Traveling often throughout his long and productive life, Henry James wrote fiction and travel literature about Americans in Europe and Europeans in America during the great epoch of transatlantic tourism and exchange in the second half of the 19th century. Born to a family of writers in New York City before the Civil War, he died in London during World War I, a distinguished citizen of Great Britain and a major novelist in the “great tradition” of European letters. Though he is best known as a master of the international theme in tales and novels such as The Ambassadors (1903), The Portrait of a Lady (1881), and Daisy Miller (1878), James—like his friends and fellow novelists Edith Wharton, William Dean Howells, and Henry Adams—also wrote letters and sketches that enrich and expand the genre of travel literature while tracing a history of taste, culture, and the writer’s art.
James’s father, Henry James Sr. (1811–1882), an affluent and well-connected journalist who wrote and lectured on religious subjects, designed a “sensuous education” for his namesake and for Henry’s elder brother, William (1842–1910). Like her husband, the self-effacing Mary Robertson Walsh James (1810–1882) was descended from Irish immigrants who had prospered in New York State early in the 19th century. During the 1840s and 1850s the Jameses relocated from one European or American intellectual and social capital to another, learning foreign languages, reading eclectically, and exploring professional possibilities outside the traditional American world of business. In his first volume of memoirs, A Small Boy and Others (1913), Henry James Jr. recalled his “very most infantine sensibility” as beholding a “view, framed by the clear window of the [carriage] as we passed” the Napoleonic column and “monumental square” of the Place Vendôme in Paris. This perception in James’s second year of life (confirmed by his parents’ recollections) portends the “spirit of place” that the mature James later evoked in his travel writing as well as his fiction.
James’s accounts of his juvenile travels in England, France, Switzerland, and Germany appear in his memoirs and letters. During the 1860s the Jameses stayed on the American side of the Atlantic (in Boston, New York, Newport, and Cambridge), and Henry spent one academic year at Harvard Law School (1862–1863) and began to publish stories and reviews in American magazines and journals. In 1869 the family financed a grand tour of Europe for him with the intention that, like his brother William (recently returned to Cambridge, Massachusetts), Henry would proceed to Germany to study philosophy and languages. (He was already fluent in French and Italian.)
Committed to a literary life of his own design, however, James, after consorting with the American community and family friends in England, took another path. His voluminous correspondence charts his wandering path through France and Switzerland until at last—as he wrote his only sister, Alice James (1850–1892) on August 31, 1869—he crossed the Simplon Pass on foot into Italy: “the delight of seeing the north melt into the south—of seeing Italy gradually crop up in bits ... until finally at the little frontier Village of Isella it lay before me warm and living and palpable (warm, especially)–all these fine things bestowed upon the journey a delightful flavor of romance.” Ecstatically he wrote to William James from Rome on October 30,
At last—for the first time I live! It beats everything: it leaves the Rome of your fancy—your education—nowhere. ... I went reeling and moaning thro’ the streets, in a fever of enjoyment. In the course of four or five hours I traversed almost the whole of Rome and got a glimpse of everything. ... For the first time I know what the picturesque is.
None of James’s family—except for his younger brother Robertson (1846–1910) on a school trip—had visited Italy. To the end of his life it remained a favored destination for Henry James. He used it as a fictional setting and as a topic for travel pieces in which he evoked what Bonney MacDonald has called “a distinctly Jamesian reverence for a grandeur that is larger than himself.”
After returning to the United States in the spring of 1870 James wrote his first novel, Watch and Ward (1878), serialized in The Atlantic Monthly in August–December 1871, and published his first travel writings, not descriptions of his visit to Europe but sketches of New York and New England resorts, and a description of Quebec, in The Nation during 1870 and 1871. According to Ahmed M. Metwalli these pieces already display the “double consciousness” that characterizes James’s fiction, the “pull of the past and the push of the present.” “Quebec” (The Nation, September 28– October 5, 1871), James’s first travel piece set outside the United States, suggests the author’s passion for sensations beyond the boundaries of the New World as well as his sense that the revolutionary model of American life threatened the Old World. Admiring the “transatlantic wares” of this “picturesque” city, he declared, “not America, but Europe should have the credit of Quebec,” which is “belted with its hoary wall and crowned with its granite citadel”:
These walls, to the American vision, are of course the sovereign fact of Quebec. ... Before you reach the gates, however, you will have been reminded at a dozen points that you have come abroad. What is the essential difference of tone between street-life in an old civilization and in a new? ... It seems to be the general fact of detail itself–the hint in the air of a slow, accidental accretion, in obedience to needs more timidly considered and more sparingly gratified than the pressing necessities of American progress.
James’s perceptions of “tone” and “needs” position him toward the Europhilic end of what Metwalli describes as the “poles of 19th-century American temperament”; yet, as Metwalli points out, in nearly 40 years of writing travel literature James mediated in complex and varying ways “the conscious need of the public for knowledge, specifically that of its ancestral heritage and of the stable traditions and institutions of old civilizations, and its conscious need for national identity ... and pride in being American.”
However much James admired “old civilizations” or regretted the presence of fellow New-World travelers when he visited the Old World, throughout his career he consciously wrote primarily to an audience of American readers. He did not spurn his “national identity.” In “Quebec” he appealed to the highest democratic, capitalistic instincts of his audience to accept the boon of other nations and cultures: “it is of good profit to us Americans to have near us, and of easy access, an ample something which is not our expansive selves.” He found, however, that the “expansive selves” that visited the Old World brought New-World profit motives with them: “I suppose no patriotic American can look at all these things, however idly, without reflecting on the ultimate possibility of their becoming absorbed into his own huge state.” Thus, as James Doyle has written, “James discovers what appears to be a possible alternative to the raw and often ruthlessly self-centered society of the United States, but the peculiar historical situation of Canada, and the apparent commitment of much of its populace to a quaint, fictive existence, make the continued existence of the country a matter of extreme doubt.”
In “Niagara” (The Nation, 12–19 October 1871) James revealed tastes that drew him away from his native continent yet gained him no escape from the threat of modern, commercial culture. Approaching the falls “from the edge of the American cliff” as the train is about to cross the bridge to Canada, “You have a lively sense of something happening ahead. ... And here, in the interest of the picturesque, let me note that this obstructive bridge tends in a way to enhance the first glimpse of the cataract.” In line with these views James balanced the “perfect taste” and “matter of line” (“which beats Michael Angelo”) of the natural spectacle against the “hideous and infamous ... hackmen and photographers and vendors of gimcracks,” the “horribly vulgar shops and booths and catchpenny artifices which have pushed and elbowed to within the very spray of the Falls.” The hyperaestheticism of “this sentimental tourist” thus reaches a shrill pitch, but James’s style, here and later, has many tones, including not a little humor, as in the initial climax of “Niagara”: “A moment later, as the train proceeds, you plunge into the village, and the cataract, save as a vague ground-tone to this trivial interlude, is, like so many other goals of aesthetic pilgrimage, temporarily postponed to the hotel.” In terms of James’s developing style, as with many of his tales at this early stage of his career, this passage and others in his travel pieces sound built of old parts. Indeed, in other passages his humor may not even be intentional, as in “Niagara” when he commented on the “unlimited wateriness of the whole spectacle” (his emphasis).
