'The Jameses': three generations of a notable American family @

August 18, 1991|By Anne Whitehouse

THE JAMESES: A FAMILY NARRATIVE. R. W. B. Lewis. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 696 pages. $35. The James family, which in one generation produced two great men, the psychologist and philosopher William and the writer Henry, is perhaps America's most esteemed family of letters. Probably no other American family has chronicled itself more articulately or voluminously, or has been more studied by ++ scholars. Drawing on the wealth of materials and sources, R. W. B. Lewis -- author of a prize-winning biography of Edith Wharton -- has compiled a three-generational saga of this remarkable family, from the arrival of the founding patriarch, William, from Ireland in 1789 to the death of his grandson, Henry, in 1916.

The James family narrative presents a perspective of American history from the founding of the Republic to the eve of the first world war. Arriving penniless, William settled in Albany, N.Y., and at his death had amassed one of the greatest fortunes in the country, principally in shipping and real estate. He tried and failed to cut out of his will his rebellious son, Henry, the fifth of his 11 children by three wives. Thus "leisured for life," Henry was free to pursue his spiritual explorations and social inquiries, as well as to raise his five children -- William, Henry, Garth Wilkinson, Robertson and Alice -- in the varied surroundings of America and Europe.

The elder Henry, a disciple of Swedenborg's philosophy, preached a churchless religion and a doctrine of unselfishness. Ministered to by his wife, Mary, he dramatized his spiritual turmoils, and his raptures and depressions became family lore. He was a restless seeker who set great store by mystical revelation. Each of his five children in turn experienced spiritual epiphanies, and all suffered to varying degrees from psychosomatic ailments.

Dr. Lewis is good at tracing the influence of the elder Henry's beliefs upon his children, particularly upon the great achievements of his two oldest sons. Dr. Lewis is concerned with how the conflicts between thought and action, between withdrawal from life and engagement, between spirituality and materialism, and between America and Europe are variously repeated in the lives of the Jameses. His book reveals both the strengths and the shortcomings of his narrative approach. While he has amassed and organized a formidable amount of information, his interpretations of the evidence often seem timid and safe. It is as if he were afraid of somehow displeasing his major protagonists -- Henry Sr., William and Henry. Dr. Lewis seems loathe to explore the darkest aspects of the James family's dynamics that he describes.

The James family was characterized by intense rivalry. William, his father's favorite, blossomed early and matured late. A budding painter as an adolescent, he floundered in his 20s through scientific and medical studies and suffered various physical and mental breakdowns. Not until his mid-30s did his personality begin to coalesce into the important thinker he became. Henry, on the other hand, decided early on that he would be a writer, kept his own counsel and eventually escaped to Europe to produce his great fiction.

The evidence suggests that Henry Sr. sacrificed his two younger sons for his two eldest, particularly to William. There is his curious comment, unglossed by Dr. Lewis, when he enrolled his two younger sons in an abolitionist-run boarding school in 1860, "I buried two of my children yesterday." When the Civil War broke out, he kept William and Henry (ages 19 and 18) out of it, while pressuring Wilky and Bob to enlist. (Wilky served in the first black regiment, the 54th Massachusetts, under the leadership of Col. Robert Shaw, and was seriously wounded in the failed attack on Fort Wagner, S.C.) The Civil War was arguably the single most crucial experience in the lives of all four brothers, including the non-combatants.

Henry Sr. placed great value on self-fulfillment, yet frustrated these efforts in his younger children. While he indulged William in his often short-lived enthusiasms, he discouraged Bob in his desire to study architecture. The post-Civil War careers of Wilky and Bob were described by the latter as "the biography of broken fortunes." In a curious repetition of his father's action, Henry Sr. cut Wilky out of his will. His intention was disregarded by his son, Henry, his designated executor. The two younger brothers embarked on unsuccessful business ventures and languished in unfulfilling jobs. Wilky, who never recovered from his Civil War wound, died at the age of 38. Bob became an alcoholic.

In the patriarchal scheme of this family, Alice counted for little. It is arguable that her lesbianism and invalidism were attempts to escape her mother's tyrannical selflessness. Her published diary a trenchant, prescient and engrossing document, an important contribution to 19th century women's literature.

Dr. Lewis' two appendixes contain valuable addenda. The first, an investigation into the suicide of William's father-in-law, is an engrossing account of government cotton fraud in Reconstruction Alabama. The second is a fascinating compendium of the descendants of William, Wilky and Bob.

Dr. Lewis has assembled a family biography with many vivid and memorable portraits, which can also be read as a history of 19th century America. However, his commentary is uneven, ranging from the perceptive to the superficial to the contradictory. He challenges us to read between the lines of his richly suggestive material.

Ms. Whitehouse is a writer living in New York.

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