Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 2. His Passion for “Europe”

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

XII. Henry James

§ 2. His Passion for “Europe”

But it is only in the light of his other ruling passion that we can rightly understand the force of his passion for Europe. Even more rooted was his love for art, the art of representation. All his pilgriming in London and elsewhere was by way of collecting a fund of material to draw upon “as soon as ever one should seriously get to work.” And is it surprising that he should have been impressed with the greater eligibility of the foreign material; that his impressions of New York and Boston seemed to him “negative” or “thin” or “flat” beside the corresponding impressions of London? The old world was one which had been lived in and had taken on the expressive character of places long associated with human use. It was not simply the individual object of observation, but the “cross-references”; or, again, the association of one object with another and with the past, making up altogether a “composition.” Whatever person or setting caught his attention, it was always because it “would fall into a picture or a scene.” Of the heroine of The American, a young French woman of rank, the hero observed that she was “a kind of historical formation.” And along with his material, James found abroad a favourable air in which to do his work. There he found those stimulating contacts, there he could observe from within those movements in the world of art, which were of such prime importance for his own development. Lambert Strether, in The Ambassadors, represents the deprivations of a man of letters, strikingly suggestive in many ways of James himself, condemned to labour in the provincial darkness of “Woollett, Massachusetts.”

In all this our American author seems identified with anything but the American scene; and the case is not altered when we consider his stories on the side of form. His form is not American, nor his preoccupation with form. It is as strictly international as that of Poe. James was a profound admirer of Hawthorne; but so was he an admirer of Balzac and of George Sand, and it is probably to later models than any of these that he owes whatever is most characteristic in his technique. There is at any rate nothing here drawn from American sources rather than from European; nothing which we can claim as our production.

Yet we have reasons for our claim upon him. This very passion for Europe, as he has exhibited it in himself and in so many of his creatures, this European “adventure” of Lambert Strether and Isabel Archer (of The Portrait of a Lady)—what more purely American product can be conceived? Even to the conscientiousness with which young James did his London sightseeing, mindful of his own feeble health, which threatened to cut it short, and above all mindful “that what he was doing, could he but put it through, would be intimately good for him!”