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Paul Fisher Reinvents Henry James

House of Wits, a new biography of the clan of American intellectual titans.

House of Wits, the new book by Paul Fisher, tells the rich story of the James family - novelist Henry James, philosopher William James, and diarist Alice James, a clan of troubled intellectual titans "somewhere between the Alcotts and the Royal Tenenbaums". The author, a professor of American literature at Wellesley College, spoke to me on the phone from Boston.

Dazed Digital: Was it daunting to embark on a biography of a whole family?
Paul Fisher: Not only is it a whole family, it's one of the most amazing and bizarre families in American history. For five years I've been living in a cave like a hermit trying to channel these ghosts, but what's kept me going is that with all that conflict and dysfunction they're like a troop of glorious misfits, almost circus freaks – Alice James once described herself as "Barnum monstrosity".

DD: Hundreds of books have already been written about the James family. Are there still new things to say?
PF: I think that every generation has to reinvent historical figures. We have to look at things freshly and find out what's important. People like Henry James are inexhaustible – especially with those ten thousand letters he wrote, there are endless different ways of understanding them.

DD: Still, can anyone really add to Leon Edel's famous five-volume biography of Henry James?
PF: People do say about that biography that it's the greatest biography of the twentieth century. The man squatted on the James papers and defended them against all comers. And, yes, it's daunting for everyone who comes after him. But one of the things that drives me crazy about Edel's otherwise-beautiful biography is how blithe it is – how he describes Henry James gliding from one exquisite European setting to another, Saratoga or Venice. I've tried to recreate that too, but I've also tried to get to the more mundane, trouble things about Henry James – make him a nearer human being than this monumental, heavy-jowled figure.

DD: Do you think Henry James revealed more about himself in his fiction than he did in his letters or conversation?
PF: He did write autobiography, and it's very rich and very textured. But many of his friends wrote back saying they didn't really recognise him in it – he was so unrevealing. But so often fiction allows people to talk about things that they couldn't talk about otherwise, especially the Victorians, and especially Henry James himself, who was so bottled up. He like to sweep unseemly things under the carpet, but he was a great letter-burner, but the more you study his fiction, the more you understand his life, and vice versa.

DD: Which Henry James work should a new reader start off with?
PF: Daisy Miller was an early novella that made a big splash. It was published in England and pirated in the United States. It's about a young American girl who's making herself wanton in Italy. And the whole mystery is whether Daisy is sexually innocent or sexually nefarious, which reflects a huge Victorian anxiety about women and sexuality.

DD: What about the later novels?
PF: They are absolutely gorgeous – The Wings of the Dove, for instance – but they're very hard to read. You need a running start.

DD: What are you doing now?
PF: When you've been haunted by the Jameses for this long, you need to go somewhere far away, where there are no Jameses. And Finland is one country where the Jameses never went. So I'm going to Finland.

House of Wits is out now from Little, Brown. Click here to read another Q&A with Fisher.