The Foster Father

Catherine Sloper, in the clear, chilly masterpiece Washington Square, must explain to the handsome, corrupt fortune-hunter, Morris Townsend, that if she marries without her father’s consent, as she is willing to do, her own adequate fortune will not be augmented at the time of her father’s death. Dr. Sloper has correctly diagnosed, as it were, the insidious moral infection of the suitor, a wastrel who could not possibly be in love with his plain, awkward, naively trusting daughter. Townsend, however, is desperately in need; he is bent upon real money rather than Catherine’s sufficient income. He believes that if she pressed her case with more astute insistence she could bring her father around from the threat of disinheritance. The poor daughter knows better. Her reason comes forth at last in a painful recognition: “He is not very fond of me.”

Catherine is abandoned to enduring misery and pain. Although still chaste, she brings to mind a poem by Robert Burns about a rustic, betrayed girl. “And my fause luver staw my rose/ But ah! he left the thorns wi me.” Henry James’s fiction is rich in dramatic arrangements between parents and children. The childless bachelor was alert to the fierce conflictions in the will or doom of parents to be themselves, to live out a daily expression of their nature as singular beings for whom being a parent is only one of a stinging swarm of obligations, desires, follies, willed or accidentally improper involvements. The parents in their history and destiny have been shaped by years of experience, accumulated scars, agreeable turns, and disappointing outcomes. To these, small children look on as a sort of invited guest until they grow up so strangely themselves as to be not a reproduction but often a counterreaction. In the stories of James it is not always the young ones whose fate is at stake, but the grown offspring entering the world with the troublesome baggage of their parents’ journey through life.

The fictions do not have the atmosphere of autobiography, do not hint at the author’s life as the son of the learned, distinguished, loving and lovable, if somewhat balmy and improvident, Henry James Sr. and the steady, affectionate Mary Walsh James. The biographers, Leon Edel and the more recent Fred Kaplan, would have it otherwise; they find a stressful relation with his brother William hidden in the pages as well as homoerotic threads in the careful weavings.

In the teasing, flirtatious, elaborately composed prefaces for the New York Edition of his work, published between 1907 and 1909, James likes to tell of the “germ” or “seed” of an anecdote heard at the dinner table, a little acorn from which a “great oak” might grow. Like a waiter receiving a tip, modest enough, James puts the gratuity into an investment fund of striking possibilities for growth. Even Washington Square, his own fireside tale of lower Manhattan, improbably came to him from an anecdote related by the actress Fanny …

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