The Whole Family

August 24, 2012

The Whole Family was brought to my attention a while back by Cathlin, sort of in the context of wondering whether Mary Wilkins Freeman had a sense of humor. And I haven’t got a definitive answer on that point, but I feel safe in saying that she had more of one than satirist John Kendrick Bangs. Both of them wrote single chapters of The Whole Family, a twelve-author, three-ring circus dreamed up by William Dean Howells and directed by Harper’s Editor Elizabeth Jordan. The idea was that each author would take a member of the family and write a chapter that was about that character but that also advanced the story.

For starters, that’s a pretty hard task, a combination of the letter game and exquisite corpse that, at the very least, requires the authors involved to keep their egos tightly reined in. But these authors didn’t grow up in the age of mandatory improv games in elementary school, and never learned that the worst thing you can do in this kind of game is block the moves of the people who came before you. If nothing else, it wastes energy and narrative momentum.

People have called this book a trainwreck, and they’re not wrong. It’s a disaster, but a gripping one. But it’s also kind of like two competing trainwrecks, or a murder taking place as the train crashes: you’ve got the total mess of the narrative competing for your attention with the meta-narrative of the infighting between the authors. It’s kind of great. And I kind of have a lot to say about it, so my thoughts on how the individual authors acquit themselves are behind the cut. Proceed at your own risk.

We start with Howells, who clearly had some pretty specific ideas of where he wanted this to go. He uses a neighbor, Ned Temple, to introduce us to Cyrus Talbert and, by extension, his family, and both Temple and Talbert struck me as being exceedingly smug and contented — two comfortable middle-aged men, neither of them burdened with self-doubt of any kind. They proceed to sketch out the personalities and backgrounds of all the other characters, and you can see the rest of the book rolling out in front of you: the vague excuse for a plot acting as scaffolding for a lot of quiet, easy insight. In other words, the kind of thing that’s done best by a single person. But it clearly doesn’t even occur to Howells that that’s not what’s going to happen.

He’s disillusioned pretty quickly by Freeman, who clearly doesn’t like the stereotypical old maid Howells describes. Her “Aunt Elizabeth” prefers to be known as Lily, and is indignant about the fact that everyone thinks of her as an old maid when she’s only in her mid-thirties, fashionable, well-traveled and attractive, and accepted as such everywhere outside her hometown. She does have to explain away Howell’s description, but Freeman does so fairly plausibly, and Lily is so engaging that I wanted to believe her. She also injects some life into the plot by having Lily recognize her niece Peggy’s fiancé as the young man who was chasing after her during a recent visit to a friend.

Everything after this is an attempt by the other authors to figure out what to do with that. Their attitudes can mostly be broken down into three categories: some seem anxious to reverse what Freeman’s done, or at least to discredit her character. Others are gamely willing to go along with it. And others, especially later in the book, clearly just want to fix things so that everything makes sense. Spoiler: that’s not going to happen.

Mary Heaton Vorse, next with the grandmother’s chapter, is very much in the “discredit and deny” camp, and does her best to turn the vibrant Miss Lily Talbert into a deluded man-chaser. She’s not entirely successful, in part because Freeman’s section is so fresh in your mind and in part because she’s revising what’s come before rather than moving the story forward. On the plus side, she’s the first author in this book who seems to understand that her narrator is an unreliable one. Freeman, for all her humor, is absolutely serious about Lily Talbert, and doesn’t see what every other author does — that Lily is one of those women who has no particular use for anyone without a Y chromosome. Among other things. Anyway, Vorse’s willingness to sacrifice a little of the grandmother’s dignity was a big point in her favor, and endeared her to me more than any of the actual content of her chapter.

I thought I was going to remain loyal to Freeman all the way through the book, but then I got to Mary Stewart Cutting, who got around me by allowing everyone their own good qualities, finding the beauty in both Elizabeth and Ada, the mother of the family. Her goodwill extends even to Peggy’s fiance, Harry Goward, although I think everyone else involved sees, post-Freeman, that’s he’s got to be either a jerk or a fool. Or, you know, both.

Cutting  also really knows the value of bringing on a gun in the first act, and she does a lot of very workmanlike stage-setting, carrying forward the story of Elizabeth’s “lost love ” and introducing another romantic possibility for Peggy, the engaged daughter, and I suspect the other authors don’t appreciate this properly. Cutting’s character is the wife of the the eldest of the Talbert offspring, and Lorraine, with her slightly unconventional but happy upbringing, her art school background, her sketchy housekeeping and her habit of calling her husband “Peter” and her mother-in-law “Madonna,” is someone I would have liked to read a whole book about. I may find myself seeking out Cutting’s own books sometime in the future.

