Henry James checking out the West Coast scene? The whole idea is difficult to picture. Nevertheless, for one month in spring 1905, the great...
Henry James checking out the West Coast scene? The whole idea is difficult to picture.
Nevertheless, for one month in spring 1905, the great American novelist (“Washington Square,” “The Portrait of a Lady”) made the West Coast a part of a 10-month tour of the U.S. And 100 years ago this month, he was in Seattle.
James’ travels became the basis for his 1907 travel book, “The American Scene,” which mentions Seattle flatteringly, if only in passing, as one of “the real flowers of geography,” along with Naples, Capetown, Sydney, San Francisco and Rio.
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But if “The American Scene” doesn’t give much clue as to how James’ visit here went, other sources do.
On his second West Coast stop, at the Hotel del Coronado near San Diego, James was already kicking himself at how limited his time would be on this portion of his American tour. Southern California, he wrote in an April 5, 1905, letter to his sister-in-law Mrs. William James, “has completely bowled me over … I live on oranges and olives, fresh from the tree, and I lie awake nights to listen, on purpose, to the languid lisp of the Pacific, which my windows overhang.”
He complained of having to cut his “famous visit to Seattle to a couple of days,” and adds that “no one had given me the least inkling that I should find California so sympathetic.”
But James made clear it was only the geography of California he was talking about: “There is absolutely nothing else, and the sense of the shining social and human inane is utter.”
He would be kinder about Seattle, where he arrived April 18. Surprisingly, he had family here. His nephew Edward Holton James lived with his wife on the west side of Queen Anne Hill. The novelist didn’t stay there, however, but at the University Club downtown, where Edward, a lawyer, was a member.
James appears not to have made any public appearances here. Nevertheless, April 19, he was front-page news — for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, at least.
In an article headlined, “Henry James, ‘International Novelist,’ In Seattle to Learn of Great Northwest,” a brief overview of James’ life and career was given, accompanied by a briefer mention of his local activities: “The distinguished visitor spent nearly the whole of yesterday visiting the principal points of interest, commercial, industrial and scenic, in the city.”
Critical opinions of his work — some positive, some negative — were cited. But the anonymous reporter appears to have been unable to talk to James himself: “Mr. James is a modest man. He dislikes newspaper notoriety, and shrinks from the ordeal of an interview. His trip to the West is said to be for pleasure only.”
The Seattle Times, at first, seemed all set to do justice to James’ Seattle visit. The previous Sunday, “On the Reviewing Desk” — the paper’s book-review page — included James’ latest book, “The Golden Bowl,” among the best in recent “fact” and “fiction.”
But, alas, on April 19 The Times’ article on the writer’s visit was relegated to Page 9, between items on a firefighter’s drowning and a steamer captain’s being driven “insane by liquor.” In less than 100 words — headlined “Come Here from London” — the anonymous reporter makes so many mistakes that the article verges on fantasy.
For one thing, he has the wrong James brother: “William James, a real old style English countryman, with an estate sixty miles south of London, reached the city this morning, accompanied by his wife and a cousin, Henry James, of Wall Street. The James party came in a private car, ‘Plymouth Rock,’ and will leave tonight for the East on route home.”
Actually, American philosopher William James was in Europe that April. While Henry did live 60 miles south of London, it wasn’t in anything that could be called an estate — and his Wall Street connection was nonexistent.
As for the private car named “Plymouth Rock,” one begins to smell either (1) the fumes of the whiskey the reporter was drinking, or (2) his revenge on the editor who’d told him to crank out two paragraphs on a subject he knew nothing about.
The Times story concludes: “The party has been on a pleasure tour of the West and considers Seattle is the most progressive-looking city of them all. Mr. James was here in 1899 and he was astonished today at the rapid growth of the city.”
Here, a thread of truth seeps in. William James did tour Washington and Oregon in August 1898 — and his sons, Harry and Billy, worked as forest rangers in Washington state the next summer.
There’s a second mystery to be solved here. In a 1968 Pacific Northwest Quarterly article on James’ visit, University of Washington assistant professor of English Milton A. Mays quotes a Times item from April 19, also on Page 9, supposedly, that is not in any record I can find.
It reads: “Mr. James came direct to the Pacific Coast from his home in Rye, England, for the purpose of getting ‘local color’ for a new book he is about to write, with the principal scenes touching Western life in America, and in which the characters, it is said, will casually stroll up to Alaska.”
Could that same Times reporter be rebelling at having to do a rewrite here? The idea of a James novel where the characters “casually stroll” from Seattle to Alaska is so ridiculous as to be sublime.
As for James’ own impressions of Seattle, they’re confined to a letter he wrote his nephew the following year, in which he remembers “most tenderly your verandah and its view, and the sense of your wondrous moist, ethereal wilderness; and then the dear little kindly lodging clubs; and the exquisite impression of the mystic lake in the hills, with the woods and the club-houses hanging over it.”
There’s no mention of what James thought of Seattle’s cultural climate in 1905. But a quick look at the theater offerings the week he was here suggests it was a bit monotonous. Plays in production included “The Banker’s Daughter,” “A Runaway Girl,” “A Girl From Albany” and the Pollard Opera Company’s staging of “A Gaiety Girl” (“in which Fred Pollard will sing ‘Please Go Away and Let Me Sleep’ “).
Edward remembered the visit a little differently.
“When Uncle Henry came to see us,” he wrote in a memoir for his children, “he found the west rather crude. I sat by the hour, with wide open mouth, drinking in his wonderful exotic conversation. He was bored by the west, by the ‘slobber of noises,’ which we call our language, by the stream of vacant stupid faces on the streets and everywhere the ‘big ogre of business.’ ”
This recollection should be taken advisedly, since this was the same nephew (James biographer Leon Edel tells us) who was cut from the Anglophile novelist’s will. Edward’s crime: writing an “anti-royalist pamphlet” that had embarrassed his uncle.
We know from Edel that Edward was an aspiring writer.
It’s fun to think he might have been the fantasist who fed that Times reporter those tidbits about a car named “Plymouth Rock” and that casual stroll up to Alaska. But we’ll never know for sure.
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com