In 1872 James crossed the Atlantic again to guide his sister, Alice, on her version of the grand tour in company with their “Aunt Kate,” Catherine Walsh (1812–1889). That summer James began composing his first European travel sketches as the three visited American expatriate communities and took in the prescribed sights in England, France, and Switzerland. In a September 9 letter to his parents he called their nights in Venice a “martyrdom” to mosquitoes but he praised the “delightful” days and the “abundant coolness on the water and in the darksome churches.” His sketches of these travels appeared in The Nation in 1872 and 1873. What James later described as his “church habit” asserted itself as the “pleasure of cathedral-hunting.” Four of his pieces were about old British cathedral towns, including “Chester” (July 4, 1872), “North Devon” (August 8, 1872), and “Wells and Salisbury” (August 22, 1872).
Even at this stage of his career James could give voice to “the spirit of place” in the “broken eloquence” of “English ruins” (“Wells and Salisbury”): “in so far as beauty of structure is beauty of line and curve, balance and harmony of masses and dimensions, I have seldom relished it as deeply as on the grassy nave of some crumbling church, before lonely columns and empty windows where the wild flowers were a cornice and the sailing clouds a roof.” James’s conclusion invokes the sublimity and subtlety of his lifelong aesthetic: “These hoary relics of Glastonbury remind me in their broken eloquence of one of the other great ruins of the world––the Last Supper of Leonardo. A beautiful shadow, in each case, is all that remains; but that shadow is the soul of the artist.”
That October, Alice James and Kate Walsh sailed for home from Liverpool on the transatlantic ship Algeria, but the 29-year-old Henry James stayed abroad to build a professional career as an author, if possible without taxing his family’s diminishing resources. James toured and worked steadily, especially in England and Italy, for the next two years, completing several tales and much of his second novel, Roderick Hudson (1875), which he finished after his return to the United States in September 1874. He also produced more than a dozen travel sketches for American magazines such as The Atlantic Monthly, The Nation, The Galaxy, and The Independent, with some appearing in several installments.
The delicate shadings in James’s early sketches associate this part of his career with the literary history of the American travel genre, as when his 1873–1874 series of pieces on Florence and Rome models the role of a “sophisticated” class of tourists who, in Willard Thorp’s description, “shun the spots where their meditations might be disturbed by the rushing hordes” and “flee to haunts whose charms had not yet been defiled.” “A Roman Holiday” (first published in The Atlantic Monthly, July 1873) exposes this conflict in the consciousness of the private traveler whose vocation at least partly lies in reporting his findings, which he treasures for their obscurity yet nonetheless publicizes. James first indulged the pleasure of a cognoscente’s knowledge and an artist’s pen:
Even if you are on your way to the Lateran you won’t grudge the twenty minutes it will take you, on leaving the Colosseum, to turn away under the Arch of Constantine ... toward the piazzetta of the church of San Giovanni e Paolo, on the slope of Clian. No spot in Rome can show a cluster of more charming accidents. The ancient brick apse of the church peeps down into the trees of the little wooded walk before the neighbouring church of San Gregorio ... ; and a series of heavy brick buttresses, flying across to an opposite wall, overarches the short, steep, paved passage which leads into the small square.
Having further traced the “portico” and “portals” of this square as “the perfection of an out-of-the-way corner,” James admitted on second thought that the church of San Gregorio is “a place you would think twice before telling people about, lest you should find them there the next time you were to go.”
James’s sketches at this stage of his career developed his art of fiction, contributed to the travel-writing genre, and preserved a moment in cultural history. These writings also helped to support him financially and to cultivate an audience for his fiction while at the same time he explored topics and themes that he later used in his novels and tales.
As Carl S. Smith has pointed out, “several dozen” of James’s tales and “some ten of his novels ... derive directly from his travels and travel writings.” Alma Louise Lowe judges that his early sketches “bear the same relation to his early fiction as [his] Notebooks to his later fiction,” and Michael Swan describes them as a “scaffolding” for James’s fictional constructions. The indispensable essay on this subject is Morton Dauwen Zabel’s introduction to his anthology of James’s touring pieces, The Art of Travel (1958), which treats the author’s travel and fictional genres in extended parallels. “Travel [for James] is not a marginal matter of romantic atmosphere” or “escapist appeal,” Zabel concludes, but “a cognate of the moral and historical drama” and “conflict of culture he saw as basic to his century.”
James’s travel writings of the 1870s and his great fiction that began to appear later in the decade manifest the “double consciousness” of American travel literature: the desire to penetrate the mysteries of the Old World and a simultaneous respect for the sanctity of such mysteries. Though in his travel pieces James shuns the “swarming democracy” of other tourists and winces at the “English and American families” moving into Italian villas for an “economical winter residence,” Christopher Mulvey points out that James, with “curious effects of irony,” is “one of the few travel writers who had the self-confidence to identify himself with the sorry being, the tourist,” and often “spoke of the ‘American tourist’ as if both he and the reader might be such a one.” James possessed the guilty knowledge that escaping one’s kindred masses for obscure corners might not only compromise one’s American identity but also might violate the “antiquity, history, [and] repose” the aesthetic traveler came to the Old World to experience.
In subtly negotiating these impulses and precautions James richly complicated the simplicity that Susan Sontag associates with travel literature: “Books about travel to exotic places have always opposed an ‘us’ to a ‘them.’ And this is a relation that yields only a limited number of appraisals.” The “us” and “them” of James’s early travel writings are not, however, the foreigner and one’s alien self but oneself and one’s fellow national. Later, less a sentimental tourist and more a working professional, he stood outside this dialectic, mediating between individuals at leisure and a large class of people unemployed against their will. At last, in his late style, he achieved a singularly universal consciousness that risks making any naive reader a “them” to his imperial “us.”
James’s early travel sketches also document a shift in the history of taste. Throughout the second half of the 19th century James’s passionate pilgrimage placed his persona in a dialogue with the artifacts of the past, signified by keywords such as sentimental and picturesque. Responding to changes in fashion, James edited out many relevant references to picturesque aesthetics when he revised his early articles for book publication; his early travel writing fits Willard Thorp’s category of a “predominantly sentimental approach” to travel, whose fashion had already begun to fade by the time James wrote in the decades after the Civil War. Partly James’s fidelity to the persona of “the sentimental tourist,” as he called himself, resulted from the young writer’s attachment to his models. In contrast to the overpowering and sometimes finicky self-consciousness that James developed in his later style, his early sketches unabashedly pony on the backs of previous travel writers and cultural critics. He sought support for a description from “Hawthorne, that best of Americans, who says so somewhere,” “fumbled at poor Murray again for, some intenser light on the court,” and dug into Walter Pater’s Studies on the History of the Renaissance (1873) for an appropriate memorial of Sandro Botticelli. “Open Theophile Gautier’s Italia,” he begs of his reader in “From Venice to Strassburg,” and you will see (first published in The Nation, March 6, 1873).
