Americans Abroad

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Worn out by the excitement of his first day in one of the cities of his dreams, a young American managed to find time that evening to dash off a letter from Rome to his younger brother in the States. “At last—” he wrote, “for the first time—I live! … I went reeling and moaning thro’ the streets, in a fever of enjoyment.” The newly born and ecstatic consciousness belonged to Henry James, who at twenty-six—the year was 1869—was well launched on a promising literary career; the brother, who was to become equally eminent, was William James.

This was not Henry James’s first trip abroad. He had spent much of his youth in Europe, having been taken there by his father, Henry James, Sr., one of the most independent American minds of his day and a great believer in the value of foreign travel and education. But it was Henry Junior’s first visit on his own. And it was to start him thinking that he might do something almost unheard of at the time: leave America and take up permanent residence in Europe, trading the New World, with all its spaciousness and possibility, for the Old.

The movement back across the Atlantic was not entirely without precedent. There was the remote example of Benjamin Franklin, who had lived for many years in England and France; of Benjamin West; and later of Washington Irving, with his seventeen-year sojourn in England and Spain. Other men, too, mostly writers, had spent considerable periods abroad, although usually in official positions: James Fenimore Cooper, who had gone to France in 1826 as United States consul at Lyons and had remained seven years after giving up the job; Henry Adams, who had been his father’s secretary at the London embassy during the Civil War; William Dean Howells, who had been consul at Venice during the same period. James may also have heard by then about the strange figure of James McNeill Whistler, the painter who had been in Europe for almost fifteen years.

There was a rich tradition of European travel and study for Americans. Rome was filled with American painters and sculptors feverishly copying ancient works or prowling through the ruins, and almost every American writer of reputation had put in a Wanderjahr or two on the Continent: Hawthorne, Melville, Lowell, Longfellow, even Emerson. But to live in Europe was another matter. Emerson, for all his peculiar narrowness and basic philistinism, was not expressing an unpopular opinion when he wrote that “men run away to other countries because they are not good in their own, and run back to their own because they pass for nothing in the new places.”

That Henry James had not been “good” in his own country was highly questionable. Certainly he had not had very much outward success by the time, six years after the feverish days in Rome, he did pack up and set off permanently for Europe. But seldom has a man transplanted himself for more profound reasons than James did; it was the life of his art, not the life of his ego, that he felt would be better served abroad. For this immensely subtle intelligence had felt itself starved for material and above all for perspectives in the United States of his day.

The long catalogue of American deficiencies to which James was later to ascribe Hawthorne’s difficulties as an artist applied with equal force to his own situation. America had

… no sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church … no army … no country gentlemen, no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old country-houses, nor parsonages, nor thatched cottages, nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals, nor abbeys, nor little Norman churches; no great Universities nor public schools … no literature, no novels, no museums, no pictures, no political society, no sporting class … The elements of high civilization, as it exists in other countries … are absent.

Europe, on the other hand, was “vast, vague and dazzling—an irradiation of light from objects undefined.” James was to spend his life identifying those objects while working in the light they shed, but he was never to turn his back on the relative darkness. “I have always my eyes on my native land,” he would write to William. America and Europe remained always for him in the most productive relationship: innocence and experience, naïveté and power, newness and tradition. He was to operate at the center of those sets of terms, using their tension and interpenetration as the source of his vision of human life, and in particular the life of the American, that child of ingenuous hopes, great expectations, and radical inexperience.

He was almost alone in the endeavor. During these years, however—the post-Civil War era in America and the high Victorian age in England—there were two countrymen of James who also bore the title, or epithet, of expatriate. They were both painters, one a great innovator, the other a master craftsman. The lives of James McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent were to cross that of Henry James at many points. Among them the three men were to constitute a microcosm of America-in-Europe, to develop their art there as they could not have done at home, and to open the way by their example for a later generation that was to descend upon Europe in far greater numbers and with much more unruly passions and appetites.