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Down the Shore with Henry James
by James Barszcz

In 1904, after living as an expatriate in Europe for over twenty years, Henry James conceived a project to return to America. As a professional author, respected for his artistic achievements but nonetheless in need of an income, he intended to record his impressions of the country, publish them in magazines, and then to gather them into a book. Before setting out on the trip, he sold the proposal to George Harvey, the director of Harper Brothers. In a letter to Harvey, quoted in George Harvey: A Passionate Patriot by Willis Fletcher Johnson (1929), James showed his skill at the hard sell: besides regretting that Thomas Hardy had already claimed the title James would have wanted for his own book— The Return of the Native—James tells his publisher that "I shall be able not only to write the best book (of social and pictorial, and as it were, human observations) ever devoted to this country, but one of the best—or why drag in 'one,' why not say frankly the best—ever devoted to my country at all" (91).

The house of George Harvey, the "paymaster of genius," in Deal, NJ.
The house of George Harvey, the "paymaster of genius," in Deal, NJ.

Such confidence probably appealed to the brash Harvey, who had come to book publishing from the cutthroat world of New York journalism.  1  He agreed to the plan for publishing the book that James proposed, and James sailed that summer for America, arriving at the docks in Hoboken on the last day of August 1904. But before beginning his travels, first through New England then down the Eastern seaboard to Florida, James received an invitation at his rooms in lower Manhattan: Harvey wanted James to come for a brief visit to Harvey's country house in the oceanside town of Deal, New Jersey, where Harvey was also hosting Mark Twain, and James agreed to make the trip. A modern reader with an interest in local history might look forward to a great novelist's rendition of a celebrity-filled house party in a small town on the New Jersey shore at the turn of the twentieth century. But as published in The American Scene, the book that was published in 1907 based on this American excursion, James's pages on Deal offer almost nothing to gratify historical curiosity—no names are given, no specific sites are referred to. Instead, written in James's notoriously dense "late style," his treatment of this side-trip dramatizes an artist's complex response to what is for him a new environment, the country homes of the young and newly rich New Yorkers. The visit to Deal would give James a chance to at least begin to answer some of the animating questions for his trip home: what was America doing with its wealth? Was it developing a culture in any way comparable to that of Europe? A brief answer to these questions is no, American wealth was being spent, in James's view, without adequate self-consciousness and reflection, and in this regard his depiction of New Jersey serves as a prologue to his overall assessment of the United States: the country was not even trying to develop the institutions, the public architecture, and the social customs that it deserves. But the book in which these opinions are explored, with its style of elaborate reflection and imaginative extravagance, provides a powerful model for how these inadequacies can be repaired.

James begins the story of his trip to New Jersey by recording his impression of his fellow passengers on the boat that brought him across Raritan Bay from Manhattan:

The note of manners, the note that begins to sound, everywhere, for the spirit newly disembarked, with the first word exchanged, seemed, on the great clean deck, fairly to vociferate in the breeze—and not at all, so far, as was pleasant to remark, to the harshening of that element. Nothing could have been more to the spectator's purpose, moreover, than the fact he was ready to hail as the most characteristic in the world, the fact that what surrounded him was a rare collection of young men of business returning, as the phrase is, and in the pride of their youth and their might, to their "homes," and that, if treasures of "type" were not here to be disengaged, the fault would be all his own. It was perhaps this simple sense of treasure to be gathered in, it was doubtless this confidence in the objective reality of impressions, so that they could deliciously be left to ripen, like golden apples, on the tree—it was all this that gave a charm to one's sitting in the orchard, gave a strange and inordinate charm both to the prospect of the Jersey shore and to every inch of the entertainment, so divinely inexpensive, by the way. The immense liberality of the Bay, the noble amplitude of the boat, the great unlocked and tumbled-out city on one hand, and the low, accessible mystery of the opposite State on the other, watching any approach, to all appearance, with so gentle and patient an eye; the gaiety of the light, the gladness of the air, and, above all (for it most came back to that), the unconscious affluence, the variety in identity, of the young men of business: these things somehow left speculation, left curiosity exciting, yet kept it beguilingly safe.  2 

While James's style in his late works takes some getting used to, it is not difficult to hear in this passage his soft mockery of the pretentious term "homes" and the (unspecified) conformity of the young men of business. Notwithstanding the sarcasm, he is, he says, grateful for what the men of business unknowingly give him: a subject on which to expend his imaginative energies, one that is far superior to the landscape and seascape.

