Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Miller, Cheryl. "Bad Little Fictions." CLAREMONT REVIEW OF BOOKS (Fall 2008).

Fisher, Paul. House of Wits: an Intimate Portrait of the James Family. Boston: Little, Brown, 2008.

Occasionally, I like to imagine my ideal dinner party. The guest list changes frequently, but George Eliot, Edith Wharton, and Jane Austen are always welcome at my table. Not the Jameses, however—at least not given Paul Fisher's wearying account of them in House of Wits: An Intimate Portrait of the James Family. By turns self-pitying, hypochondriacal, and—it cannot go unmentioned—sexually repressed, a more frustrated (and frustrating) clan of eminent Victorians one could scarcely imagine. In any event, the scheduling would be a nightmare, what with their many engagements and even more numerous nervous breakdowns. House of Wits might have been much more aptly titled "House of Fits." The trouble begins on the very first page, where Fisher, currently a professor of American literature at Wellesley, arranges epigraphs from Nietzsche and psychologist Alice Miller's The Drama of the Gifted Child (1983). Yes, it's that kind of book. Success, the Nietzsche selection declares, is the "biggest liar," and "great men" are "bad little fictions invented afterwards." The Miller quotation is all sympathetic psychobabble, with the poor "gifted child" suffering the agonies of "depression," "emptiness," and "self-alienation." There is no better summary of House of Wits: Fisher takes his "great men" and lays them out on the psychiatrist's couch, where he exposes the "gifted children" within, their fragile psyches still bruised from childhood traumas. . . .

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