The most important of James’s many models was John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice (1851–1853): “Mr. Ruskin ... beyond any helps us to enjoy” and to seek “the picturesque fact,” to observe “a picture, self-informed, and complete” as “the pure picturesque,” James wrote in “From Venice to Strassburg.” As Bonney MacDonald writes in Henry James’s Italian Hours (1990), “James’s vision in his early Italian sketches is structured by his understanding of the ‘picturesque,’” in which impressions “are received by the eye as fully formed, unified, and self-contained.” Challenging this power to “see in wholes,” however, the objects of James’s picturesque searches are often particularly obscure and secretive, as in “Roman Rides” (first published in The Atlantic, August 1873) when James’s narrator finds himself “talking about ‘Middlemarch’ to a young English lady or listening to Neapolitan songs from a gentleman in a very low-cut shirt.”
Ironically, the attraction of picturesque spectacle-multiplied by publication of “the literature of sensibility” and an increasing bourgeois population-threatened the material base of this aesthetic. Gothic rot and decay, F. Hopkinson Smith wrote in Gondola Days (1897), are “the guardians of the picturesque.” Under the spell of Ruskin in “Litchfield and Warwick” (first published in The Nation, July 25, 1872), James discovered “the charm of the spot is so much less that of grandeur than that of melancholy, that it is rather deepened than diminished by this attitude of obvious survival and decay.” The only life adhering to an English ruin makes a
sweet accord ... between all stony surfaces covered with the pale corrosions of time and the deep living green of the strong ivy which seems to feed on their slow decay. Of this effect and a hundred others—from those that belong to low-browed, stone-paved empty rooms where life was warm and atmospheres thick, to those one may note where the dark tower stairway emerges at last, on a level with the highest beech-tops, against the cracked and sun-backed parapet which flaunted the castle standard over the castle woods—of every form of sad desuetude and picturesque decay Haddon Hall contains some delightful example.
The first hints that alien visitors are imperiling James’s “picturesque” appear in his description of Wells Cathedral, first published in the August 22, 1873 issue of The Nation. Instead of “the melancholy black of your truly romantic Gothic,” James’s persona finds the structure “too brilliantly lighted for picturesque, as distinguished from strictly architectural, interest.” Similar references recur throughout the travel sketches of the 1870s. James’s “lively impression of the numbers of people now living, and above all now moving, at extreme ease in the world” gives the ironical clue to a regrettable change: renewed traffic caused by the popularity of visits to such buildings has led to “improvements and embellishments” or “restoration,” which “is certainly a great shock. ... Wherever the hand of the restorer has been laid all semblance of beauty has vanished. Particularly vexing in England was the work of Gilbert Scott, ruthless renovator.” For James the original parts that survived Scotts restorations were a “frowning mockery of the imputed need of tinkering.” Later, in A Little Tour in France (1884), James asserted:
I prefer in every case the ruined, however ruined, to the reconstructed, however splendid. What is left is more precious than what is added; the one is history, the other is fiction; and I like the former the better of the two—it is so much more romantic.
James admits the subject is “a very delicate question” and does not “undertake a scientific quarrel with these changes; we admit that our complaint is a purely sentimental one.”
Yet no judgment is free from changing tastes. “Now it was Ruskin himself I had lost patience with,” he later fumed in “Italy Revisited” (first published in The Atlantic, April–May 1878), and in “Chester” he evenhandedly remarked that the “actual townsfolk have bravely accepted the situation bequeathed by the past, and the large number of rich and intelligent restorations of the old facades makes an effective jumble of their piety and their policy.” His “Florentine Notes” observe, “In the Carthusian Monastery ... one may still snuff up a strong if stale redolence of old Catholicism and old Italy,” but the “ugly” road “outside the Roman Gate” is marked not by the “truly romantic Gothic” of abandoned ruins but is fringed “with tenements suggestive of an Irish-American suburb” (The Independent, April 23–July 9, 1874). To James form was obviously superior to function. He approved of the castle of Vincigliata, a ruin rehabilitated by “the millions, the leisure and the eccentricity ... of an English gentleman,” who has “kept throughout such rigid terms with his model that the result is literally uninhabitable to degenerate moderns.” Twisting his maxim that the ruin is “history,” and the reconstruction is fiction, James conceded that each apartment at Vincigliata is “as good a ‘reconstruction’ as a tale of Sir Walter Scott; or, to speak frankly a much better one.”
Returning to America in 1874 after spending the better part of two years abroad, the 31-year-old James set about supporting himself as he had in Europe. His second novel, Roderick Hudson, concerning an American artist torn between love and vocation in Rome, was serialized in The Atlantic (January–December 1875), and he continued to write reviews and tales for magazines. He wrote no travel sketches during stays with his parents in Cambridge or as a bachelor in New York, where he spent the winter of 1874–1875 writing art and theater notes for The Nation. He also revised and collected his tales and travel writings for publication as A Passionate Pilgrim, and Other Tales (1875) and Transatlantic Sketches (1875).
A Passionate Pilgrim, and Other Tales, which he had earlier described to his mother as “a volume ... of tales on the theme of American adventurers in Europe” (March 24, 1873), appeared first, in late January 1875. Transatlantic Sketches, his first collection of travel pieces, was published in April 1875. Both volumes sold respectably for first books, but sales of the travel sketches were nearly triple those of the tales. James, however, had borrowed money from his father to purchase the printer’s plates for Transatlantic Sketches and thus speed the publication of the book. Consequently, the royalties on this book did not pay off his initial investment until 1906. James never entered such a publishing arrangement again, and the sales figures encouraged him to continue working in this genre.
Writing travel literature extended and developed James’s audience, advanced his lifelong campaign to support himself as a man of letters, and directly remunerated him for persevering in the peripatetic life he had known since infancy. Aside from the widely pirated Daisy Miller, James’s book sales never satisfied his expectations, but he always maintained a firm and well-placed readership. In modern publishing parlance he was a “prestige author” from the start. His publisher was the most distinguished firm in Boston, James R. Osgood and Company (formerly Ticknor and Fields and Fields, Osgood and later Houghton, Mifflin), the house that published the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and other American writers of the northeastern literary establishment in the mid 19th century.
