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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 your grandmother lived, in venerable solitude…it was here that you took your first walks abroad, following the nursery-maid with unequal step and sniffing up the strange odour of the ailantus-trees which at that time formed the principal umbrage of the square.

In the opening pages of the novel, Doctor Sloper has set himself up in a new house on Washington Square. The doctor is a credible, highly interesting man of the professional class who has achieved the status accruing to the serious practice of medicine. He is busy, successful, intelligent, witty—an engaging figure on the city scene, and while learned in the medical arts he is not “uncomfortable,” by which it is meant that Doctor Sloper is one of those popular physicians whose personal attractiveness will somehow soothe the tortures of treatment. He has a well-to-do clientele, is passed by referral from one “good family” to another in the way that was usual before the age of intense specialization.

The doctor has moved to Washington Square from a house near City Hall, a part of the city being turned into offices and other structures of business. In moving uptown he is following the direction of residential preference in the early 1800s—one of the details of metropolitan dynamics that interested “old New Yorkers” like James and Edith Wharton. With a rather vagrant historicism, these authors like to follow, in a mood of amusement, the displacements of fashion as they try to place their characters on the city map. Thus we are told that the doctor’s dead wife had been “one of the pretty girls of the small but promising capital which clustered around the Battery and overlooked the Bay, and of which the uppermost boundary was indicated by the grassy waysides of Canal Street.” The doctor has now made his own move uptown but his drama is not residential; it is familial, an intense battle, almost military, of strategy, retreat and attack, fought with his daughter, Catherine Sloper.

The doctor is in his fifties, and, while not a man to offer futile protests against the devastations of fate, he has endured two painful wounds, or perhaps we should say three. He lost a treasured son at the age of three and then lost a much-loved wife, a beautiful woman with a fortune, social standing, and every domestic charm—lost her at the birth of a second child, “an infant of a sex which rendered the poor child, to the doctor’s sense, an inadequate substitute for his lamented first-born, of whom he had promised himself to make an admirable man.”

His was a genuine grief, with the added gall of a professional frustration in having been unable to ensure the survival of his family. But there is the surviving daughter, Catherine, now grown into a robust, rosily, rather too rosily, healthy young woman. Facing this last, lone, existing Sloper the doctor can assure himself that “such as she was, he at least need have no fear of losing her.” The “such as she was” is the plot of Washington Square, the destiny of the daughter, and the father’s tone in his relations with her.

The beginning pages are written in a comedy-of-manners style, and each turn is amusing, calmly and confidently expert. Such a style will command, with its measured cadences and fine tuning, a bit of benign condescension toward the cast and toward the friendly modesty of the New York social landscape in the first half of the nineteenth century. Thus it is said of the doctor, “He was what you call a scholarly doctor, and yet there was nothing abstract in his remedies—he always ordered you to take something.”

Washington Square was written after James had made his literary and social “Conquest of London,” as Leon Edel phrases it in the title of the second volume of his James biography. The author had breakfasted with Turgenev, met Tennyson, Browning, and Gladstone, visited the great country houses, and indeed, as a cosmopolitan, had written most of Washington Square in Paris. It is a perfect novel of immense refinement and interest, and one feels the execution gave James little trouble—that is, if one keeps in mind the breathless deliberations of the fictions that were to follow. Of course, the moral and psychological insinuations of this early work are not finally so self-evident as they appear to be on the lucid pages.

At the time James was devoting himself to the portrait of Catherine Sloper leading her life in her father’s “modern, wide-fronted” house on lower Fifth Avenue, he was already thinking of the more challenging American girl, Isabel Archer, and the complex duplicities of The Portrait of a Lady, published soon after. In any case, when he was gathering the New York Edition of his novels, which began to appear in 1907, he unaccountably excluded Washington Square. Perhaps it seemed to him a small, provincial tale after he had sent his heiresses to Europe to test themselves and their American dollars on the heavily shaded competitions of the international scene. The American girls in the “large” novels are weighted with nuance and with the fictional responsibility to live up to their rather inchoate but grand attributions. Catherine, housebound in New York and incurious about the great world beyond, may have appeared a sort of vacation, one that allowed James a wonderfully relaxed compositional tone when compared with that of The Wings of the Dove or The Golden Bowl.

Catherine Sloper in Washington Square is an heiress, but not a beguiling “heiress of the ages”; she is heir only to money. Indeed the early descriptions of Catherine are composed with such a boldly discounting eye, such intrepid divestment, that the reader feels a wince of discomfort. Catherine is large and homely, but, at the beginning, a contented, virtuous girl of her class. She is guileless, affectionate, docile, and obedient. She has a “plain, dull, gentle countenance” and, although drastically without coquetry, she wishes to please, most of all to please her father. “She was not quick with her book, nor, indeed, with anything else.” Along the way of depiction, James himself seems to draw back from the distance the manner of composition imposes. If he does not quite retreat, we can say he takes a short little step to the side before persevering to write, “though it is an awkward confession to make about one’s heroine, I must add that she was something of a glutton.”

And there are woeful brushstrokes ahead: Catherine’s clothes, her “lively taste for dress.” This “taste” causes her father to “fairly grimace, in private, to think that a child of his should be both ugly and overdressed.” There is to be the merciless comedy of the “red satin gown trimmed with gold fringe” into which Catherine will more or less pour herself for an evening party at which her cousin’s engagement is to be announced. There in the awful red dress she will meet her fate, the fortune hunter Morris Townsend, meet that fate in the company of her other fate, her adored, “ironical” father.

So Catherine will meet Morris Townsend—extraordinarily handsome, “beautiful,” she calls him—a New Yorker who has been knocking about the world rather than staying at home to sell bonds or to enter the law. In his knocking he has spent his small inheritance and seems to have spent his friends and made himself unwelcome. Back in his native city, he claims to be looking about for something to do; meanwhile he is staying with his sister, in fact living on his sister, who is in very reduced circumstances as a widow with five children. A sordid record with a few travel stickers from European hotels. Townsend is a distant connection of the young man Catherine’s cousin is to marry. At the party he goes for Catherine’s attention with the watchful concentration of a sportsman waiting for the game to fly in the path of the rifle.

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