August 30, 2011

James: an inquiring stranger

It had been 25 years to the month since Henry James had placed his feet on the soil of his native country. Sailing into New York Harbor on August 30, 1904, James, then 61 years old, had made the trip from Southampton in an astounding five days. He immediately disembarked to search for his childhood haunts in Manhattan but found that little remained, including his birthplace, or what was left was substantially altered. He spent his first night back in the United States with the family of his publisher, George Harvey, president of Harper & Bros.

James later admitted that he had "the freshness of eye, outward and inward" which left him "an inquiring stranger" and a "pilgrim with the longest list of questions." This perspective was advantageous for an author, and James began contributing essays for Harper's Weekly, which later made up the bulk of his book The American Scene. That book collected his impressions of New England — including Boston, Concord, and Salem — as well as several chapters on New York. His visits to Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Richmond, Charleston, and Florida were also recounted.

During his return to the United States, James visited with friends including Mark Twain and Edith Wharton. In fact, he kept a demanding schedule. "I am bearing up a little bewilderedly," he admitted to a friend. The excitement left "a chasm of immeasurable width" that almost made him "forget the old world." It certainly did not allow him to forget his own old life in the United States. One of the most important stops in his journey was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he visited the grave of his parents and his sister Alice James for the first time. As he wrote:

It was the moment, it was the hour, it was the blessed flood of emotion that broke out... and carried me away. I seemed then to know why I had done this; I seemed to know why I had come... Everything was there... the recognition, stillness, the strangeness, the pity and the sanctity and the terror, the breath-catching passion and the divine relief of tears.

James spent less than a year in the United States before returning to Europe. About a decade later, he became a British subject. It was as a British national that he died in 1916; his ashes were brought back to Cambridge and laid to rest beside his family.

*Information in this post comes from Henry James: The Imagination of Genius (1999) by Fred Kaplan.

No comments:

Post a Comment