- Historic Sites
To Henry James, as to his fellow expatriates Whistler and Sargent, the culture of the Old World was “vast, vague and dazzling,” yet they could never quite forget or abandon the New
October 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 6
At the close of 1923, when Sargent was staying in Boston, an important emissary approached his cousin, Mary Potter, of whom he was very fond. No less a person than President Coolidge, confided the visitor, nourished an interest in having the master do his portrait. After a good dinner, over brandy, Mrs. Potter brought the matter up. “You’ve ruined my whole dinner,” Sargent spluttered, and the subject was dropped.
Equally at home in England and America by now, Sargent had nevertheless taken on an unmistakably British appearance, a thing that prompted the acidulous Henry Adams to write: “I can understand how an American catches English manners; and how they do catch English minds!” His fame, as he entered his last years, was equal on both sides of the Atlantic, each country claiming him for its own.
During the years when Sargent was constructing his solid reputation and Whistler his image of eccentricity and avant-garde notoriety, Henry James was slowly—almost imperceptibly, he sometimes felt—becoming known. Today of course he is regarded as one of the three or four greatest practitioners of the novel in English, but during his lifetime a good part of what reputation he had rested on the fact that both in his person and in his work he stood for the Anglo-American relationship, the confrontation of the Old World in all its subtlety with the New. Whistler and Sargent were on and of the scene; James, to his readers, friends, and correspondents then, and to us now, was the scene.
After he had gained a measure of attention with Daisy Miller, the story of a young, artless American girl brought to a tragic end by the weight and complexity of Europe, James’s novels and stories continued to concentrate largely on the international theme in such major works as The Portrait of a Lady (1881). Their heroes and heroines were Americans who brought innocence and a sense of potentiality to the encounter with European sophistication and sense of limits, and their fate was usually to find themselves disillusioned and sadly wise. Later James turned to books with purely English or American characters and settings until finally, in the so-called “major phase,” during which he wrote his richest works— The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl —that motif returned, immeasurably more complex and resonant.
There was never a more acute observer of social and moral life than James. To get the material for his books meant an unremitting attention to detail, to subtleties of dress and speech, and to nuances of gesture, and he gathered these details through an astonishingly dense participation in society, plunging into English reality, on that level at least, with a voraciousness few men in a new environment have ever equaled. “I am getting to know English life better than American …” he wrote in 1888. Yet at the same time he would feel periodically depressed by the demands upon him that his friendships and connections required, so that we discover him writing to a friend once that “I am trying … to get out of society—as hard as some people try to get in.”
At length, in 1898, he purchased a little house in the seaside town of Rye, in Sussex, and installed himself there with several servants, a secretary, and a typewriter for whose “Remingtonese” he apologized to his correspondents. He never married (neither did Sargent; Whistler at fifty-four married the widow of the architect E. W. Godwin, but they had no children), yet he enjoyed opening his home to visitors and entertaining them generously.
By this time, when he was nearing sixty, he had become almost the model of an English country gentleman. There is a description by a friend, H.G. Wells, of James’s hall table. On it there lay, Wells wrote, “a number of caps and hats, each with its appropriate gloves and stick; a tweed cap and a stout stick for the marsh, a soft comfortable deerstalker if he were to turn aside to the golf club, a light brown felt hat and a cane for a morning walk down to the harbour, a grey felt with a black band and a gold-headed cane of greater importance if afternoon calling in town was afoot.”
Yet however much James took on English coloration and manners, America was never far from his thoughts. He had returned for extended visits during his early years in England and then settled into a long, unbroken absence. But he kept in touch through his contacts with visiting Americans and through his voluminous correspondence. On the eve of the Spanish-American War he wrote to William that “the blaze about to come leaves me woefully cold.… I see nothing but the madness, the passion, the hideous clumsiness of rage.” And apropos of Teddy Roosevelt a few years later: “I don’t either like or trust the new president, a dangerous and ominous Jingo.”