated. 696 pp. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company
originally published on August 4, 1991

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