All 25 of the essays in Transatlantic Sketches had appeared in magazines in 1872 through 1874. In republishing them James revised them considerably, beginning the process that culminated in the further selection and revision of some of these pieces for English Hours (1905) and Italian Hours (1909). He changed the titles of some sketches. For instance, he soberly reduced “An Ex-Grand-Ducal Capital” (The Nation, October 9, 1873) to “Darmstadt.” Among many insertions and revisions, James added 72 lines to the opening of “Swiss Notes,” first published in the September 19, 1872 issue of The Nation. James revised these essays further for Foreign Parts (1883), an abridged version of Transatlantic Sketches brought out by Tauchnitz, a Leipzig publisher of good-quality, mass-market books. For this volume James omitted four complete essays—“The Parisian Stage,” “The After-Season in Rome,” “The Autumn in Florence” and “The Splugenas”—as well as parts 2, 6, 7, and 8 of “Florentine Notes”.
The travel essays in Transatlantic Sketches may be his most cosmopolitan. In addition to his earliest published works on England, France, and Italy, the book includes the author’s only travel sketches of Germany and the Low Countries, which were not republished in another collection until the Collected Travel Writings appeared 118 years later.
In autumn 1875, just as Osgood was about to publish Roderick Hudson in book form, James returned to Europe, having convinced the New York Tribune to make him its Paris correspondent on politics and culture “to begin about 25th October, 1875.” (He engaged in similar contracts in the 1890s, writing “London Letters” for Harper’s Weekly and “American Letters” for Literature.) An acquaintance, John Hay, recommended James to Whitelaw Reid, the current editor, saying, “He will write better letters than anybody—you know his wonderful style and keen observation of life and character.”
Beginning on December 11, 1875 these letters, collected in 1957 as Parisian Sketches: Letters to the New York Tribune, 1875–1876, represent James as dangerously out of touch with his genre and audience. As Carl S. Smith writes, “The combination of involvement in and yet disengagement from the world ... that characterizes travel ... suited [James’s] particular sensibility.” In contrast, this intensely social but warily private man found it difficult to write of celebrities and public spectacles. In his fiction he frequently caricatured modern journalists who violate privacy for the sake of a story. Thus, although James became friendly with members of the French literary scene, including the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev and the circle of Gustave Flaubert, he quailed at taking advantage of his private access to these well-known figures.
In addition James’s style presented formal difficulties to a popular readership. His debut letter alone was certainly daunting. How many members of a mass audience would finish a first paragraph of more than 500 words, including the phrase “mutilate an axiom?” For Leon Edel and Ilse Dusoir Lind, the editors of Parisian Sketches, “The letters make rewarding reading if we can surrender ourselves to James’s constant need to intellectualize and analyze experience.” Instead of indulging such a need the readers of the New York Tribune met his chaste descriptions of French politics, exhibitions, and theaters with profound indifference. In July 1876, even though the previous Paris correspondents’ letters had begun to appear again in the Tribune, James asked Reid for a 50 percent raise. Reid politely denied the request, offering instead the criticism that James’s subjects were often “too remote from popular interests” and suggesting his letters were “magazine rather than newspaper work.” James sardonically apologized, “If my letters have been ‘too good’ I am honestly afraid that they are the poorest I can do, especially for the money! I had better ... suspend them altogether” (August 30, 1876). Bemoaning in his notebook his inability “to take the measure of the huge flat foot of the public,” James terminated his contract with Reid after 20 letters, the last of which appeared in the August 26 issue.
However frustrating its outcome, James’s newspaper work had supported his labor on The American (1877), the earliest of his important novels, which was serialized in The Atlantic in June 1876–May 1877. It also varied and extended his development of the travel genre. Even in some of his initial letters from Paris, James was not a reporter of current events. Instead he indulged a pictorial mode. In the third, “Versailles As It Is” (January 8, 1876), for instance, he shrugged off the “political aspect” of a senatorial election for its “picturesque aspect.” Ducking the cliques to assert as a priority that “palaces and gardens should be seen in the chill and leafless season,” James wrote about slipping out to “the terraces and avenues of the park,” where “long, misty alleys and vistas were covered with a sort of brown and violet bloom which a painter would have loved to reproduce.”
James later revised and republished three of the Paris letters in Portraits of Places (1883). Although these three pieces are affected somewhat by his attempt to write for a larger audience, in contrast to the other letters to the Tribune they immediately show James in command of one of his native genres and, with it, his maturing voice. In the 12th letter, “Chartres Portrayed” (April 29, 1876), revised as “Chartres,” it is April in Paris, and “All the world is in the streets.” Yet James denied the journalistic appeal of “the world” and went instead “to the ancient town of Chartres.” As populated Paris melts away—“relatively speaking, the church is fairly isolated”—his persona communes with beauty in admittedly inadequate words that may be, however, all his reader, the armchair traveler, will ever have of Chartres and the elevated thoughts it inspires:
I have seen, I suppose, churches as beautiful as this one, but I do not remember ever to have been so touched and fascinated by architectural beauty. The endless upward reach of the great west front, the clear, silvery tone of its surface, the way a few magnificent features are made to occupy its vast, serene expanse, its simplicity, majesty, and dignity—these things crowd upon one’s sense with an eloquence that one must not attempt to translate into words.
James returned again to travel writing for the final two Tribune letters, whose perspectives indicate some of the directions his future travel literature took. Perhaps in an attempt to infuse more personality into these journalistic efforts, for instance, “Summer in France” (August 12, 1876), revised as “Rouen,” anticipates his later travel style with its intimate and expansive first-person narration: “I write these lines at an inn at Havre, before a window which frames the picture of the seaward path of the transatlantic steamers. ... My head is full of the twenty-four hours I have just passed at Rouen.”
In a direct appeal to the travel-writing audience James also began to develop a practical voice that asserted itself later in A Little Tour in France (1884), his most successful book of travel writing. He directly addressed his audience in the second person, a tendency that, as Metwalli remarks, invites the reader “to join the traveler in touring.”
“Carried to an extreme,” Metwalli notes, “this personal approach rendered the travel writer more of a tourist guide ... and his account can be legitimately described as not written but told.” Likewise, Thorp observes that in these decades the “predominantly sentimental approach begins to yield to the kind of book which offers chiefly information and advice.” Correspondingly, “Rouen” concludes, “I have left myself space only to recommend the sail down the Seine from Rouen to the mouth of the stream; but I recommend it in the highest terms,” and likewise he signs off his 20th and last letter, “A French Watering Place” (August 26, 1876), revised as “Entretat,” by pointing out, “So you may go southward or northward without impediment to Havre or to Dieppe.”
