Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 1. The Question of James’s Americanism

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XII. Henry James

§ 1. The Question of James’s Americanism

HENRY JAMES was born an American and died an Englishman. He might never have formally transferred his allegiance had it not been for the War and our long delay in espousing the Allied cause. He became a British subject in July, 1915. The transfer had, however, been virtually made many decades earlier. Of the two ruling passions of James, one was surely his passion for “Europe.” Of this infatuation the reader will find the most explicit record in his fragmentary book of reminiscences, The Middle Years (1917), record and whimsical apology which may well serve the needs of other Americans pleading indulgence for the same offence. James loved Europe, as do all “passionate pilgrims,” for the thick-crowding literary and historical associations which made it seem more alive than the more bustling scene this side the water. Going to breakfast in London was an adventure,—being not, as at Harvard, merely one of the incidents of boarding, but a social function, calling up “the ghosts of Byron and Sheridan and Scott and Moore and Lockhart and Rogers and tutti quanti.” In America, James had never so taken breakfast except once with a Boston lady frankly reminiscent of London, and once with Howells fresh from his Venetian post, and so “all in the Venetian manner.” Everybody in Victorian London had, as he calls it, references—that is, associations, appeal to the historic imagination; and, as he humorously confesses, “a reference was then, to my mind, whether in a person or an object, the most becoming ornament possible.” It was “with bated breath” that he approached the paintings of Titian in the old National Gallery; and when, in the presence of the Bacchus and Ariadne, he became aware, at the same moment, of the auburn head and eager talk of Swinburne, his cup for that day ran over. With the best of introductions to the Rome of Story, the London of Lord Houghton, the highest ambition of James was to establish “connections” of his own with a world in which everything so bristled with connections; and it is he who lets us know with what joy he found himself, on the occasion of his first visit to George Eliot, running for the doctor in her service, since thereby “a relation had been dramatically determined.”