Although Henry James remains today one of America’s most celebrated novelists, and his most famous characters were usually American, he was never precisely enamored of his home country. Much like how T. S. Eliot decamped from St. Louis quickly as he could for the more rarefied airs of London intellectual life, James didn’t see much of value in his home country—though, unlike Eliot, he would frequently write as an American abroad in the wider world.
Novelist Colm Toibin, in reviewing Michael Gorra’s new book Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece, pulls out this interesting bit from a piece James wrote about Nathaniel Hawthorne just before The Portrait of a Lady. In it, a sweepingly dismissive James lists the things he sees as missing from American life that he sees as necessary for the novelist:
…no sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church . . . no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old country-houses . . . nor thatched cottages nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals . . . no Oxford . . . no novels, no museums, no pictures, no political society, no sporting class . . . no Epsom nor Ascot.
To a baroque and class-obsessed stylist like James, the country’s comparative lack of history makes for a thin existence. To a degree, James is right, without that weight of civilization which he lists, it is difficult to create a certain kind of literary figure: i.e., those like himself. America did ultimately export the likes of Twain, Hemingway, Kerouac, Bradbury, and Bellow, who all did just fine without thatched cottages or cathedrals—but never could have written The Portrait of a Lady (whether or not that’s a good thing depends on your taste).