Sunday, August 30, 2015

Henry James reflects on our national idiosyncrasies - we like the old, old world

“There is perhaps no subject on which I have reflected more than on our national idiosyncrasies.”

From “The Pension Beaurepas” (1879).  Not James or his James-like narrator but another character, a Europeanized American who is by definition not to be trusted.  The passage continues:

“I am afraid you don't approve of them,” said I, a little brutally.

Brutal indeed my proposition was, and Mrs. Church was not prepared to assent to it in this rough shape.   She dropped her eyes on her book, with an air of acute meditation.  Then, raising them, “We are very crude,” she softly observed – “we are very crude.”

I have been reading, around The American (1877), a narrow little cluster of James works on the same theme, the big “America versus Europe” theme he had recently discovered and was making his own.  “Four Meetings” (1877), in which thirty* hours in Europe is enough to ruin the life of an American woman; “Daisy Miller: A Study,” a big hit for James; The  Europeans (1878), which reverses The American, with the Europeans coming to a Boston suburb; “An International Episode,” Europe-to-America followed by America-to-Europe, with a Daisy Miller who reads books, maybe too many; and “The Pension Beaurepas,” with two Daisy Miller variants.

James was using his fiction to test out the character types he was encountering or inventing, rearranging them, varying their attitude, intelligence and naïveté, and trying out different points of view.  So 1877 sees a phony French countess in “Four Meetings” and a real one in The American, and then a real German Baroness – but who is actually or also an American! – in The Europeans.  A little Jamesian joke is that there are no Europeans in The Europeans.

The great discovery for James seems to have been not so much the “versus” theme but the existence of the Europeanized Americans, the Americans who have become more European than the Europeans.  They are the dangerous ones.  Daisy Miller is full of life, but, in “Daisy Miller,” so is Europe, at least the part without stagnant water and mosquitoes, and so are Europeans.  The lifeless energy-drains are  Americans who have become Europeanized.  “’We like the old, trodden paths; we like the old, old world’” says Mrs. Church, declaiming against American crudity.  Mrs. Church, I remind myself, is an American.

I take all of this as a great irony of James, since he was in the process of becoming a Europeanized American himself.  He loved Europe.  “Four Meetings” is meant to be a tragedy, or possibly a nightmare.  He must have met plenty of expatriates who he took as warnings – don’t end up like that.

It is as if James were preparing to write The Portrait of a Lady (1880-1).  At some point, that is certainly what he was doing, although I am not sure when Portrait began to gel.  James had the luxury of selling his preparatory sketches.  It is as if I am preparing to read The Portrait of a Lady.  I suppose so.

* No, an error: only thirteen hours! Thanks, Di.


  1. i see james as examining process through analyzing different characteristics in the types of personality he is meeting over there. a sort of search for honesty or truth as exemplified in how his subjects cope with an alien environment; maybe he's not so much interested in criticizing as in defining from a sociological point of view. after all i'm sure he was aware that we live our lives through process while being goal directed even if we're not totally in tune with that at any given time. how he includes an ethical element with all of that i'm not clear about...

  2. Yes, there is some sociology going on. Fiction allows sociology to move into ethics pretty easily. James has no problem signalling when he loathes a character, or would loathe the living equivalent of a character.

  3. “Four Meetings”: only 13 hours though, not 30.

  4. The words "thirty" and "thirteen" are very similar. That is my excuse.

    Yes, 13 is correct. I will add a note.