In December 1876 James relocated from Paris to London. During the late 1870s he had a phenomenal burst of creative activity that included a resumption of his travel writing for magazines in both the United States and England. Indeed, throughout the 1870s there are few prose genres to which James did not contribute. He continued to produce scores of reviews for The Nation, The Atlantic, and The Galaxy. Some of these articles and some slightly earlier efforts were collected with minor revisions in French Poets and Novelists (1878), published in England by Macmillan, which also published James’s critical biography Hawthorne (1879) in its English Men of Letters series. Some of his best-known tales also began appearing in magazines, including the international success Daisy Miller (Cornhill Magazine, June–July 1878), a narrative inspired by an anecdote he overheard in Rome, and An International Episode (Cornhill Magazine, December 1878–January 1879). By the early 1880s he had also completed four novels—The Europeans (1878), Confidence (1879), Washington Square (1880), and his early masterpiece The Portrait of a Lady (1881)—all of which were serialized in magazines before appearing as books in England and the United States.
In this enormously prolific period James also found time to tour extensively and to write nearly 20 travel essays. The late 1870s and early 1880s were his most productive time in this genre. After resigning his job with the Tribune in August 1876, James traveled in France to Normandy and the Midi. The record of this tour, “From Normandy to the Pyrenees,” appeared in The Galaxy the following January. Its first-person discursiveness resembles the narration of his columns for the New York Tribune; freed, however, from the need to “gossip” for the mass reader, James sounded new sublimities: sitting “before the first fire of winter,” the narrator observes,
In the crackling flame the last remnant of summer appeared to shrink and vanish. But the flicker of its destruction made a sort of fantastic imagery, and in the midst of the winter fire the summer sunshine seemed to glow. It lit up a series of visible memories.
The first of these visions is “a great cube of white cliff,” boding a spatial and intellectual dimensionality the rest of the essay develops. At this early stage James’s dialectic of tourist and scene concludes in humorous shock and chagrin. Still writing for an American audience, James directly compared the Old and New Worlds. Regarding the Norman countryside: “This universal absence of barriers gives an air of vastness to the landscape, so that really, in a little French province, you have more of the feeling of being in a big country than on our own huge continent, which bristles so incongruously with defensive palings and dykes.”
Relieved of any need to fling himself on the “defensive” barriers with which “our own huge continent” prevents free range to the intellect, James adopted another stratagem: “a comparison between French manners, French habits, French types, and those of my native land.” The narrator assures his reader, “These comparisons are not invidious; I do not conclude against one party and in favour of the other.” James now saw landscape and human figures less as elements in a completed picture of the past and more as an opening for intellectual and social explorations of an emerging modernity, a shift that signals his change of persona from a “sentimental tourist” to one he later described as “the restless analyst.”
In this and other essays of the same year James’s style and subject underwent a transformation that paralleled his development from a well-to-do young man to a working writer. Specifically, he questioned the assumptions that formerly motivated him as an “almost professional cherisher of the quaint” and engaged himself in a new world defined by class and commodities. Doubt first arose as he exercised a tourist’s nearest approach to labor, walking across a series of swags, or vales: “The first fond strikes him as delightfully picturesque. ... But ... the fourth is decidedly one too many, and the fifth is sensibly exasperating. The fonds, in a word, are very tiresome.”
His lesson includes a visit with a shepherd who has been in feudal service for 35 years. The fatigued narrator resists reducing the peasant to a pastoral fixture and instead says that this man “professed himself very tired of his life”—a transformation from aesthetic appreciation to cultural compassion that James repeated in “Italy Revisited” (The Atlantic, April 1878). A country scene, in which a young man sings as he walks, first appears “generally ... operatic.” When he and the young man converse, however, the narrator discovers the human figure in this pastoral spectacle to be a “brooding young radical and communist, an unhappy, underfed, unemployed young man.” James’s persona now sees himself as “absurd ... to have looked at him simply as a graceful ornament to the prospect. ... Yet but for the accident of my having gossipped with him I should have made him do service, in memory, as an example of sensuous optimism!”
Shaken out of his “sensuous” regard and exposed to the material labor that is wasted on a sentimental traveler, James completed a process that in another context later that year he described as “a sort of Hegelian unfolding”(Americans Abroad, The Nation, October 3, 1878). As this once-sentimental traveler earlier saw tourism transforming its objects of regard by stimulating restoration, now the professional writer and cultural critic perceived another material change in “the old book” and “museum” of Italy: “as we move about nowadays in the Italian cities, there seems to pass before our eyes a vision of the coming years. It represents to our satisfaction an Italy united and prosperous, but altogether scientific and commercial”—an Italy similar, that is, to the industrializing nation from which James and other genteel Americans fled after the Civil War. This inexorable dialectic climaxes when, walking in the Tuscan hills, the narrator pauses at a “wayside shrine, in which, before some pious daub of an old-time Madonna” a votive lamp emits “an incongruous odor”:
I wondered, I gently sniffed, and the question so put me left me no doubt. The odour was that of petroleum; the votive taper was nourished with the essence of Pennsylvania. I confess that I burst out laughing. …
In “From Normandy to the Pyrennes” James revealed a similar preference for tradition when he found advantages for French women in arranged marriages: Being a married woman in France “does not mean, as it so often means in America, being socially shelved.” In this same sketch, perhaps reflecting on the American masses’ rejection of his letters for being “too good” James expressed a humorous scorn of the folk spectacle that sacrifices a “finer” form of manhood. The essay ends with James’s only paragraph of travel writing about Spain, whose border he crossed to see a bullfight at San Sebastian:
Description apart, one has taken a sort of pleasure in the bull-fight, and yet how is one to state gracefully that one has taken pleasure in a disgusting thing? It is a hard case. If you record your pleasure, you seem to calumniate your delicacy; and if you record nothing but your displeasure, you feel as if you were wanting in suppleness. ... I thought the bull, in any case, a finer fellow than any of his tormentors, and I thought his tormentors finer fellows than the spectators. In truth, we were all, for the time, rather sorry fellows together. A bull-fight will, to a certain extent, bear looking at, but it will not bear thinking of.
The self-conscious humor of this passage opens a way to James’s later style, which does not follow logical processes (or planned tours) as much as it registers phenomena that await a master’s poetic evocation.
In the late 1870s and early 1880s James added George Meredith, James McNeill Whistler, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, to his list of acquaintances. Despite his astounding productivity and active social life James also toured the British Isles and published fourteen travel sketches or essays on these visits between 1877 and 1883. In these essays, which were published in American magazines, he continued to make explicit comparisons between his host and native countries, tending to favor the conservative institutions of the Old World. Often, however, he abandoned these transatlantic comparisons to face with fresh directness not only the beautiful scenes that reflected the privileged class of society that frequented them but also the overvisited public places that attracted the less-winning elements of the population, a spectacle that portended schisms in the cherished old order.
In “An English Easter” (Lippincotts Magazine, July 1877) James wrote with some of the old satisfaction that “for one definite precedent in American life there are fifty in English”; “With us there is infinitely less responsibility; but there is also, I think, less freedom.” As on the Continent, however, James found himself little tempted to frame such customs as picturesque; regarding the “universal church-going” of England, for instance, he “hardly knows whether to estimate [it] as a great force or a great futility.” Further he abandoned an explicit international dialectic for one that places the observer in relation to the object itself: “If one is bent upon observation nothing ... is trivial.”
