Sunday, July 29, 2012

Ross Posnock on Henry James’s fascination with the “terrible town” of New York

Ross Posnock speaks at the New York
Writers Hall of Fame induction ceremony
Ryan Brenizer Photography
Reader’s Almanac continues its presentation of remarks offered at the New York State Writers Hall of Fame induction ceremony with Ross Posnock’s tribute to Henry James. Posnock is Professor of English at Columbia University. He is the author of The Trial of Curiosity: Henry James, William James, and the Challenge of Modernity and the editor of Henry James: Novels 1903–1911, the sixth and final volume in the Library of America edition of Henry James’s novels.
“I like to think of my relation to New York as . . . almost inexpressibly intimate,” Henry James confessed in The American Scene, his memoir of his 1904 repatriation after a near twenty-year absence, a book that devotes fully a third of its remarkable near 500 pages to the city of his birth. “You care for the terrible town,” James remarked to himself; despite its “shameless” “swaggering and shouting,” its rude indifference to history, he loved New York, and to be on its streets was always, he said, an “adventure, an adventure I admit, as with some strident, battered, questionable beauty, truly some bad bold charmer.” The bad bold charmer never stopped arousing his imagination; he was fatally responsive to her seductive wiles.

Sometimes the seduction was closer to trauma: He tells us of his visit to Ellis Island where he found the immigrant in the act of “knocking at our official door” to be a “drama poignant and unforgettable” but also shocking because only now does James (addressing himself in the third person) “sense the degree that it was his American fate to share the sanctity of his American consciousness, the intimacy of his American patriotism, with the inconceivable alien.” Wandering among the immigrants in Central Park, unnerved by their ease yet impressed by the fastidious appearances of many of the children and their parents, commending especially their “gleaming” teeth and “varnished” shoes: he finds “thrilling” “the sweet ingratiation of the Park” and declares it “New York at its best.” His response is more uneasy after descending into the “whirlpool” of the “dense Yiddish quarter” of Rutgers Street on the Lower East Side, where he feels fascinated—“for once agreeably baffled”—by “swarming” “aliens”: “the scene here bristled , at every step, with the signs and sounds, immitigable, unmistakable, of a Jewry that had burst all bounds . . . the scene hummed with the human presence beyond any I had ever faced . . . producing part of the impression, moreover, no doubt, as a direct consequence of the intensity of the Jewish aspect.”

These are famous and controversial pages; suffice it to say here that James’s engagement with New York’s emphatic modernity is not without profound, freely confessed ambivalence and even sharp unease. He salutes the Lower East Side cafes as “tiny temples” of immigrant intellectual vitality, but they are also, to his ears, “torture rooms of the living idiom.” Yet even in his “piteous gasp” he refuses to condemn “the accent of the very ultimate future” as bereft of unsuspected beauty. James may be mired in the nativist prejudices of his class, yet he is unique in submitting them to the tonic shock of total immersion.

Without deeply felt class loyalties, James in his own genteel way was an outlaw, drawn to places—the Lower East Side, Central Park, the Bowery—full of the “dangerous classes”—patrician code for the ethnic hordes they loathed.

The “bad bold charmer” of a city deals James a most painful blow when he visits his birth-house at No. 21 Washington Place (near the main NYU building) only to find it “ruthlessly suppressed”—demolished—“the effect,” he admits, “was of having been amputated of half my history.” Adding insult to the injury of this “melancholy snub” is the absence of any commemorative tablet, a tribute James had fantasized about; to assuage the pain he notes that “in the whole length of the city” he has never seen a single “such form of civic piety” and concludes that in New York such tributes are “inevitably and forever absent.” On this point, James was, happily, wrong. In March of 1967 a plaque commemorating the birth of Henry James was placed on NYU’s Brown Building, two doors down from where his birth house had stood.

If Henry James’s gift for prophecy failed him in this case, his book The American Scene is marked by prophetic insight. That insight is distilled into a climactic question: “Who and what is an alien, when it comes to that, in a country peopled from the first” by migrations? This jab at the a priori assumption of WASP supremacy as the sacred ground of American self-identity, puts The American Scene in company with a work it actually mentions in passing and that William James had recommended to his brother, The Souls of Black Folk (1903); its author, W.E.B. Du Bois, had been William’s student at Harvard. Each book puts America on notice that its vaunted ethnic purity is a precarious fiction. Yet James’s challenge to the most venerable American piety proved to be a message in a bottle. Because it embraced impurity (in a manner strikingly akin to William James’s Pragmatism of 1907) the message was too radical to have an impact in a political landscape hollowed out by nativism and Jim Crow. But in time, the skepticism of Du Bois and Henry James, and the pragmatism of William James, would come to nurture new ways of thinking about identity, both racial and American. Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin, both warm admirers of Henry James and fellow New Yorkers, are two distinguished heirs of this turn-of- the-century constellation. Tonight what James in 1904 underrated—New York ’s “civic piety”—shows its strength as we commemorate a New York native.
The American Scene is included in Henry James: Collected Travel Writings: Great Britain and America, volume #64 in the Library of America series.

At its June 5 ceremony in midtown Manhattan, The Empire State Center for the Book formally inducted 14 writers into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame, which it established in 2010 to recognize New York-based poets, novelists, journalists, and historians who have made an indelible mark on our culture. The class of 2012 included E. L. Doctorow, Pete Hamill, Toni Morrison, and Joyce Carol Oates, all of whom attended. Also honored were John Cheever, Hart Crane, Edna Ferber, Washington Irving, Henry James, Mary McCarthy, Marianne Moore, Barbara W. Tuchman, Kurt Vonnegut, and Richard Wright.


Also of interest
Ross Posnock discusses Henry James's late novels in an interview with The Library of America (PDF)

Previous posts from the Hall of Fame ceremony:
Liesl Schillinger on E. L. Doctorow
Eleanor Bergstein on Joyce Carol Oates
Elizabeth Bradley on Washington Irving
Alice Quinn on Marianne Moore
Jessica Tuchman Mathews on Barbara W. Tuchman
Langdon Hammer on Hart Crane

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