On Washington Square

The James family came from New York State, the father having been born in Albany. Whether they are New Yorkers in the sense of the city is not altogether certain since they fled it early and did not like it much when they came back from time to time. Still the city, its streets, its fluid, inconstant, nerve-wrung landscape had a claim upon Henry’s imagination, even if the neglectful civic powers did not properly return the claim.

In any case, Henry James was born in New York City in 1843, in a house on 21 Washington Place, a street adjacent to Washington Square, itself a small park announcing the end of lower Fifth Avenue and adorned by an ambitious bit of architecture which James would describe as “the lamentable little Arch of Triumph which bestrides these beginnings of Washington Square—lamentable because of its poor and lonely and unsupported and unaffiliated state.” That was in 1904, when the sixty-one-year-old author returned from abroad to write The American Scene, his prodigious impressions of his homeland from New England to Palm Beach, impressions fresh, he hoped, as those of a curious stranger but still “as acute as an initiated native.”

He would, of course, return to Fifth Avenue and to Washington Place. There he found what he called a “snub.” The birthplace at 21 Washington Place had been “ruthlessly suppressed” in one of those early convulsive seizures of destruction New York City to this day does not see as a defect in the municipal nervous system so much as an explosive, rather pagan, celebration of the gods of engineering and speculation. James, viewing the “amputation” of the birthplace, is led to confess that he had somehow imagined on Washington Place “a commemorative mural tablet—one of those frontal records of birth, sojourn, or death, under a celebrated name.” This is an affecting aside of family and personal pride, a controlled twitch of chagrin, from which he retreats by observing the supreme invisibility of a plaque, acknowledging some long-gone worthy, placed on an apartment door in a fifty-story building, one of the “divided spaces” that were to be the principal habitations in the city.

The novel, Washington Square, published in 1880, when James was thirty-seven years old, is an early work, at least early in style and in the untroubled presentation of its strong and thoroughly lucid plot. The novel is not strikingly under the domination of its place name, but we note that the author allows himself a moment of autobiographical diversion, an insertion more or less of his private relation to the title:

I know not whether it is owing to the tenderness of early association, but this portion of New York appears to many persons the most delectable. It has a kind of established repose which is not of frequent occurrence in other quarters of the long, shrill city; it has a riper, richer, more honorable look…the look of having had something of a social history…. It was here that…

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