The Jameses

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Born in 1842 and 1843, respectively, William and Henry James both achieved unusual distinction in their fields of endeavor. As a psychologist William shed new light on the operations of the conscious mind; his brother helped to create the psychological novel. Both were devoted to their gifted sister Alice, whose promise went unfulfilled because of precarious health. Their father Henry was a highly respected intellectual of his day, a friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson and an indefatigable writer on theological subjects.

R.W.B. Lewis has deftly brought these Jameses to life as well as two brothers of the famous duo, Garth Wilkinson ("Wilky") and Robertson ("Bob"), who both served in the Civil War but enjoyed little success in later life. Lewis begins his account with a 1789 immigrant from Ireland, also William James. He settled in Albany, New York, demonstrated entrepreneurial skill, and invested so wisely that his son Henry and grandchildren escaped serious financial worries and, in the case of the two Henrys and the younger William, could concentrate on the work that appealed to them.

The brothers also benefited from their visionary if impractical father. The family traveled in Europe several times, the children experiencing many forms of education at home and abroad. They did not always enjoy their dislocations but gained breadth of outlook. William’s THE VARIETIES OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE, while far different from his father’s works, reflects the elder Henry’s independent and introspective temperament.

Lewis excels at depicting familial ties, including the marriages of Henry Sr. and William, but he is at his best tracing the complicated relationship between William and Henry Jr. The former could be condescending and oppressive, but he was genuinely proud of Henry, who—with an ocean between them—could appreciate his brother.

The author summarized the lives of later Jameses in an appendix. Another feature is a generous selection on excellent photographs. Lewis’s book is well-researched, well-written, and well worth reading.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. August 18, 1991, XIV, p. 3.

The Christian Science Monitor. August 13, 1991, p. 13.

Library Journal. CXVI, August, 1991, p. 101.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. August 11, 1991, p. 3.

The New York Review of Books. XXXVIII, October 10, 1991, p. 3.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, August 4, 1991, p. 1.

Newsweek. CXVIII, August 26, 1991, p. 55.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, June 21, 1991, p. 48.

The Times Literary Supplement. October 11, 1991, p. 6.

The Washington Post Book World. XXI, September 1, 1991, p. 5.

The Jameses

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Accomplishment sometimes displaying an inclination to run in families, biographers from time to time attempt biographies of such families. Both the organization and the proportions of such works pose considerable problems. The less-accomplished family members must be given their due. Unlike the failures and mediocre achievements of the great mass of people, theirs must be more or less sympathetically and interestingly explained, although the biographer knows full well that they would not be written or read about at all but for their bloodlines. A considerable cast of family members complicates the usual author’s dilemma as to the adjustment between thematic and chronological requirements. The wisps and strands of diverging lives and vital relationships must be woven together with the same sort of skill necessary in a well-populated novel, though with fewer permissible liberties, less poetic license. Only the brave and patient life-writer need apply.

Madelon Bedell’s The Alcotts: Biography of a Family (1980) and Milton Rugoff’s The Beechers: An American Family in the Nineteenth Century (1981) represent such American family biographies, and F. O. Matthiessen even did The James Family (1947) on a limited scale, but R. W. B. Lewis’ The Jameses: A Family Narrative is in a number of ways the most satisfactory—the most composed, as Henry James might have noted with an artist’s appreciation and perhaps a set of quotation marks—American family biography yet to appear. Lewis has chosen a rare family. Henry James, Sr., could speak and write well enough to earn the respect of Ralph Waldo Emerson, his sons William and Henry are towering figures in their fields of endeavor, and his daughter Alice is a fascinating and poignant personality who has already drawn the attention of a biographer. As a consequence of the volubility of these four Jameses, the vast labors of earlier Jamesians, and the resources of libraries such as those at Harvard University (to name just one locus of Lewis’ research), there is a plethora of information.

Of course, such advantages impose their own burdens, and to the problems of organization and emphasis that of selectivity adds its considerable weight. Lewis’ book is nearly seven hundred pages long, but Leon Edel’s five-volume life of Henry James contains more than three times as many pages, and Lewis could not allow Henry to dominate The Jameses. He allots substantial chapters to Henry’s and William’s Irish immigrant grandfather, to Henry, Sr., to their younger brothers Garth Wilkinson and Robertson (“Wilky” and “Bob,” respectively), and to their sister Alice (drawing upon Jean Strouse’s biography). Attention is given to the women who married Jameses, especially Alice Gibbens, who became the psychologist William’s wife, and, in an appendix, to “The Later Jameses.” There is less about other relations; even Minnie Temple, a cousin to the younger Henry James of whom previous Jamesians have made much, plays a decidedly minor role here. Lewis keeps firmly to those bearing the James surname.

The book has four sections, the first, “Generations,” devoted to the earlier William and Henry James, father and son. The second, “Family Stories,” discusses the Henry James, Sr., family up to the time of the children’s young adulthood, about 1875. “Joinings and Departures” takes the family members up to 1892, by which time the parents and two of the children were dead. “Parts of a Unity” focuses on the apex of William’s and Henry’s careers, with glances at their surviving brother Bob, until William’s and Bob’s deaths in 1910. Henry’s final years receive only the most cursory attention. While it is apparent that Henry’s final illness and death, to which Edel devoted much attention, constituted no part of Lewis’ scheme, one might have expected more about the composition of Henry’s three autobiographical works of these years.

Because the William James who emigrated from Ireland in 1789 proved to be a shrewd commercial man, later generations of Jameses, who inherited little of his business acumen and none of his bourgeois interests, were able to devote themselves to a decent quota of gentlemanly leisure and to literary and educational endeavors that did not demand any immediate financial return. Thus William, who settled in Albany and prudently bought most of the village of Syracuse, deserves recognition as the man who enabled Henry, Sr., to shepherd his family back and forth from Europe and to write theological books of interest only to a coterie of intellectuals. In turn, Henry’s son William could deliberately pursue a medical degree he never intended to turn to a medical practice, and Henry, Jr., could cultivate a long intimacy with leisured Americans and Europeans of the sort who populate his intricate fiction.

The elder Henry James’s theological unorthodoxy, which played a part in attracting the friendship of Ralph Waldo Emerson, reflected a restless nature that took the form, after his marriage to Mary Robertson Walsh in 1840, of moving from Albany to New York...

(The entire section is 2097 words.)