James’s maturing temperament and the “overflow[ing] population” of England were perhaps equally responsible for stimulating this new relationship. Where earlier on the Continent the sight of tourists had sent him “dodging” to find a picturesque focus for his sentiment or an obscure locus for his melancholy, in London and its suburbs he seemed only to glance at any stately frame before he shifted his attention to the human base that once supported it but which threatened now to crack. “London is pictorial in spite of the details,” he assured the reader early in “An English Easter,” but his sketch relocates the rural, ruined gothic to a site of urban dirt and decay—“from its dark green, misty parks, the way the light comes down leaking and filtering from its cloud-ceiling, and the softness and richness of tone which objects put on in such an atmosphere as soon as they begin to recede.” This “pictorial” tone becomes rarer as James’s narrator drags himself from place to place only to learn that “there are, selfishly speaking, too many people. Human life is cheap; your fellow mortals are too numerous.” Adding to “the hard prose of misery,” the “depression of business is extreme and universal.” As James wrote in “In Warwickshire” (first published in The Galaxy, November 1877):
with regard to most romantic sites in England, there is a constant cockneyfication with which you must make your account. There are always people on the field before you, and there is generally something being drunk on the premises.
James’s exasperation, though repeated at nearly every “romantic site,” was short-lived as he reminded himself that when “attempting to gather impressions of a people and to learn to know them, everything is interesting that is characteristic, quite apart from its being beautiful.”
It tests the parameters of travel writing to wonder whether these pieces may be properly classified within this genre since they originate from the place where the author had chosen to call home and concern not the classical monuments of nature and civilization but the passing parade of a modern nations working people. In “An English Easter” James described how he “emerged accidentally into Piccadilly,” his own neighborhood, to see a popular spectacle that, however far from “gossip,” his Tribune audience might have found rewarding: the funeral of George Odger, “an English Radical agitator of humble origin,” a shoemaker and a parliamentary hopeful mourned by “the most marked collection of the shabbier English types that I had seen since I came to London.” In contrast to his childhood vision of the spectacular Place Vendme from his parents’ well-appointed carriage, James’s persona sits in “a hansom cab ... drawn up beside the pavement” and watches this cortege “as from a box at the play.” Not “a tragedy” but “a very serious comedy,” the “play” James sees forms “a sort of panoramic view of the under side, the wrong side, of the London world.” The “double consciousness” of these English travel sketches thus shifts from James’s former oppositions of commercial America versus picturesque Europe, or of a sentimental tourist versus “trooping barbarians,” to a rapt but forlorn dialectic between the disintegrating feudal class distinctions of England, where he used to find pleasure, and now discovered that “numerosity ... swallows up quality.” Writings of such gravity will endure in any canon of literature in English. If they are travel writings, however, they make no appeal to “escape,” for the class dialectic obsessed James throughout his British travels. Leaving London for the Isle of Wight in “English Vignettes” (first published in Lippincotts Magazine, April 1879), he visited a “half-modernized feudal dwelling” belonging to “a rich young man” who “occupied it but for three weeks in the year and for the rest of the time left it a prey” to tourists, including James himself, “the would-be redresser of aesthetic wrongs”:
It seemed a great aesthetic wrong that so charming a place should not be a conscious, sentient home. In England all this is very common. It takes a great many plain people to keep a “perfect” gentleman going. …
People on the platforms at fashionable stops on the railroad give the impression “that the population consists almost exclusively of gentlemen in costumes suggestive of unlimited leisure.”
James may have remembered these perfect gentlemen and the “plain people” that keep them going when he wrote “The New Year in England” (first published in The Nation, January 23, 1879). In one paragraph he radically shifted from the English “social genius” as illustrated in a “well-appointed, well-administered, well-filled country-house” to the “most ineffaceable impression” of his journey. In a “populous manufacturing region” James’s narrator takes a rare dramatic action when he accompanies a lady with a Christmas tree to visit the children in a workhouse to assist in giving them toys. Looking for another Oliver Twist, “I glanced through this little herd for an infant figure that should look as if it were cut out for romantic adventures. But they were all very prosaic little mortals.” As James’s persona looks at the individual wealth of his traveling hostess, “the beautiful Lady Bountiful,” he realizes that she stands at the other end of the world from the poverty he sees in “the little multitude of staring and wondering, yet perfectly expressionless, faces.”
In December 1883 Macmillan and Company of London published James’s first collection of travel sketches to appear in Great Britain. The American printing, from the Macmillan plates, was published in January 1884 by James R. Osgood of Boston with a different introductory note. This collection includes three sketches of France that appeared in The Galaxy and The Atlantic during 1877 and 1878 as well as three of his 1876 Paris letters to the New York Tribune; two chapters on Italy, one that appeared in Century Magazine in 1882 and another that appeared in two parts in The Atlantic in 1878; eight pieces on England written and published between 1877 and 1879; and the four travel pieces on America and Canada that he wrote for The Nation in 1870–1871. Altogether, the range and appeal of Portraits of Places bear comparisons with James’s collections of tales at this phase of his career.
The introductory notes to the British and American printings of Portraits and Places express James’s characteristic self-consciousness about his new audience and his old travel sketches, revealing his cultivated style and the changing world it chronicles. His “Note to the English Edition” explains the pieces as resulting from “a stage of observation on the writer’s part which belongs to freshness of acquaintance.” Pointing out that the sketches were initially “addressed altogether to an American public,” the note adds that the writer’s “impressions have been modified and enlarged, and he would not to-day have the temerity to write letters upon England.” His note to American readers confesses a different problem: given the rapid modernization of his homeland, his sketches of Saratoga, Newport, Quebec, and Niagara have “only the value of history,” for “thirteen years” have brought “many changes.” Except for the early sketches, the pieces collected in Portraits of Places are more fully essayistic or more finished pictorial “portraits” than those in Transatlantic Sketches. The later travel essays mark again the distance James had traveled in a dozen years, from an alienated cultivator of the picturesque to an engaged mediator between the contending poles of his culture.
Yet James’s career followed few perfectly linear progressions, and not all the essays in Portraits of Places find him absorbed in the cultural analysis he developed in his British explorations. In the opening piece, “Venice,” first published in the November 1882 issue of Century Magazine, for instance, James is back to reading Ruskin and “dodging” sightseeing troops of “savage Germans.” Indeed, despite the sensitivity to class and the material resistance to the picturesque that he found on the Continent after quitting the New York Tribune, it appears that, despite his prowess in foreign languages, he reverted to his traditional aesthetics when he toured non-English-speaking countries. This supposition must be weighed with the fact that during the 1880s James developed his skill at the political and cultural critique in novels such as The Bostonians (1886) and The Princess Casamassima (1886), which sold poorly at their publication but received considerable critical acclaim in the 20th century.
