The trans-At­lantic sen­si­bil­ity of Henry James

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By Martin Ru­bin Martin Ru­bin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.


By Hen­rik Hertzberg Na­tion Books, $19.99, 278 pages, il­lus­trated

Henry James is one of those au­thors whom it is hard to imag­ine as a young per­son. Some­how the pic­ture that flashes into the mind about him is of a stout, bald man poised be­tween an ex­tended mid­dle age and be­ing out­right el­derly. Per­haps this is be­cause so many of the nov­els we re­mem­ber him for now, like “The Am­bas­sadors,” “The Golden Bowl” and “The Wings of the Dove,” were writ­ten when he was in­deed mid­dle-aged, but even ear­lier works, like “Por­trait of a Lady” or “Daisy Miller,” seem to pos­sess — for good or ill — a grav­i­tas be­yond his years.

Only “Daisy Miller” (1878) falls within the tem­po­ral purview of this charm­ing col­lec­tion of travel pieces James wrote for mag­a­zines in the years lit­er­ally span­ning the decade: the first one on Saratoga from 1870 and the last on Lon­don the­aters from 1879. As The New Yorker’s Hen­drik Hertzberg writes in his brief but per­cep­tive fore­word: “Henry James was, al­most lit­er­ally, a born trav­eler. He was barely six months old in Oc­to­ber 1843, when, with his fam­ily, he crossed the At­lantic for the first time … . He made four more cross­ings in his teens, at­tend­ing a be­wil­der­ing va­ri­ety of schools, study­ing with a suc­ces­sion of pri­vate tu­tors, and mak­ing him­self a bilin­gual habitue of Lon­don, Paris and Geneva. In the 1860s, he was back in the United States, mostly in Bos­ton and Cam­bridge. He didn’t re­turn to Europe un­til 1869, this time as a full­grown man and em­phat­i­cally on his own, for fif­teen months of in­ten­sive travel.”

The ef­fect of this un­usu­ally cosmopolitan up­bring­ing and young man­hood was to en­able him, even at the out­set of his long ca­reer, to look on both his na­tive land and Europe with a preter­nat­u­ral com­bi­na­tion of in­grained fa­mil­iar­ity with an out­sider’s per­spec­tive. A unique com­bi­na­tion that flow­ered into the truly trans-At­lantic sen­si­bil­ity, which dis­tin­guishes so much of his fic­tion.

So it is no sur­prise to find him able to com­ment with equal ease on the the­aters of Lon­don and Paris, the spa towns of Saratoga Springs in New York and Ham­burg in Ger­many, “The Af­ter-Sea­son at Rome” in 1873 and, five years on, “Lon­don in the Dead Sea­son.” In th­ese pieces, he is al­ways acutely per­cep­tive and orig­i­nal, and he can be just as much so in more bu­colic set­tings, from up­state New York’s Lake Ge­orge and Burling­ton, Ver­mont to North Devon in Eng­land. The Henry James of the 1870s does not just turn his at­ten­tion to sea­sons in the so­cial sense but is very much at­tuned to the ac­tual ones as well, with no less than a quin­tet of sum­mers, in Eng­land, France and Italy and an au­tum­nal Florence. In his ar­ti­cle on Scot­land, he views not only its his­toric sights, but dons the lenses of the English who see it largely as a sum­mer lo­ca­tion for deer stalk­ing and other forms of sport with the shot­gun.

Mr. Hertzberg com­ments, “For read­ers of th­ese Jame­sian post­cards, then and now, there is wel­come re­lief from the news of the day. The tribu­la­tions of war and pol­i­tics and rev­o­lu­tion al­most never in­trude, and when they do, it is only in a pass­ing ref­er­ence or off­hand phrase.” He goes on to quote some ex­am­ples, but I would take slight is­sue with this as a gen­er­al­iza­tion, largely be­cause of piece called “An Ex-Grand-Du­cal Cap­i­tal.”

He wrote it in 1873, two years af­ter the Franco-Prus­sian War had fi­nally achieved the long­sought uni­fi­ca­tion of Ger­many, much to the de­light of victorious Prus­sia and the an­guish of van­quished France. But the newly es­tab­lished Ger­man Em­pire had en­folded into it­self many a lesser royal house, in­clud­ing that of the Grand Duke­dom of Hesse, one of those un­for­tu­nate losers. Although James is a per­fectly happy “loung­ing Amer­i­can” in its charm­ing cap­i­tal, he is acutely aware that Hesse be­ing “‘ceded’ to Prus­sia” is not with­out a cer­tain st­ing to its rulers and cit­i­zens alike. When the con­quer­ing Ger­man em­peror rides tri­umphantly through the streets, James ob­serves tartly:

“I don’t know whether he saw any re­proach­ful ghosts there, but he found, I be­lieve, a rather scanty fle­s­hand-blood wel­come in the town.”

Mr. Hertzberg says that in “Trav­els with Henry James,” “We are trav­el­ing for plea­sure, and plea­sure is what James gives us.” True, but he is any­thing but a blithe, blink­ered ci­cerone. A re­li­able, if sub­tle, guide not just to out­ward sights but to what lies around and be­neath them.

The pub­lish­ers of this book have put a pho­to­graph of a youngish-look­ing Henry James on its jacket, but even then there is no hair atop his head and he seems to be look­ing pen­sively to­ward ever-greater ma­tu­rity. There’s pon­der­ous­ness along­side the sprightly in th­ese pages, his sen­tences are al­ready elab­o­rate. But there is also wis­dom be­yond their au­thor’s age and those sharp pow­ers of ob­ser­va­tion which are an abid­ing Jame­sian hall­mark.

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