Jordan, in spite of her responsibility as the editor of the project, seems to be declaring allegiance to Freeman, taking her version of Aunt Elizabeth almost at face value. Mostly, though, she’s continuing Cutting’s work in the previous chapter. Her character is the teenaged daughter, Alice, precocious and overdramatic, but she makes a point of fleshing out other characters who haven’t gotten any attention yet, like Billy, the schoolboy, and Tom Price, the eldest daughter’s husband. Billy is simultaneously the irritating younger brother and Alice’s ally against the adults. Tom is detached and amused, but clearly fond of Alice.

These two chapters, coming one after the other, can lull you into a false sense of security. Cutting and Jordan aren’t doing the kind of gentle social commentary Howells seems to want, but they’re playing the game: inching the story forward with good humor and kindness, and not letting their egos get involved. And then comes John Kendrick Bangs.

I was a little bit predisposed to dislike Bangs because I’ve seen the titles of the books he wrote. But after Jordan’s chapter, I was predisposed to like Tom Price. Just not predisposed enough, I guess. There’s something I really dislike about Bangs’ writing — a condescension that’s clearly coming from the author, not the character. He’s willing to let Elizabeth keep the youth, beauty and general attractiveness with which Freeman endowed her, but he strips her of her good intentions, which strikes me as a slimy thing to do. And then he doesn’t even make much of anything happen, which is the problem all of the anti-Aunt Elizabeth writers end up running into: they have to do so much explication that they’re left with little time to do anything else. On top of that, Bangs is one of the worst offenders of the “don’t contradict or deny” rule, twisting stated facts as well as personalities. And the whole chapter stinks of a worldview in which women exist only in relation to men. I am never, ever reading anything else by this guy.

And then comes Henry James. Did I mention he was involved? He gets Charles Edward, the “aesthetic” son, which is entirely appropriate. And then he proceeds to sort of…parody his own writing? Which is also entirely appropriate. I mean, there’s a sense in which Henry James is always a parody of himself, and I think this was written during the part of his career when he had a secretary and could reel off interminable sentences without really thinking about how long they were? So you get this rambly, self-absorbed young guy whining about how misunderstood he is, and constantly referring to Lorraine and Ada as “poor Lorraine” and “poor Mother,” to the point where I found myself wondering if something mysterious was wrong with them.

He does his best to advance the story, but he doesn’t leave himself a lot of time. It’s not so much that he’s trying to recast everything that’s come before, like Vorse and Bangs, as that he gets so caught up in introspection that he forgets anything else is supposed to be happening. And he’s Henry James — Henry James at his most ridiculous — so he makes you forget, too. But the thing about James at his most ridiculous is that he’s really fun. I mean, he refers to Elizabeth as “deadly Eliza,” which, on one hand sums up Charles Edward’s attitude towards her perfectly, and on the other…everyone else refers to her as Elizabeth, and she refers to herself as Lily, but somehow it’s impossible to imagine Henry James calling her anything but Eliza. All in all, this chapter was a bit like a mini version of The Ambassadors, but sillier.

Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, writing the “managing” married sister Maria, is, at least, a little more focused on the plot, but she seems to have taken everyone’s disparaging comments about Maria to heart, and is super defensive throughout the chapter. She also wants to rehabilitate Goward and fix things up between him and Peggy, which everyone else must have seen by now is a lost cause. Still, defensive and misguided as she is — although I suppose it isn’t really fair to call any of the authors misguided without applying it to all of them — Phelps makes things happen.

After Maria we finally arrive at Ada, as written by Edith Wyatt, whose first action, practically, is to turn on Phelps. See, James had Charles Edward talk to Peggy about Goward and determine that she didn’t really care about him that much. Then Phelps had Maria talk to Peggy and get her to say that Charles Edward was wrong and she did love Goward. So Wyatt steps in and has Peggy run to her mother and complain about Maria’s habit of talking everyone over to her own opinions. It’s a sequence that doesn’t really make sense if you don’t know about the squabbling authors in the background, but if you do, it’s enormously funny, if catty.

