Thursday, June 6, 2013

That vigorous dorsal resistance which expresses the old-English idea of repose - Henry James, tourist

Another genre for The Country of the Pointed Firs: tourism fiction, of the summer cottage variety.  The narrator is always an outsider, no matter how she might learn her way and make friends.  After all, she publishes accounts of her adventures in The Atlantic Monthly, secure in the knowledge that no Mainer reads it.  Or so I presume.

I recently read another example of tourism fiction, also published in the Atlantic, this time in only two parts rather than four, the 1871 Henry James tale “A Passionate Pilgrim.”  It is the earliest story James chose to include in the 1909 New York Edition of his work.  So James suppressed his early noirs and Civil War fiction.  He heavily rewrote his earlier work for the New York Edition, but I am reading the genuine 1871 production, as collected in The Complete Tales of Henry James, Volume 2, edited by Leon Edel.

Edel identifies this story and a couple of others that James and I skipped as important because they “reflect James’s discovery of Europe.”  He had just spent a year in Europe, so he was pouring his discoveries into his writing.  The inexhaustible (or repetitive) concern with Americans in Europe really begins here.

The narrator, James-like, except that he hails from Saragossa, Illinois, is on his first visit to England of which he “had dreamed much but as yet knew nothing” (227).  He accidentally encounters, via some contrived eavesdropping, another American, a nebbish in England to pursue a far-fetched claim to an inheritance.  The narrator takes pity on the sad sack and helps him initiate a longshot plot to gain the inheritance by marrying a naïve heiress.  The plot has one pretty decent twist, I am not knocking the plot, but I will for the moment ignore it in favor of the strangest feature of the story, the travel writing.

Or the narrator’s – he describes England as if he is writing a travel piece for an American magazine, one very much like those James was writing at the time.  He is self-conscious about this.  The inn that is the setting for the first scene, for example, is already familiar to him because he had seen it “in books, in visions, in dreams, in Dickens, in Smollett, and Boswell” (227-8).  Almost everything is described in terms of its Englishness – this from someone who has never before been in England.  My favorite example, still in the inn, because it is so silly:

Bracing my feet against the cross-beam of my little oaken table, I opposed to the mahogany partition behind me that vigorous dorsal resistance which expresses the old-English idea of repose.  The sturdy screen refused even to creak; but my poor Yankee joints made up the deficiency.  (228)

I have never been to England.  Perhaps I would react the same way.

Tomorrow, I will follow the characters as they visit the “best thing in England.”  What do you imagine that is?


  1. I am exceedingly disappointed that the "best thing in England" doesn't turn out to be a cheese shop.

  2. Oh no, I've heard about those English cheese shops.

    "You... do have some cheese, don't you?" Etc. etc.

  3. I embarrass myself by admitting that I don't know the reference. Is it a Monty Python sketch? I was thinking of your Zola posts, actually.

    James didn't really write about food, now that I think about it.

  4. Oh yes that is what it is.

    My great challenge with James is his lack of interest in the concrete, the sensual world. At times it seems artless.

  5. "Venezuelan Beaver Cheese?" I almost almost almost remember that. Almost.

    Yes, James will give you 2000 words on the precise psychic pain in the hero's breast as he stands, slowly, at the small table in the corner to catch a glimpse of the fading sky through the window across the room, but James won't give you the room, or the table, or the sky. Not so much. You won't hear what the hero ate before he rose from that table, and if you do hear, it won't sound much like food. It certainly won't make you hungry.

    I think sometimes (sometimes?) James forgot that his readers didn't all live inside his head with him, in a plce that didn't need the concrete. Or there's the other theory that James avoided writing about the sensual because that sort of writing may have been too revealing, etc. But that theory doesn't help when you sit down to read his books. You still have to deal with the words on the page.

  6. Nothing is more tedious - no, many things are more tedious, but still - than a Python obsessive, but you stumbled on one I once had memorized.

    It has been such a relief that Buddenbrooks has been more like Flaubert (or, snort, Wagner) and less like James. A relief because I know how to read the former better than the latter.