Henry James The American

Henry James and Edith Wharton in Europe

  • Theme: American literature in Europe

The period following the 1860s in America was one of conspicuous wealth and excess that has come to be known as the “Gilded Age”. Immediately following the horrors of civil war, this was a time of renewed national confidence and social reconstruction, of world fairs and industrial innovation, of the growth of international travel and the leisure class. In fact, these were also the formative years of the transatlantic tourist industry, when genteel Bostonian families like the Jameses, the Lowells, the Holmeses, and the Adamses, would enjoy grand, leisurely tours of London, Paris, and Rome, Baedeker guides in hand. The complex interaction of American “innocents abroad” (like The Gilded Age, the title of a novel by Mark Twain ) with the longer-established societies and cultures they found in Europe became one of the defining features of American literature in the later nineteenth century.

One writer in particular bequeathed to the next generation a distinctively “transatlantic” form of fiction developed in response to his own anxious expatriate status. In novels like Daisy Miller (1878), The Portrait of a Lady(1881), The Ambassadors (1901), and The Wings of the Dove (1902), Henry James repeatedly explored the opposition of European and American values. Early on, his characters and plots tended to dramatise the conventional contrast between European experience and American innocence. Towards the end of his life, however, the author began to question this simple opposition, and replaced it with a much more nuanced play of perception and point-of-view. Although James ultimately resented being seen as an “American abroad” (he became a British citizen in 1915), his exile’s perspective helped pare away the commonplaces and illusions of this first truly transatlantic era.

Some of these themes and tensions emerge from a letter—one of many in the Library’s extensive holdings of James’s correspondence and manuscripts—in which the novelist procrastinates to Frederick Macmillan, his future publisher, about the delay on a promised, but never-completed, volume entitled London Town:

Then came the immense distraction of my going to America—which raised an immense barrier, that of a different, an opposite association and interest; and from which I returned saddled, inevitably, with too portentous complications.

Henry James, to Frederick Macmillan, 5 April 1908; BL Ms. Add. 54931

One of these “complications” was to be his “publication of an elaborately revised and retouched and embellished and copiously prefaced and introduced Collected Edition of my productions”. The so-called ‘New York Edition’, was eventually published in 24 volumes on both sides of the Atlantic by Macmillan in 1907-1909. The British Library holds a full set of the New York Edition (012705.d.31), together with more than 130 letters between the author and his publisher in the extensive Macmillan Archive (Add. 54931), discussing arrangements for the publication of his work”.

Another expatriate, Ezra Pound, perhaps came closest to the truth of James’s enduring power and influence. In a memorial volume published after “The Master’s” death, Pound paid tribute to James’s “great labour… of translation, of making America intelligible”, and above all the “whole great assaying and weighing, the research for the significance of nationality”. Pound recognised that James’s “analysis” of these “national qualities” had become especially pertinent in his own time of international conflict:

As Armageddon has only too clearly shown, national qualities are the great gods of the present and Henry James spent himself from the beginning in an analysis of these potent chemicals; trying to determine from the given microscope slide the nature of Frenchness, Englishness, Germanness, Americanness, which chemicals, too little regarded, have in our time exploded for want of watching. They are the permanent and fundamental hostilities and incompatibles. We may rest our claim for his greatness in the magnitude of his protagonists, in the magnitude of the forces he analyzed and portrayed. This is not the bare matter of a number of titled people, a few duchesses and a few butlers.

Ezra Pound, “A Shake Down”, in The Little Review, “Henry James Number”, August 1918, vol. 3, ed. by Margaret Anderson and Ezra Pound (Cup.503.ee.1).

Even if they were not aware, or did not care to acknowledge the fact, it was in terms framed by Henry James’s fiction that the next generation of literary expatriates—the “Lost Generation”—understood their own ambiguous position as Americans in Europe.

In fact, one of the most important and influential authors who trod directly in James's European footsteps was his friend and fellow expatriate Edith Wharton. Wharton's work is well represented at the British Library, as might be expected of another novelist published by MacMillan on both sides of the Atlantic (her correspondence with the company alone runs to some 200 letters; Add.54956-54957). Indeed, as Hermione Lee's recent biography makes clear, Wharton was in some ways James's protegé, both in experience and literary concern (Lee, Edith Wharton, 2007; BL: m07/.17334 DSC). Her fiction often depicts American characters travelling in a semi-mythical Europe, characters at once displaced from their American roots but also confounded by the myriad complexities and corruptions of the “old world”. In fact, like Gertrude Stein, Wharton made Paris her home in the early years of the twentieth century and became a prominent literary hostess: Theodore and Eleanor Roosevelt visited during their world tour in 1909-1910, as did many other American notables of the period, including the Vanderbilts and the Tafts. Wharton was no less hospitable to the French avant-garde, entertaining poets and writers including Bourget, Valéry, Maurois, Gide, Rilke, Rodin, and Cocteau. Between them, James and Wharton presided over this seminal period of transatlantic travel and cultural exchange, and left a sophisticated record of the stimulations and anxieties of a generation of highly privileged, cosmopolitan American expatriates


Henry James, The American (London: Ward, Locke & Co., 1877).

Henry James The American

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Henry James, letter to Frederick Macmillan, 5 April 1908

Henry James letter

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