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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
But between 1903 and 1925 the quality of expatriatism changed. The European exile of American artists and writers was no longer unusual, and soon it became a myth of freedom and exotic stimulation which anyone could partake of—if he had a rudimentary income and wasn’t troubled by responsibilities. The year of Whistler’s death Gertrude Stein moved into the little house at 27 Rue de Fleurus in Paris that was to see the beginnings of so much modern art and writing. In 1908 Ezra Pound arrived in London and proceeded to turn English culture on its head. After that the movement became a procession.
Out of this impulse of flight and search came many of the most valuable achievements in recent American art and literature. But it is unlikely that James, for one, would have given it his unqualified approval. To be an exile was a difficult and dangerous thing, he had always felt; and he had in fact, during his years in England, continually urged other American writers to stay home. “It’s a complex fate, being an American,” he once wrote to Charles Eliot Norton, “and one of the responsibilities it entails is fighting against a superstitious valuation of Europe.”
Our over-regard for Europe, while becoming weaker, is not likely soon to disappear. There will always be those of us who have to go to Italy or France in order to be able to say that we are alive for the first time. But future historians will no doubt discuss a phenomenon of which James could have had only a premonition. The superstition has begun to work the other way: for every talented American abroad there is an equally talented European who has come here, or wants to come, for refuge, nourishment, and the satisfaction of his dreams.
* Given in St. James’s Hall, Piccadilly, on February 20, and later repeated at Oxford and Cambridge, this was a discussion-provoking summary of all his views on art.