The grammar especially of the last two sentences quoted, with their teasing delay before reaching grammatical fulfillment, re-embodies James's sense of repletion, his taking in what is offered by the experience and enjoying his own ability to make use of it. And yet there is the slightly absurd exaggeration—at least it may seem absurd at first—of his own excited sense of how he will interpret what he is seeing.

It is of course his own performance as an interpreter of the scene on the ferry that is of most importance to James, as we can sense from the stylistic energy he invests in describing it. He says of his own perceptions at the time that they "could deliciously be left to ripen, like golden apples, on the tree," and then, intensifying the image, he drops the "like" and simply says that he is "sitting in the orchard" as he looks around the ferry. James seems not to be alluding to any particular one of the various mythologies in which apples play a part, but rather to a general mythological sense of apples as a fruit suited to heroes, kings, and gods—and writers. His impressions, the imagined apples, are there for him, as an artist, to pick at his leisure. They are a form of wealth that the young men commuting from New York seem not to know or care about. These wealthy commuters, by contrast, simply spend their own resources, money, with an innocence, almost a cluelessness, that James evokes a few pages later in a fanciful personification, as he writes down what their houses seem to say to him:'"Oh, yes; we were awfully dear, for what we are and for what we do'—it was proud, but it was rather rueful; with the odd appearance everywhere as of florid creations waiting, a little bewilderingly, for their justification, waiting for the next clause in the sequence, waiting in short for life, for time, for interest, for character, for identity itself to come to them, quite as large spread tables or superfluous shops may wait for guests and customers" (362-63). As he works out this reading of the houses—which sounds like it might have come out of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress followed by the poetry of John Donne—James finally realizes that these cottages are actively failing to achieve what they should be achieving: "the most as yet accomplished at such a cost was the air of unmitigated publicity, publicity as a condition, as a doom, from which there could be no appeal; . . . there was no achieved protection, no constituted mystery of retreat, no saving complexity" (364). And missing this, the young men's houses miss everything: "The highest luxury of all, the supremely expensive thing, is constituted privacy—and yet it was the supremely expensive thing that the good people had supposed themselves to be getting" (365).

References

1 Harvey is fascinating figure himself, though now mostly forgotten. A newspaperman from Vermont, he had worked his way up as a newspaperman in New York, finally attaining the editorship of Joseph Pulitzer's New York World. Once successful, he pursued his literary interests, buying the North American Review, where many of James's early stories were first published, and hired William Dean Howells as its literary editor. Having been brought in to run Harper & Bros. in 1900, by J.P. Morgan, when Morgan saved the firm from bankruptcy, Harvey signed Mark Twain to contracts that would make Twain the highest paid writer of his age. Harvey was, in the nicely ambiguous words of one journalist who wrote about him, "the paymaster of genius. " He became an important political operative in New Jersey, urging Woodrow Wilson to leave the presidency of Princeton University to enter politics. Later, during the Republican Convention of 1927 in Chicago, Harvey, who evidently had no long-term commitment to Wilsonian Progressivisism, rented a room at the Blackstone Hotel, where he and several other cigar aficianados decided to see to the nomination of Senator Warren G. Harding as the Republican presidential candidate. This, it is said, was the origin of the term "smoke-filled room" in politics. In recompense for his efforts, Harvey was named ambassador to the Court of St. James after Harding's election.
2 Collected Travel Writings: Great Britain and America, New York: Library of America, 1993, p. 360. Further citations are from this edition and appear parenthetically in the text.


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