As with all James’s modulations of subject and method, the sacrifice of one developing style is compensated by the delights of another. His next travel volume after Portraits of Places is perhaps his most perfect, climaxing his most active decade in the genre. The chapters of A Little Tour in France (1884) appeared first in The Atlantic Monthly (July–November 1883 and February, April, and May 1884) as a series of articles titled En Provence. In contrast to the sketches of his previous travel books, these articles cover extended touring and so cohere more naturally in book form. Though he worked with no definite commitment, James undertook his autumn 1882 tour for these pieces on the recommendation of an editor at Harper and Brothers. Later, when that firm was not forthcoming with a contract, James sold the manuscript to Osgood. James revised the pieces for book publication and revised them again for the 1900 edition, which had a new preface and “admirable drawings” by Joseph Pennell, making it the first of James’s travel books to be illustrated.
A Little Tour in France marks the happy convergence of an author at the height of his powers and a subject ripe for treatment. As he was writing the pieces for The Atlantic, he was turning 40, and in November 1883, Macmillan, his London publisher, honored his growing reputation by publishing the first collected edition of James’s novels and tales. With its bright, rich prose A Little Tour in France may be praised as the Daisy Miller of James’s travel writings, the text that readers uninitiated to the James canon find most immediately enjoyable and rewarding. James’s voluminous writing is often mistaken for ponderousness, and his searches for the picturesque may suggest world-weariness, but in A Little Tour in France his joyful speech parallels his travelers tireless and quick step as he rises from realistic detail to abstract thought: “However late in the evening I may arrive at a place, I never go to bed without my impression.”
Much of the thematic content of A Little Tour in France is familiar, but James avoided social commentary. In contrast, for instance, to The American Scene (1907), with its labored stress on 19th-century sexual distinctions, A Little Tour in France simply and briskly records James’s discovery of “no branch of human activity in which one is not liable, in France, to find woman engaged.” Instead of pausing to analyze a “commercial town” such as Bordeaux or Narbonne (“nothing but the market, ... in complete possession”), James’s “insatiate American” simply picks up his pace and pursues his path to Langeais, where he “marks the transition from the architecture of defence to that of elegance.”
The charming and disarming tone of A Little Tour in France seems, ironically, to owe something to its apparently rapid composition, traces of which remain in the text. More professionally and purposefully than in his earlier pieces, he employed an avuncular tone to advise the reader on matters both abstract and material. “There is a pleasure sometimes in running the risk of disappointment,” and “one always misses something,” but—the voice of experience warns the reader—“Breakfast not” in the “terribly dirty” little inn at Azay-le-Rideau. The humor implicit in such quickly scratched details leaps out in little set pieces, as in this description of medieval friezes of the Judgment Day at Bourges:
The good get out of their tombs with a certain modest gaiety, an alacrity tempered by respect. ... You may know the wicked, on the other hand, by their extreme shyness; they crawl out slowly and fearfully; they hang back, and seem to say “Oh, dear!”
Yet, however quick and varied its lightness of tone, this book also registers historic events:
Wherever one goes, in France, one meets ... the spectre of the great Revolution; and one meets it always in the shape of the destruction of something beautiful and precious. To make us forgive it at all, how much it must also have destroyed that was more hateful than itself!
The “spectre” he traces, like that of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper or the ruins of the ancient Roman theater at Arles, “makes the present and the past touch each other.”
A Little Tour in France is James’s most practical and delightful travel book. William H. Pritchard has called it “the closest thing he ever wrote to a guidebook” and has suggested that the book “could be useful still as a guide to southern France.” Edel pointed out that the book served “successive generations of tourists in the chateau country and the Midi.”
At this point in his career James, only a little more than halfway through his long and productive life, had completed the significant majority of his travel writing about the world outside the United States. In his remaining 32 years, as he advanced in the craft of writing fiction, memoirs, and criticism and experimented (disastrously) with playwriting, James wrote only one more original travel book, The American Scene (1907). Yet William Wetmore Story and His Friends (1903), James’s biography of a friend and fellow American expatriate, a sculptor and man of letters who lived in Rome, is also of interest to the history of travel. James took up this biography reluctantly, and ultimately he used the book to evoke and memorialize “the early flowering” of “the old relation, social, personal, aesthetic, of the American world to the European.” James also wrote occasional travel articles, especially on Italy, and on a grander scale he revised and repackaged his previously published sketches of Europe in English Hours (1905) and Italian Hours (1909), the handsome illustrated editions in which his travel literature has largely come down to later readers. James’s new articles and revisions of earlier pieces illustrate a third phase of his style, superseding his personae of sentimental tourist and cultural analyst and duplicating the consciousness he wrought in the novels of his “major phase”—such as The Wings of the Dove (1902) and The Golden Bowl (1904)—a woven web of sense and memory.
English Hours includes 92 illustrations by the distinguished American watercolorist Joseph Pennell, who had begun his collaboration with James by drawing thirteen illustrations for London in the December 1888 issue of Century Magazine and then did 94 illustrations for A Little Tour in France. This artist wrote a brief memoir of James, including descriptions of encountering the writer in Rome at the grave of John Keats; or “walking the calle of Venice”; or, in a rare evocation of the working writer, at his Kensington flat “standing in a red undershirt, before a high writing-desk in a dark room, which wasn’t exactly the usual idea of him”; and at his country house in Rye, where “he showed me the town; but as he always would take his little dog with him, and as motors tore through the streets, he was frightened for the dog. But I was more afraid he would get run over, though I think the dog did in the end.” The dusky impressionism of Pennell’s illustrations share a harmony of tone with the increasing impressionism of James’s mature style.
The title English Hours indicates a loose temporal organization extending from James’s earliest writings on England in the 1870s to two articles from the turn of the century that had appeared in American magazines but not previously in book form: “Old Suffolk” (Harpers Weekly, September 25, 1897) and “Winchelsea, Rye, and Denis Duval” (Scribner’s Magazine, January 1901). Marius Bewley interprets James’s cultural reorientation as a passage from “an admiration ... for Britain as a power structure—in short, for Victorian imperialism,” to an “ironic ambivalence” in which James’s late style is “already implicit.” James’s later travel prose has a self-conscious intensity in which the boundaries dissolve between the speaker and his subject as they do between the interior world of his later fiction and the nonfictional, external world of phenomena.
“Winchelsea, Rye, and Denis Duval,” the last-written piece in English Hours, further expands the travel genre by turning it to the purposes of literary criticism and history. Reading William Makepeace Thackeray’s unfinished, posthumously published novel, Denis Duval (1864), against its “haunted” setting, James’s essay expresses the” impression ... that the chapters we possess might really have been written without the author’s having stood on the spot.” Thackeray “conceived” his novel “as a picturesque affair,” but that “general poetic” is now “left well behind.” In fact, “we have never really made out what his subject was to have been.” Much the same has been said of many obscure passages in James’s later fiction; when this style succeeds, however, it marks his accomplishment of the final stage in his development of an individual yet universal consciousness.
