The Admirable Mrs. James

At the end of R.W.B. Lewis’s The Jameses: A Family Narrative there is an appendix, entitled ” The Later Jameses,” which is a godsend for novelists, geneticists, and anthropologists, to name just three groups who might take an interest in what happened to the James family between the death of Henry in 1916 and 1991, the year the book was published. Readers of Susan E. Gunter’s Alice in Jamesland, a fascinating new biography of the formidable wife of William James, which ends in 1922 with her death, will be eager to know, for example, what happened to Alice’s youngest son, Aleck, born in 1890, of whom Gunter paints a tender portrait. Of all of the family, he seemed the most vulnerable and the most sweetly indifferent to the legacy of the name he had inherited. Despite his father’s strict views, Aleck seemed to remain a free spirit.

In Lewis’s book we discover that he became a painter, which was what he wanted to be, and that he remained happily married to the woman of his choice, despite his mother’s early disapproval of her, and that, while his brother Harry “made money” and the next brother Billy “married money,” Aleck devoted his life to his art. Knowing about him is like knowing about the fate of the characters in Middlemarch. Slowly, with these books, the life of each member of the James family is being charted and, by implication, the history of many human types as they circle each other, nourish each other, and damage each other is being written.

Alice in Jamesland matches Jean Strouse’s masterly biography of the other Alice James, William and Henry’s sister—the one who stayed in bed—and Jane Maher’s A Biography of Broken Fortunes, the story of the two younger siblings, Wilkie and Bob, who fought in the American Civil War. Gunter’s book offers an ingeniously plotted microhistory of the period and its domestic life, and throws light on the personalities of two American geniuses. So, also, House of Wits: An Intimate Portrait of the James Family adds to and enriches what we already know from R.W.B. Lewis’s history of the family; from Alfred Habegger’s The Father, a life of Henry James Senior; and from the several biographies of William James and Henry James the novelist, including Leon Edel’s five-volume work. Slowly, the Jameses are matching the Bonapartes and the Kennedys. Every scrap of paper they left unburned is being studied for its significance.

R.W.B. Lewis wrote also, toward the end of his book, of the continued presence of Jameses in Bailieborough in County Cavan, Ireland, until the death of Bobby James there in 1932 at the age of ninety-two. It was from Bailieborough sometime between 1789 and 1794 that William James, later of Albany, set out for the United States, where he made a fortune “based on shrewd merchandizing and opportunistic land speculation in Albany …

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