Henry James

October 24, 2006


American-born writer, interested in literature, psychology, and philosophy
Wrote 20 novels, 112 stories, 12 plays and a number of works of literary criticism
Born in New York City into a wealthy family
Father was one of the best known intellectuals of his time
Traveled back and forth between Europe and America during his youth
Outbreak of WWI was a shock and became a British citizen in 1915 to protest the US’s refusal to enter the war
Died of a stroke on December 2nd
Draws understanding and sensitive portraits of ladies
Themes of innocence of the New World in conflict with corruption and wisdom of the Old
Became interested in the unconscious and supernatural

Washington Square (1880)

Inspired by a story James heard at a dinner party
Tells how Morris Townsend tries to win the heart of heiress Catherine Sloper against the objections of her father
Endures as a matchless social study of New York in the mid-nineteenth century


“During a portion of the first half of the present century, and more particularly during the latter part of it, there flourished and practised in the city of New York a physician who enjoyed perhaps an exceptional share of the consideration which, in the United States, has always been bestowed upon distinguished members of the medical profession. This profession in American has constantly been held in honour, and more successfully than elsewhere has put forward a claim to the epithet of ‘liberal.’ In a country in which, to play a social part, you must either earn your income or make believe that you earn it, the healing art has appeared in a high degree to combine two recognised sources of credit. It belongs to the realm of the practical, which in the United States is a great recommendation; and it is touched by the light of science- a merit appreciated in a community in which the love of knowledge has not always been accompanied by leisure and opportunity.”

“It will be seen that I am describing a clever man; and this is really the reason why Dr. Sloper had become a local celebrity.”

“She grew up a very robust and healthy child, and her father, as he looked at her, often said to himself that, such as she was, he at least need to have no fear of losing her. I say ‘such as she was,’ because, to tell the truth—. But this is a truth of which I will defer the telling.”

“Once, when the girl was about twelve years old, he had said to her-
‘Try and make a clever woman of her, Lavinia; I should like her to be a clever woman.’
Mrs. Penniman, at this, looked thoughtful a moment. ‘My dear Austin,’ she then inquired, ‘do you think it is better to be clever than to be good?’
‘Good for what?’ asked the Doctor. ‘You are good for nothing unless you are clever.'”

“After this, the tide of fashion began to set steadily northward, as, indeed, in New York, thanks to the narrow channel in which it flows, is obliged to do, and the great hum of traffic rolled father to the right and left of Broadway.”

“It was here, as you might have been informed on good authority, that you had come into a world which appeared to offer a variety of sources of interest; it was here that your grandmother lived, in venerable solitude, and dispensed a hospitality which commended itself alike to the infant imagination and the infant palate; it was here that you took your first walks abroad, following the nurserymaid with unequal step and sniffing up the strange odour of the ailanthus-trees which at that time formed the principal umbrage of the square, and diffused an aroma that you were not yet critical enough to dislike as it deserved; it was here, finally, that your first school, kept by a broad-bosomed, broad-based old lady with a ferule, who was always having tea in a blue cup, with a saucer that didn’t match , enlarged the circle both of your observations and our sensations. It was here, at any rater, that my heroine spent many years of her life; which is my excuse for this topographoical parenthesis.”

“He looked straight into Catherine’s eyes. She answered nothing; she only listened, and looked at him; and he, as if he expected no particular reply, went on to say many other things in the same comfortable and natural manner. Catherine, though she felt tongue-tied, was conscious of no embarrassment; it seemed proper that he should talk, and that she should simply look at him. What made it natural was that he was so handsome, or rather, as she phrased it to herself, so beautiful. The music had been silent for a while, but it suddenly began again; and then he asked her, with a deeper, intenser, smile, if she would do him the honour of dancing with him. Even to this inquiry she gave no audible assent; she simply let him put his arm around her waist- as she did so it occurred to her more vividly than it had ever done before, that this was a singular place for a gentleman’s arm to be- and in a moment he was guiding her around the room in the harmonious rotation of the polka.”

“‘That’s the way to live in New York- to move every three or four years. Then you always get the last thing. It’s because the city’s growing so quick- you’ve got to keep up with it. It’s going straight up town- that’s where New York’s going…
They invent everything all over again about every five years, and it’s a great thing to keep up with the new things. I always try and keep up with the new things of every kind. Don’t you think that’s a good motto for a young couple- to keep ‘going higher?'”

“She confessed that she was not particularly fond of literature. Morris Townsend agreed with her that books were tiresome things; only, as he said, you had to read a good many before you found it out. He had been to places that people had written books about, and they were not a bit like the descriptions. To see for yourself- that was the great thing; he always tried to see for himself. He had seen all the principal actors- he had been to all the best theaters in London and Paris. But the actors were always like the authors- they always exaggerated. He like everything to be natural. Suddenly he stopped, looking at Catherin with his smile.
‘That’s what I like you for; you are so natural! Excuse me,’ he added; ‘you see I am natural myself!'”

“…for Catherine, at the age of twenty-two, was after all a rather mature blossom, such as could be plucked from the stem only by a vigorous jerk.”

“‘Don’t you see anything in people but their bones?’ Mrs. Almond rejoined. ‘What do you think of him as a father?’
‘As a father? Thank Heaven I am not his father!’
‘No; but you are Catherine’s. Lavinia tells me she is in love.'”


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