James attempted to effect a similar transformation on his earlier pieces for English Hours. A prefatory note concedes, “I have nowhere scrupled to rewrite a sentence of a passage on judging it susceptible of a better turn”—a process Alma Louise Lowe described in part in the introduction to her 1960 edition of English Hours: “No longer a sentimental tourist, and aware of the changing taste of the 20th century, James deleted as often as possible the words ‘picturesque’ (which sometimes had appeared three or four times on a page), ‘sentimental,’ ‘beautiful,’ ‘pretty,’ and ‘delicious.’” As a further indication of the turn James’s style was taking, Lowe notes that after seeing English Hours through the press James began taking notes for a projected two-volume “romantic-psychological-pictorial ‘social’” book of sketches to be titled “London Town,” whose “style no doubt would have been as impressionistic, and perhaps as poetic, as The American Scene and Italian Hours.”
From the beginning James conceived of The American Scene (1907) as a unified book based on travel notes he had made during a lecture tour in the United States that lasted from late August 1904 until early July 1905. After James’s long residence in England, the narrative of The American Scene reverses the traditional theme of American writers discovering the Old World. Hoping to write another book about his western travels, James wrote about his impressions of life on the eastern seaboard, evoking his personal past while criticizing Americans’ speech patterns, materialism, and tendency to undervalue and thus destroy valuable reminders of the past. Mulvey finds in the book “a strange link with the sense of dispossession experienced by the American landing on the English shore.” Critical reception has been mixed: on one side W.H. Auden’s preface to a 1946 edition hailed The American Scene as “a prose poem of the first order,” and Bewley deems it James’s “most richly textured and brilliant book of nonfiction.” On the other Maxwell Geismar dismisses this “vacant, empty, and chatterbox book for its hysterical bursts of verbal virtuosity.”
In 1907 James, then in his 60s, toured southern France with his friend and fellow novelist Edith Wharton, who based A Motor-Flight Through France (1908) on the trip, and then went on to Italy with Italian explorer and traveler Filippo de Filippi. This visit inspired James to compile Italian Hours—as did a need to fill his “flat pocket-book.” As he wrote to William Dean Howells, collecting old travel articles into new books had “succeeded a little with ‘English Hours,’ which have sold quite vulgarly—for wares of mine.”
Published in 1909 with illustrations by Pennell, Italian Hours includes two entirely new essays—“A Few Other Roman Neighborhoods” and “Other Tuscan Cities”—and two additions to previously collected essays—part 2 of “Siena Early and Late” and parts 6 and 7 of “The Saints Afternoon and Others”—as well as two essays previously published in magazines, “Casa Alvisi” (Cornhill Magazine and The Critic, both February 1902) and “Two Old Houses and Three Young Women” (The Independent, September 7, 1899). 14 of the 22 pieces were originally collected in Transatlantic Sketches, making Italian Hours, even with James’s extensive revisions, a virtual encyclopedia of his evolving style.
Among James’s travel sketches that appeared after Portraits of Places, his most splendid European composition is the long essay “The Grand Canal,” which first appeared in the November 1892 issue of Scribner’s Magazine and was collected the following month in an anthology, The Great Streets of the World, which also includes contributions by Richard Harding Davis, William Wetmore Story, Andrew Lang, and others. (In both Scribner’s and this anthology James’s essay was illustrated with thirteen drawings by Alexander Zezzos.) James’s opening procession down the Grand Canal evokes “a hundred ... infatuations with which Venice sophisticates the spirit,” and the essay ends in his admiration of the “double character” by which things in Venice “share fully in that universal privilege ... of being both the picture and the point of view.” Here and in “Two Old Houses and Three Old Women” James reaches the furthest development of his late style in the travel genre.
The new essays James wrote especially for Italian Hours manifest the luminous and hypnotic obscurity of this final manner. In part 1 of “Siena Early and Late,” first published as “Siena” in the June 1874 issue of The Atlantic and collected in Transatlantic Sketches, James precisely savored the life of sensibility in “dusky alleys” and the “gossip of an inn-waiter”; in his report of the “late” visit added in 1909, however, “the incurable student of loose meanings and stray relics and odd references and dim analogies” holds only “a little faded cluster of impressions,” an “indestructible mixture of lived things” that “remain bright and assured and sublime—practically, enviably immortal—the other, the still subtler, the all aesthetic good faith.” In Carl S. Smith’s apt description James now “believed that the most interesting subject for him to see and write about was himself seeing.” James absorbed the “double character” or “double consciousness” wholly into himself and projected its essential alienation to the reader, who may find himself excluded or simply beleaguered by James’s late style. Like James reading the late Thackeray, “we have never really made out what his subject was to have been,” but without doubt the reader has witnessed a fulfillment of the courageous dialectic James tried all his life to advance.
In Collected Travel Writings (1993) Richard Howard includes four essays written for various publications during World War I in support of the war effort and on behalf of refugees in Great Britain. These essays serve as a lucid and powerful bookend to the world James began exploring and recording a half-century before. As in his finest travel writing he negotiated again the burdens of self-consciousness and those of the world he meets. In “Refugees in England,” first published in The New York Times and the Boston Sunday Tribune on October 17, 1915, overcoming “an elderly dread of a waste of emotion,” he registered the “sobbing and sobbing cry” of a Belgian refugee as “the voice itself of history; it brought home to me more things than I could then quite take the measure of. ... Months have elapsed ... ; yet her cry is still in my ears ... and it plays to my own sense, as a great fitful tragic light over the dark exposure of her people.”
In “Within the Rim” (Fortnightly Review, August 1917) he compares the effect of war in Europe to the “violence with which the American Civil War broke upon us” and acknowledges “the strangest of savours, an inexpressible romantic thrill, to the harsh taste of the crisis.” James ultimately reacted to this crisis in 1915 by resigning his American citizenship and becoming a subject of Great Britain to protest the neutrality of the United States in the conflict. In “Within the Rim” he related his position as a mediator of the Old and New Worlds to the buildings in which “the present and the past touch each other”: “I felt as the quiet dweller in a tenement so often feels when the question of ‘structural improvements’ is thrust upon him.”
James died in London in 1916, an internationally recognized master of modern literature. While critics have debated his greatness, an enduring audience of readers has discovered in his life and works a marvelous application of opportunity, integrity, and intellect to subjects that still confront the aesthetic conscience. James’s fiction has long been admired for these qualities, but his travel writings also engage those who, like him, want to read about the world in all its truth—pleasure and pain, picturesque past and menacing future.