Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The sentiment of beauty - James looks around

Ransom had heard that the Cape was the Italy, so to speak, of Massachusetts…

I take this line as Jamesian sarcasm.  It comes early in the remarkable Chapter 35 of The Bostonians, in which Basil Ransom, out on the Cape in pursuit of Verena Tarrant, goes for a walk.  On the walk he meets Dr. Prance, my favorite character, and their conversation moves the story along, but that is only half the chapter.  In the earlier half, for three long paragraphs, Ransom just kinda looks around.

…  the shadow grew long in the stony pastures and the slanting light gilded the straggling, shabby woods, and painted the ponds and marshes with yellow gleams.  The ripeness of summer lay upon the land…

And so on , not at all in James’s travel writing mode, but the more usual attempt to fill out the scenery around the characters in a way that matches their moods.  In a James novel it is rare to find anything like it.

The road wandered among [the houses] with a kind of accommodating sinuosity, and there were even cross-streets, and an oil-lamp on a corner…  there was quite a little nest of these worthies [retired shipmasters], two or three of whom might be seen lingering in their dim doorways, as if they were conscious of a want of encouragement to sit up, and yet remember the nights in far-away waters when they would not have thought of turning in at all.

Those Gogolian sailors are of a piece with the view of Ransom’s hotel, another description that mixes the visual and existential:

Sometimes people went to the door of the dining-room and tried it, shaking it a little, timidly, to see if it would yield; then, finding it fast, came away, looking, if they had been observed, shy and snubbed, at their fellows.  Some of them went so far as to say that they didn't think it was a very good hotel.

Ten chapters earlier, Ransom and the female lead, Verena Tarrant, had taken a similar walk around Cambridge.  It is mostly talk – the scene is the beginning of their romance – but include little inset comments on Tarrant’s home neighborhood, where the houses “looked as if they had been constructed by the nearest carpenter and his boy,” and then of Harvard and, in some detail, the MemorialHall.  Some – too much – of the latter is in the travel-writing mode:

The yard, or college-precinct, is traverse by a number of straight paths, over which, at certain hours of the day, a thousand undergraduates, with books under their arm and youth in their step, flit from one school to another.  (Ch. 25)

But not now, so why mention them, except that the narrator has turned into a tour guide.  Or perhaps that is Tarrant showing Ransom around more pedantically than I had understood.

Ransom, a Confederate veteran, is given a good moment in the Memorial Hall, where his victorious opponents are honored:

For Ransom these things were not a challenge nor a taunt; they touched him with respect, with the sentiment of beauty.

A nice touch is when he abandons Tarrant, a pretty girl with whom he is falling in love, to look at the names of the dead a second time, “and read again the names of the various engagements, at several of which he had been present.”

I have noticed more descriptive passages in James’s short fiction from roughly the same time, too.  This impulse fades away, yes, as his concerns become increasingly interior?  But for a little while he lets his character just look around them.


  1. Interesting that you draw attention to these descriptive passages in this period of HJ's work. His brothers were involved in the Civil War, if I remember rightly, which might have given poignancy to that last quotation. And what a great last phrase, that you pick out for your heading: good title for a novel...

  2. Yes, Wilkie and Bob were Union soldiers; Basil Ransom could have shot at their fictional counterparts. They both joined black regiments. They actually reverse Basil Ransom - after the war they both moved south, to Florida. Too bad there was no comparable Floridian novelist to write about them.