Americans Abroad

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By 1903, when he was sixty and had not been home for nearly twenty years, the itch to return was upon him. He wrote to a friend that “Europe has ceased to be romantic to me, and my own country, in the evening of my days, has become so.” The next year he went back, revisiting the scenes of his childhood and youth and embarking on his first real exploration of the country. A year or two later, back in England, he set down his impressions in a book that ranks among the most illuminating interpretations of America that we possess, as well as one of the great travel documents of all time.

The American Scene was written by a “reinstated absentee” who was profoundly moved by the changes that had taken place since he had last been home. The United States, he wrote, was now a “society reaching out into the apparent void for the amenities, the consummations, after having earnestly gathered in so many of the preparations and necessities.” Yet he found its raw energy and bursting strength a source of mixed pride and horror. New York showed him “the power of the most extravagant of cities, rejoicing … in its might, its fortune, its unsurpassable conditions …” But it was also “the huge, jagged city,” each skyscraper a “vast money-making structure”; the metropolis seemed likely to become “a huge, continuous fifty-floored conspiracy against the very idea of the ancient graces …”

America was dominated by a “universal will to move—to move, move, move, as an end in itself, an appetite at any price.” And he wrote that “to make so much money that you won’t, that you don’t ‘mind,’ don’t mind anything—that is absolutely, I think, the main American formula.” And yet The American Scene was suffused with love for the great, clumsy, burgeoning country, with hope for its ambiguous future, and with reverence for its dilemmas, tragedies, and splendors. It was a source book of later American writing, as a James biographer, F. W. Dupee, has said, “full of the unborn spirits of poems by Hart Crane and plays by Eugene O’Neill.”

After the visit of 1904–05 James never returned to the States. He lived on in England, writing continuously, though his most important work was behind him. Honors began to come to him: a degree from Harvard in 1911, one from Oxford the following year. Then, on his seventieth birthday, in 1913, 270 of his English friends raised a fund to present him with a golden bowl (a reference to his novel) and a commission for Sargent to paint his portrait.

When World War I broke out, James, horrified at what he considered the German threat to civilization and dismayed by American neutrality, took a step he would otherwise have been unlikely to contemplate. As a gesture of solidarity with the country that had accepted him so generously, he renounced his American citizenship and on July 26, 1915, became a British subject. Half a year later he was dead. After two memorial services in London, his ashes were taken to America, as he had asked, and there interred in the little cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where so many of his ancestors lay.

Whistler had been the first of the trio of expatriates to die, in 1903. Sargent was the last, in 1925. For Whistler, recognition in his native land came late, and it was muted. It was not until some thirty years after his death that the ironic tribute was paid him of having his Portrait of the Artist’s Mother —a painting he had always thought of as an Arrangement in Grey and Black, its actual title—reproduced on a United States postage stamp issued in honor of Mother’s Day. Sargent, on the other hand, was able to see his name in large, bright letters on posters adorning the sides of Fifth Avenue buses, when a huge show of his paintings was held in New York the year before his death. And James’s reputation advanced steadily with the years.

But though recognition at home came in different degrees and at different paces, the effect of these three expatriates on the arts in America was very much of a piece. All three, though especially James and Whistler, helped bring American painting and literature to a new level of sophistication by placing them in closer contact with European sources and developments, and by setting examples of daring, persistence, and high seriousness. Ezra Pound’s poem “To Whistler, American” expresses something of what that meant to a younger generation:

You also, our first great, /Had tried all ways; /Tested and pried and worked in many fashions, /And this much gives me heart to play the game … 

You had your searches, your uncertainties, /And this is good to know—for us, I mean,   /Who bear the brunt of our America /And try to wrench her impulse into art.