February 24, 2018

James on War and Empire

On this day in 1915 Henry James wrote to the British Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, to inform him of a "desire to offer myself for naturalisation in this country." James was seventy-two years old, and had been resident in England for forty years; becoming a citizen in the early days of WWI was his way of signaling "my explicit, my material and my spiritual allegiance, and throwing into the scale of her fortune my all but imponderable moral weight -- 'a poor thing but mine own.''"

Beneath such rotundity there was both heartfelt emotion and a joke. Naturalization was a straightforward process requiring neither quotations from Shakespeare nor letters to the Prime Minister. It did require that four citizens testify to the applicant's good character and literacy. Asquith was a tea-and-luncheon pal, and James thought it would be amusing to get the Prime Minister to vouch for his "apparent respectability, and to my speaking and writing English with an approach to propriety." Not wishing to detract from the war effort, James assured the Prime Minister that only his quick signature was required, "the affair of a single moment." Asquith was delighted, the application went through in record time, and within a month James had surrendered his American passport, taken the oath of allegiance to King George V, and written to friends, "Here I stand, I can no other."

The event attracted much publicity. In contrast to the British newspaper reports beginning, "We are able to announce. . .," the American press generally interpreted James's action as a snub-yet another, by one who had been looking down his nose at America for decades, and whose father, for all his wealth and learning, could take tea with Thoreau. James certainly wanted his gesture to sting at home, and thereby to help prod the U.S. into the war, but he denied the general charge of anti-Americanism.

The biographies abound with anecdotal evidence to the contrary. At the time James was moving towards citizenship, his teenaged niece and nephew came to visit, bringing some of their American friends with them. James found the nephew's male friend slouchy and uncommunicative, his rare and only topic of conversation being athletics. He found the niece's girlfriend to be a Daisy Miller, arousing in him pity "for a poor young creature whose elders and home-circle have handed her over, uncivilised, untutored, unadvised and unenlightened to such a fool's paradise of ignorance and fatuity."

But America was merely symptomatic of the larger malaise. In 1914 James surveyed "The Younger Generation" of writers in an article for The Times Literary Supplement, and found most of them to be mere journalists. In contrast, he wrote in a letter of the same year, "I am that queer monster, the artist, an obstinate finality, an inexhaustible sensibility." As if to demonstrate his point, another letter, written on the outbreak of WWI, decries in this way a world gone to hell: "The plunge of civilization into the abyss of blood and darkness by the wanton fiat of those 2 infamous autocrats is a thing that so gives away the whole long age during which we had supposed the world to be with whatever abatement gradually bettering, that to have to take it all now for what the treacherous years were all the while really making for meaning is too tragic for my words." Hugh Walpole, one of the younger generation of novelists, described James as "a sort of stuffed waxwork from whose mouth a stream of coloured sentences, like winding rolls of green and purple paper, are forever issuing."

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