The James family inhabited a hopeful moment in American history, a moment when wealth, prominence, autonomy, and talent combined to shape five siblings—William, Henry, Wilky, Bob, and Alice—and challenged them, often at great personal cost, to live up to the privileges which fortune had awarded them. Though two of the clan are known as glorious successes, two as dismal failures, and one, Alice, as a fascinating mix of debility and accomplishment, the family cannot, in any careful consideration, be reduced to such facile classification—as what family ever can?

“Never say you know the last word about any human heart,” Henry once wrote, and this is as close to a summary statement about this family as one will ever reach. For every one of the Jameses defied summation, shunned it as a kind of death: complexity, multiformity, accessibility to experience were what they prized above all else. A trust in boundless...


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