Wyatt is also the first author to give Peggy more than a few lines, and she makes her likable and present. her chapter, in a lot of ways, is a return to the Cutting/Jordan mode, letting you engage with the characters and (mostly) like them. Except for Goward. Ada has a pretty low opinion of Goward. But, without moving backwards too much, Wyatt does her best to make everything make sense, spending most of her time reconciling the ridiculous contradictions the other authors have left her with. I didn’t care that much about Ada and there wasn’t a lot going on in her chapter, really, but I kind of love Wyatt just for being so capable and even-handed.

With only three chapters left, Mary Shipman Andrews is pretty much required to start wrapping things up, but instead of seizing on the thread Wyatt has left her with — Peggy going off to Europe with Charles and Lorraine — she picks up another, older thread that nobody’s done much with — the idea that Dr. Denbigh, the local doctor and a family friend, has a thing for Peggy. She does this by having Lorraine ask Billy to write down what he knows about Peggy’s engagement. He responds with a story about overhearing an exceedingly romantic but somewhat pointless farewell and becoming their gobetween. It’s all altruistic renunciation and misunderstandings, and it’s cute, I guess, but it has nothing to do with this book. To make things worse, almost the whole thing is in flashback, going back a couple of years and asserting all sorts of things we’ve seen no evidence of elsewhere. It’s like Andrews only knows how to write one kind of story, and she has to make this one into that one in order to contribute to it. It feels cheap and it feels cheaty.

Alice Brown writes Peggy, and I can’t imagine that she and Mary Shipman Andrews were very good friends after this, because she basically goes back on every single thing Andrews wrote. She doesn’t even bother to contradict it directly — just has Alice contrite and incoherent over making up stuff for something Billy was supposed to write. I mean, I don’t really know what to do with Andrews either, but this seems a little mean. And then she introduces a completely new suitor, one of Peggy’s college professors who also happens to be a friend of Charles’. It’s not quite fair to bring him out of nowhere, but there’s also a certain logic to it — Peggy’s got a whole life at college that we don’t know anything about, and it’s sort of fitting that she’s got someone in reserve outside of the family circle. Peggy herself is likable but dim, and I preferred Wyatt’s take.

The last chapter belongs to Henry Van Dyke and a “friend of the family,” who’s left to finish everything off. He brings us full circle, back to the smug middle-aged maleness of the first chapter, but aside from that, he’s fine. There’s no room for further revisions, and all he does is follow along the path pointed out by Brown. And at this point, I honestly can’t really bring myself to care. disaster is always more exciting than the aftermath.

As I read, I found myself trying to figure out what really happened — who was right, what was Aunt Elizabeth really like, etc. But the answer is that no one is right. For one thing, it’s fiction. For another, everyone is contradicting each other left and right, so not only is there no one true narrative, you can’t even piece together a definite sequence of events. I began to feel as if the book was like one of Henry James’ sentences, so full of digressions and hard to follow that any meaning seems to be loosely moored to the the sentence rather than residing in it.

And that’s one of the reasons that I can’t really recommend The Whole Family as a good book. Really it’s hardly a book at all, just a collection of egotistical ramblings and spite held together by a few broken threads of story. Which is not to say that it isn’t a fun experience; it mostly is — I mean, it starts dull, quickly becomes hilarious, and then slowly fades into dulness again. But you won’t want to read it twice.


  1. Wow, this sounds like a total mess and I kind of want to read it now. Henry James!!! How’d he get involved in this project, I wonder?

    • I think it was largely a political thing. Apparently he was friendly with Elizabeth Jordan but also [retty invested in keeping on her good side, since she was the editor of Harper’s. And then, William Dean Howells probably wasn’t any less famous then James, although he was definitely, um, less good.

  2. In a way, this book is very true to life because everybody sees everyone else from their own point of view: one person sees someone as a man-eater while another sees her as a vibrant woman, for example. But I can see why this kind of book never became popular.

    Another similar one that I’ve been meaning to read but keep putting off is The Sturdy Oak, A Composite Novel of American Politics by Fourteen American Authors, including Samuel Merwin, Harry Leon Wilson, Kathleen Norris and Dorothy Canfield.

    • Yeah, when I was trying to explain the book to my brother, we kept ending up talking about Rashomon. I don’t know if the fact that it isn’t a deliberate artistic statement here makes it better or worse.

      I want to say The Sturdy Oak sounds interesting, and it sort of does, but I think The Whole Family has given me collaborative novel PTSD.

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